Convert shortcomings into advantages without lying

This is Part 4 of a 5-Part series: Joy of Honesty in Business.

Tiny startups will always have shortcomings compared to the big boys.

Three people can’t run 24/7 tech support. A single consultant cannot always answer the phone. Software might have more bugs and fewer features than the competition.

Your customers know it, and you get to hear about it.

“I’m not comfortable buying from a small company; what if six months from now you go out of business?”

“What if I have a problem on Saturday?”

“I tried calling you but got an answering machine — on a Thursday!”

Do you try to hide these shortcomings, or do you turn it into an advantage?

In my experience you can’t hide. Oh you can try, and boy have I gone down that road, carefully selecting my words so that I’m not lying per se but still hiding the fact that I was a one-man software shop.

“We have hundreds of users.”  Well, hundreds of human users, but not hundreds of customers. And who is this “we?”

“I’m going to personally handle this issue.”  Well yeah, I don’t see anyone else here.

“Yup, I always answer the phone.”  Does voicemail count as an employee?

The fact is, after a few interactions — whether by phone or email — they realize it’s just you. I know you think your website looks impressively big-company considering you designed it yourself, but they’re rarely fooled. I know you’re proud of v1.0 of your software — and congrats on that by the way — but your customers are still putting up with all sorts of issues.

What I discovered at Smart Bear is that shortcomings can be converted into competitive advantages.

Here’s some examples:

Problem:  You’re a one-woman consulting company. What happens if you’re not available? A big firm has extra people in case of emergency.

Advantage:  With my company, you always get me; at a big firm, you get whomever isn’t busy, and the good people are always busy. If you wanted someone like me at a big firm, you’d pay double (firm overhead!) and you still wouldn’t get my undivided attention.

Problem:  You don’t have 24/7 tech support.

Advantage:  Because we’re small, “tech support” means “talking directly to the developers who make the software.” No “level 1″ layer whose true purpose is to block you. You get deep answers from the creators. Bug reports and even your feature requests go straight to the ears of those who can do something about it. Now that’s customer service!

Problem:  This software is obviously new. It has bugs and it doesn’t have all the features we want.

Advantage:  All software has bugs, but we’re small enough that bug fixes are often turned around in under 24 hours. Also we can afford to implement little pet features you have — in fact you can even help us design the next version. Good luck getting this kind of responsiveness with a six-year-old product at a big company. (And don’t tell me those other products have no bugs!)

Problem:  You’re just a small company. How do I know you’re going to be here in 12 months?

Advantage:  How do you know big companies will be supporting their products in 12 months? Big companies are cutting products all the time. They have to, if the product line isn’t profitable. With us, all we do is work on this product. It’s our life. Every waking hour is spent improving it and making you happy. Which of these strategies sounds more likely to survive?

The trick in each case is two-fold:

  1. Dispel the notion that “big companies” don’t have similar problems.
  2. Trump up the advantages you have because you’re a small business.

Sometimes you can’t win on #1. For example, if they have 24/7 tech support while you have 8/5, you’re not going to win on hours alone. But for every disadvantage there’s a counterpart advantage; here you would point out that talking to the company’s CEO on Monday is far more valuable than getting canned responses from “level-1 support” on Sunday.

Part #2 is easy. Embrace what you have rather than compete with the big guys on their own turf. Small businesses always have advantages over big companies — passion, responsiveness, expertise, transparency, inclusiveness, and personality.

One final note, though: These explanations have to be honest. If you don’t have 24/7 tech support, your 8/5 support must be stellar.

It’s not “spin” if it’s the truth.

Do you have other stories or ideas for how to turn shortcomings into advantages? Join the conversation and leave a comment!

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  • http://blog.bstpierre.org/ Brian St. Pierre

    Depending on your market, customers may be willing to pay extra for after-hours access to you. Offer your mobile number to a larger customer (only if it’s worth it, both to you and them). If you’re a shop with a couple of guys, use one of those call-forwarding services so you can take turns being "on call". This is only 24/7 if you really want it to be, but it enforces the message that you’re willing to go the distance to support them.

    All of this advice also needs to be based on the idea of managing expectations. Like you said, 8/5 support is fine as long as that’s what the expectation is. (I.e. don’t advertise 24 or 48 hour email support turnaround unless you’re committed to monitoring email over the weekend, because if a request arrives Friday evening you had better respond before Monday morning!)

  • Jason

    @Brian

    That’s a great way to spin things — say that e.g. 8/5 is a base service, included in the base price, and that other options are available at a premium.

    That’s worked for us in other areas. For example, some large customers demand that source code be kept in escrow so that if you go under they can still (theoretically) continue to improve the software. That’s expensive and complicated, so we always agree to escrow but insist that they must bear the entire cost. So far no one has complained.

  • http://www.robbyslaughter.com/ Robby Slaughter

    Great post! But this approach applies in reverse as well:

    Problem: Your company is big and slow to respond, compared with a startup.

    Solution: Yes, because our testing process is more rigorous because we have more to lose if we fail. Do you prefer speed or quality?

    Problem: Your consultants cost five times the rate of an independent contractor.

    Solution: Yes, because we have experts in every field, not generalists, and they have access to support tools, reference libraries and loaner equipment. This often results in 80% time savings.

    Problem: Your product is not compatible with my software/hardware.

    Solution: Our QA process requires that we are able to fully certify our product on all supported systems. A custom tool might work on your current platform, but what if you change to something else? It may be smarter to change now to a more common platform rather than remain somewhere obscure.

    No matter whether you are big or small, do not lie to your customers. Instead, tell them why the problem they see represents a choice you made. Customer satisifaction is built on the belief that vendors are acting with in their clients’ best interests.

  • http://www.productprinciples.com Lisa Wells

    I love this series! Honesty in business is such a refreshing concept. And thanks for writing my "one woman consulting shop" value prop for me. You’re spot on!

  • Dale

    Reminds me of how the Green Bay Packers turned the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field into a competitive advantage… the linemen came out in short sleeves despite it being so cold and psyched out the frozen opponents from the south.

    corporatepreneur.blogspot.com

  • Jason

    @Robby: I love it! You’re absolutely right of course and it’s good to see things in perspective. Everyone has their advantages and disadvantages. True, you should never lie, but certainly you’re allowed to steer the discussion and frame the problem to suit yourself.

    @Lisa: As if you needed help with marketing messaging! :-) However it’s true that we’re so steeped in our own world it can be refreshing to get ideas from outside the bubble.

    @Dale: Cool example. I think psyche-outs work in sales calls too.

  • http://roopindersingh.com/ rs

    Good post!

    I agree – don’t hide it :) People do value a one-to-one personal service.

  • http://mp3amore.com/ http://mp3amore.com/

    mp3more
    Great post! I like part 2, it’s so helpful: "Embrace what you have rather than compete with the big guys on their own turf."

  • http://virtualimpax.com Kathy | Virtual Impax

    If there’s one thing that’s for "sure" it’s that transparency is a HUGE part of the "new" web. Trying to be something you’re not is just a recipe for disaster.

    A huge BRAVO for your post. You’re so right! For every "objection" to dealing with a small business there is another equally compelling reason to CHOOSE to do business with a small business.

    I’ve found one of the BEST reasons to do business with a small business is they VALUE your business a LOT!

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