We are 30 years into the computer revolution, which I am arbitrarily marking as beginning in the mid-1980’s, when Apple II and IBM compatible (286) computers began to show up on the desks of people who weren’t in the “computer room.” We are 20 years from the mid-1990’s, when the Internet became easily available to anyone with a modem and AOL CD’s began filling our mailboxes.
I remember chastising an employee for unnecessarily adding a 30 megabyte hard drive to a PC that already had 20 megabytes of storage. That seemed like such ridiculous overcapacity for our sole computer. It handled our manufacturing production, inventories, customer records and accounting. Now my IPod shuffle puts 50 times that computer’s capacity into the little change pocket of my jeans.
As technology has become ubiquitous, it’s created another issue. Anyone with money, processing power and software can duplicate the technological prowess of anyone else with money, processing power and software. Proprietary advantages have narrowed, and the time cushion of being “first to market” has almost disappeared.
Most businesses can’t function without their computer capabilities. When a major outage brings the whole company to a dead stop, redundancy becomes a critical part of survival. That is driving more technology services into the cloud. Our lifeblood information is increasing kept where we can’t see it. In fact, we probably don’t know where it is. A small business in Dallas may be taken out of commission by floods in Iowa or a power outage in Pennsylvania. We don’t know where the threat is until something happens.
Everyone wants a customer relationship that is “sticky”, where the barriers to exit are so challenging that the buyer becomes dependent on the vendor to run his business. In technology, that means owning the portal — a single point through which the data flows.
The fight for the portal has become the battlefield of giants from many industries. The telephone companies, cable television operators and (soon) the power utilities all want to own the pipeline. How many of us buy our telecommunications from a cable TV provider, or our television from a phone company?
Content is another portal. The Apple and Android apps markets offer simple, low cost programs to help run a business. Google, Amazon and Apple are pushing into television content portals. That is a search engine, a retailer and a device manufacturer fighting over the exact same space.
The portal to your business is the biggest prize of all. Keeping your financial records, your customer information and your operating capabilities in one place is the holy grail of those who serve small business. That relationship is being chased by software makers (Intuit), credit card companies (Amex and Visa), stock brokers (Schwab and E-Trade), insurance companies, and every bank in the country.
What is your portal strategy for customers? How are you using technology to build their dependence on you? Do you keep their information in a way that is helpful to them? Can you tell them when to stock up based on prior business patterns? Are you the trusted source for product or industry information? Do you make your connections available to them for new business opportunities?
If you engage in consultative sales, do you provide information beyond just the features and benefits of your product? Can you become the go-to source for best practices or learning new methodologies? Can you build a relationship that provides so much value that price ceases to be a purchasing consideration?
It sounds like a tall order for a small business, but the tools are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Your differentiation lies not in having the technology, but in how you use it.