As far as pets go, tropical fish don't offer the companionship or exercise benefits of a dog, but they do offer an interesting metaphor for small businesses.

Years ago I had a friend who was an incredibly keen aquarist. His favorite installation was a comparatively humble affair, containing the most interesting of specimens, including a tiny yellow Puffer Fish that seemed to disproportionately dominate the environment.

The Puffer Fish is quite literally the small fish in a big pond, but armed with some extraordinary equipment that enables it to not only compete with, but also defeat much larger fish. With an ability to survive in less than ideal conditions, the Puffer Fish is an exceptional metaphor for small businesses in today's market.

It is encouraging to see an increase in both optimism and orders across all sizes of business that I speak to. Many tell me of better than expected first quarters and how they expect to blow first half expectations. Most of this, they caution, is due to previously deferred orders that are finally being placed. Nevertheless, this is definitely good news for all.

Recovery is being driven by small, dynamic and aggressive companies that have streamlined, become more efficient and are now ready to take an aggressive stance to win new business. Small businesses have a lot to gain from the recovering market, if only they can stand up and take on the big guys with confidence and commitment. However, many have a hard time ditching the small company stigma and being seen as professional and as reliable as their bigger counterparts.

So what does it take to turn your business from being a small fish in a big pond, into a formidable Puffer that can hold its own against the bigger fish?

Customers buy your business, not your product
When I ask people about recent purchasing decisions, most tell me that the reason they chose one company over another was because of how they felt about the company, not the product. You may have the best product on the market but if the customer doesn't feel safe placing an order with you, they will go elsewhere.

Recovery is being driven by small and dynamic companies that have streamlined, become more efficient and are now ready to take an aggressive stance to win new business

What can you do?

  • Your customer expectations continue to change at a rapid pace. They expect increasingly faster responses. Missing emails whilst away from your desk could loose you business: make sure you can get your emails wherever you are.
  • You may only be a team of eight people, but your customer doesn't need to know that. Use your telephone systems to present a professional, well-organized company, give customers options to contact the sales, support, or invoicing departments directly - even if all the calls ultimately go to the same person. Never let a call go unanswered, or worse, to voicemail that is never checked: Make effective use of ringing and diverting plans.

Health check your IT systems
You may be lucky enough to be busy now, but with all the groundwork you have now laid down, you should be expecting business to pick up. Now is the time to ensure you have the right systems to support rapid growth.

Check that:

  • Your mail systems are robust and reliable. Systems that need rebooting and patching are going to cost you time, effort, and ultimately business. You need systems that just keep running, reliably.
  • Can your team communicate effectively? Compliment your email with business grade Instant Messaging, make sure your email and IM platforms work with, not against each other. Look for unified communications solutions that simplify and improve internal and external communications.
  • Don't let your costs grow with your business. Choose systems that offer you what you need now, but whose features and performance will grow with your business.

Keep on the diet

  • You've probably spent a lot of time, effort, and emotional energy cutting back and reducing your costs. Don't stop now. Keep up the good work, keep an eye on those costs and continue to invest in technology that reduces overheads.
  • IP Telephony has improved significantly. It's time you looked again at how VoIP IP PBX technology can help you present a professional image and lower your costs. Dealing with overseas customers and suppliers on a daily basis all adds up. HD Telephony solutions are now available and make a huge difference to the quality of phone conversations, whilst keeping your costs to a minimum.
  • Unified Communications tools reduce travel expenses, and, improve your customer interaction.
  • Go green. Look for technology that helps reduce your power consumption; do you really need to have servers that burn hundreds of watts doing nothing?

One size does not fit all
As a small company you might be tempted by larger enterprise focused solutions. You might even be able to find financing options that enable you to invest in these platforms. But does a pared-down Enterprise solution really fit your business needs? Look for companies that deliver solutions designed for small businesses. Many solutions are available that fit your budgets and needs, and will grow cost-effectively with your business.

So get ready to puff-up and take on the big fish, 2010 is the year for small businesses to make their mark. Prepare your business now for higher customer expectations and invest in the right technologies to increase company performance whilst helping keep control of costs.

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