I’ve spoken to over a hundred SME owners while I’ve directly worked with probably 50 to 60 at the current agency I’m working at, handling their digital marketing campaigns over at least a three-month period.
I just want to focus on three key learning points, which hopefully, could help fellow agency colleagues and agency owners as well. I can’t mention specific company names because of client confidentiality.
1. Consultancy & direction are key
“The biggest mistake a small business can make is to think like a small business.”– Anonymous
Every business wants to grow, and every small business’s dream is to become an MNC. The above quote makes a lot of sense, but how can a small business know how to adapt a big business thinking?
And while we can easily say that small businesses can easily learn from big businesses since most big businesses are either publicly listed, or there’s abundant publicly available info about their success.
The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and most SME owners are always struggling with growing the business with so many factors that they can’t control and have visibility over.
That’s why they have to outsource certain parts of their business to agencies for cost efficiency – it doesn’t make sense for every SME to have a CMO or CTO if the scale at which it operates in can’t support one.
As an account manager (or client success manager in our agency’s context), our main role is ensuring the smooth running of digital marketing campaigns.
However, that alone is almost always not enough for an SME to grow. And if the SME doesn’t grow, it’s just a matter of time before something like COVID takes down the business. (A few of our clients went out of business because of how hard COVID hit them.)
What they really need is to tap on our expertise as an agency that has helped hundreds of other business owners grow their companies. And that involves us giving them consultancy and direction.
They’re not expecting – and they don’t need – enterprise-level marketing consultancy or direction, but a strategic overview. And this often requires us to help them make sense of the numbers, give them our recommendations on the best next steps forward, and ideas that challenge their perception of what’s possible as a small brand.
2. Good relationships matter
Agencies having good relationships with enterprises is almost unheard of, or quite rare, especially since most of the time, the CEO or any other C-Suite executive doesn’t deal directly with the account manager.
However, for the SMEs in Singapore that I’ve worked with, I almost always deal directly with the founder or CEO – the person who calls the shots in his or her company.
I don’t consider myself someone who’s very good at building relationships with both colleagues and clients, but I do it to the best of my abilities.
For the clients who like working with me, they are usually more tolerant towards subpar results now and then if we’ve established trust and some rapport. Those who don’t even give me a chance are usually the newer clients or those who don’t enjoy working with me.
Furthermore, it’s almost impossible for us to convince an SME owner who has a strong relationship with his or her existing agency to try us out too – that’s something we’ve come to terms, but also recognise is important to focus on ourselves.
3. Results, results, results
The last and most important lesson I’ve learned is that it’s all down to the results, just like any other business. But more so for SMEs, they’re unable to see beyond six or even three months if sales have been stagnant for three consecutive months or even decreasing.
SMEs are not like enterprises where riding out a recession is just a “bad time” – a recession can potentially kill an SME, period. And if we’re not in a recession (referring to one to two years ago), and sales are bad for a few months, they’ll look for a new partner in a heartbeat.
Also, results don’t just mean marketing qualified leads – results mean actual closed sales by the SME, although closing sales isn’t our responsibility. So with that in mind, ensuring that their sales process is effective becomes part of our unspoken duty too, since it’d affect the account.
Of course, there are many other factors outside our control (and their control) that affect sales for a business. Fortunately, if we can align with the SMEs that are struggling, and come up with a feasible and logical plan, along with a fairly good relationship, they stick with us and most of the time, we pull through.
It’s through mutual understanding and efforts that a digital marketing campaign would succeed.
While being consultative and giving the SME owners a general but clear marketing direction, building good relationships, and delivering results are key to a successful partnership, if the SME owner doesn’t want to place some level of trust in the agency, it’d be an uphill battle.
If SME owners have the right mindset when working with any decently capable agency, they would get the most out of it. And by decently capable agency, I actually mean an agency with workers who genuinely care for their clients.
I might not be the best account manager in the market, but I’m confident I care for my clients much more than most account managers out there.
Caring for clients doesn’t just mean going above and beyond, moving mountains and splitting seas for them. Caring means doing what’s right for them, even when it’s easy to just slack off and do less.