Selling to businesses is complex, but there are a few fundamentals that, no matter the size of the customer, and no matter the size of the vendor, remain true.

Chief among these is to understand the customer's needs.

By now, you'd hope that vendors understood that. Too often, it appears that's not the case, particularly when dealing with SMBs.

Often, larger prospective customers simply command more attention from vendors because of their size. The prize is higher, the stakes are higher, even the sales team's bonuses are higher.

So when smaller companies publish their RFPs, attention is, unfortunately, often elsewhere.

I don't think this is good enough, and it's certainly not fair on businesses that are often smaller only in comparison.

For example, in some of the toughest trading conditions in recent history, particularly for smaller businesses, there was still a net growth in new SMBs of nearly 4% in the 2020-21 financial year, nearly 88,000 new companies. And according to the same ABS data, 7% of all Australian SMBs had a turnover larger than $2 million in the same financial year. That's about 168,000 companies - a fair number.

So I think these companies demand our attention, because they deserve it.

The fundamentals of business

Businesses seek to move from point A to point B.

In the telco infrastructure world, that translates to the need for speed, access, capacity, security, great commercials, and speed of delivery.

What it does not translate to is one size fits all. It can't, because every business is unique.

The challenge therefore is to listen to the customer, map their infrastructure needs to their business objectives, and respond accordingly.

That includes responding in a way that is collaborative, open, and to a degree deferential. It's important I think never to forget that it's the customer's budget that's being spent, and the customer's business that has the need.

As an example, one of our customers, a challenger RSP, was in the market seeking to replace an incumbent wholesale provider. By understanding the detailed context behind that seemingly straightforward need, we developed with them an understanding around their desire to take advantage of new market opportunities, to provide end-to-end IT and network services to SMBs across Australia, and to improve the transparency into the network connections all the way back to the NBN itself.

The solution involves a recalibration of the services they provide their customers. Understanding the potential, positive impact of this on their customers' businesses, and understanding the relationship the RSP has with their customers, was a fundamental part of the response.

Differentiation - for the benefit of the customer, not the vendor

Vendors that understand these requirements and dynamics can translate this into an opportunity. As I've already said, this happens less often than it should. And to misunderstand, worse, to ignore these signals is a great way to lose a bid that's yours for the winning.

This is of course where differentiation comes in. I think differentiation needs to extend as much to the culture and approach a vendor has with its customers and how it chooses to engage with them, as to the commercials, technology, partnerships and solutions on offer.

Service providers might focus on service excellence, infrastructure capability, partnerships, or even brand. Each has a part to play - but without that fundamental relationship with, and understanding of, the customer, there's a risk that the customer will come off second best.

Differentiation therefore has to mean something to the customer in a way that goes beyond the commercials. When that's in place, clearly visible to the customer and built around something meaningful, the customer becomes comfortable about making longer-term decisions about future network infrastructure and services.

In another example, we are working with a customer to replace their network infrastructure to consolidate multiple brands, multiple networks acquired over many years, different standards, and different customer experiences.

What I think was most appealing to them was the extent to which we were prepared to discuss a number of design options with them, and to be transparent about what these options were and the different advantages they could potentially deliver. By giving them the choice and educating them in the process, we were able to make sure they felt as though they weren't being pushed down a particular path.

The other thing that appealed was how we demonstrated that we could deliver the solution that they chose without affecting their business, working alongside them in locations that were difficult to access.

We talk often about any number of factors that are important to customers. The removal of complexity, the ability to provide tier-1 network capability with a challenger focus on service excellence, simplicity of management, are all important elements.

But I think at its core, perhaps more than any other aspect, is a preparedness - the desire - to want to work with a customer in their best interests. I think that's something that, ultimately, a vendor has to want to do.

Without that, the best infrastructure, services or partnerships will only serve to highlight the lack of engagement between customer and supplier.

And when that mutual respect is in place, you can help a customer make a real difference.

(Picture: Michail_Petrov-96/iStock Getty)