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Small-Business Expert Debra Koontz Traverso

Your company may be small, but this expert will tell you why that doesn't mean you can't give large corporations a run for their money.


It's you, your computer, your phone and tiny office. And you know what? You're pretty damn happy about the size of things. You don't want the headaches involved with that large staff and monstrous infrastructure that comes with being large. But you're worried that some of your clients might take this as a sign of weakness. Why aren't you as large as your competitor across town? Do you have the resources to get the job done correctly and on time?

In her new book, Outsmarting Goliath: How to Achieve Equal Footing with Companies that Are Bigger, Richer, Older and Better Known than You (Bloomberg Press, $19.95), Debra Koontz Traverso tells you how to compete with megalithic corporations. Your professional image and support network can give you the aura of a large company, while you capitalize on what large companies don't always deliver: excellent personalized customer service. What factors should be considered when a small company wants to create a "big company" image?

Debra Koontz Traverso: In most cases, almost all aspects of a small company can be tweaked a bit to develop a more appropriate image: name, location, marketing materials, telephone presentation, customer communication and service, etc. In Outsmarting Goliath, I provide a three-page Image Assessment checklist that readers can conduct on their own businesses. This assessment takes into account how you rate on such factors as accessibility, appeal, company logistics, communication efforts, competitive pricing, dependability, uniqueness and visibility. In Outsmarting Goliath, you say that small businesses have certain advantages over large companies. What are these advantages?

Traverso: It's easier to manage your business, respond to your customers and react to market fluctuations when you're not bogged down by corporate weight.

Small businesses also have the advantage of customer service. Decisions can be made on the spot on how to best satisfy and service a customer, whereas I've seen large organizations spend up to two months just trying to write and approve a customer service policy.

Another advantage is that big and diverse can easily come across as big and diffuse-in other words, confusing to customers. It seems that the more varied a large businesses' activities are, the more varied the messages it sends out. As a result, multiple claims and promotions can work against a cohesive message, making it confusing for consumers to develop an impression of a company. Their own confusion tends to be transferred to that big company. In contrast a small business can speak in one voice, giving one message, one direction, one theme. As a result, the communications tend to appear more consistent. People find comfort in that. You spend a lot of time in the book discussing business names. Why is this so important for a small business, and do you have a few tips you could offer our readers on choosing a name?

Traverso: The very first impression of your company will be derived from its name. The name is the quintessential element in your company's identity and image. Here are a few tips to help you choose the right name:

  • Keep it short. Historically, when a major company has changed its name, it's always to make it shorter, not longer. So what not start out shorter in the first place? A short name may have less communication content, but it has more communication impact since it will be easier to say and easier to remember.
  • Avoid description, especially product and geographic description. Companies grow. Companies diversify. Companies move beyond their initial service territories. Name your company right from the start, and you won't have to take on an expensive name change later.
  • Drop "general" references. Don't use terms like American, National, Federal, General. Those words are forgotten by consumers anyway.
  • Don't use abbreviations and acronyms. That's a naming fad right now. Besides, people will have a harder time finding your listing in the yellow pages. You talk about turning your business into an operation of "many" employees without hiring anyone. What are some resources for someone who can't or doesn't want to hire employees?

Traverso: Use business cards creatively. Ask yourself in each situation, If I were the head of a large corporation, would the president or CEO being doing this meeting? Or would the director of sales? If the latter, then you may want to consider printing up an extra set of cards that identify you as that position. After all, you are the position and many more.

Here are some other ideas:

  • Hiring part-time employees. Then you don't have to hassle with benefits.
  • Hiring consultants. Then you don't have to hassle with their taxes. Outsourcing the work. You can't do it all.
  • Linking up with a business support networking group (most cities have one), and swapping services. Can you give a few examples of tough questions prospective clients might ask about your company and how you can field those questions?

Traverso: Yes, in fact, in Outsmarting Goliath I give the top 25 questions most frequently asked of small businesses. One example is: "How long has your company been in business?" If the answer is only a short time, then instead, you can expound on how much experience you gained in the field prior to launching the business.

Another question which is quite awkward for homebased businesses is, "Where is your store/office/headquarters located?" It's OK to give your home address and move on if your home address is a business-friendly one (i.e. not 32 Abiding Way or Cherry Blossom Lane). If it's not, then consider adding a suite number to the address or rent a box from a business that specializes in mail service boxes (Mail Boxes Etc.).

Another is, "How large is your company?" Your client is looking for assurance that you can do the job. You don't have to give numbers. Instead say, "Large enough to handle this project with an excellent staff," or something else true but equally noncommittal. Then move on to add, "My contacts for this job range from.." Or "My vendors know that I expect...". This will give your client the assurance he's actually seeking. What's the most important piece of advice you would offer to an entrepreneur just starting out?

Traverso: Know what you're good at and get help with the rest. If you're the idea person and the person who launched the business, that doesn't necessarily mean you can manage a business. Other advice would be to craft the right image, get the right people involved, tweak every message and every routine task you do, and then market for optimum impact.

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