The product requirements of small and home business IT users are as diverse as the businesses they operate. It is only for convenience sake that someone coined the term SOHO. Unfortunately, the result of this is that much of the IT industry considers SOHO in a single light.
I've yet to come across any two people who can totally agree on the definition of the term SOHO. For our own immediate benefit, let's just assume that a SOHO customer is anyone running their own business who can't afford to employ someone else to handle reseller/client relations. In this somewhat bastardised definition alone, there are a number of important facts which may be drawn out.
First, and definitely most important of all, is that as a reseller, you'll be dealing with the boss of the business. His business may not be the size of BHP, but you can bet that last copy of Windows 95 that's been sitting on your shelf for nearly a year, that to the customer it's every bit as important.
The second fact is that he can ill afford to deal with a reseller who's going to claim a complete knowledge and understanding of the SOHO market. After all, regardless of what the media tells you, what the vendors claim to provide for, and what other resellers claim to fully support, there simply isn't an average or typical SOHO environment.
Consider a couple of examples:
1. A journalist working from a home office: The journalist's basic requirements might be a standard PC, inkjet printer, and fax modem. You certainly don't need to be a "SOHO specialist" to handle this sort of customer.
2. A group of graphic artists working from a small office: the artists may require high-end graphics workstations, a 64-bit server, colour laser or wax printers, high capacity storage and backup devices, graphic tablets, etc. Most "SOHO specialists" won't even have the majority of these products.
While these two examples might represent opposite sides of the SOHO spectrum, they do at least demonstrate that the average reseller has as much chance of covering all the bases as WordPerfect does of finding a permanent home.
There are some similarities, though, which lie beneath the surface. Number one - money! Your customers are in business to make money. To keep control of that money, they're going to need a software accounting package.
Buyer beware, reseller beware
There are an enormous number of software accounting packages for SOHO on the market and regardless of what the layperson may think, they're definitely not all the same.
Our group of artists, for example, is unlikely to require a package with stock control and purchasing. On the other hand, the inclusion of a payroll module may well mean the difference between staying in business and drawing chalk murals on the path outside St James railway station.
If your expertise in software doesn't quite reach being able to advise on accounting software then you have several alternatives:
1. Tell the customer you're unable to help. Result - Loss of sale.
2. Sell the customer a package which you reckon should be suitable. Result - Easy sale, but disservice to a customer.
3. Work with a partner who can advise. Result - Potential sale and a happy and possibly return customer.
According to Data Tech's Brad Shoffer, it's imperative that resellers take the time to find out more about a customer's business before they recommend an accounting package.
"There are a number of issues which need to be resolved first," said Shoffer. "The reseller needs to know about the size of the business, if it's service or product oriented, how many employees does it have, and the list goes on. Without that knowledge, there's no sure way of recommending any package."
While end-users should naturally be aware of resellers who have falsely represented themselves as providers of suitable solutions, so too should resellers be aware of "Clayton" solutions from vendors.
In a recent conversation with a Melbourne-based reseller with some experience in providing accounting software to the small business market, my attention was drawn to an article in the April 1996 issue of Microsoft Communique.
The article, a product tutorial titled "Microsoft Small Business Pack", proclaimed the product of the same name to be "invaluable for anyone running or thinking about setting up a small business".
The reseller, who not surprisingly requested a degree of anonymity, pointed out numerous areas of the product which made it totally unsuitable for small business requirements. "Microsoft have already previously tried to make a splash in the accounting software market," he said. "When they failed in that, they decided to get around it by providing a series of templates as business solutions."
A fair majority of you reading this publication own and operate your own businesses. Even if your name happens to be Gerry Harvey then you're going to have a decent appreciation of the fact that there's never enough time to sit back and learn the ins and outs of every product you use.
Consider your small business customers in the same light. When they purchase a new software product, for example, unless it's at the very heart of their business, the time to really sit down and learn that program will always seem to be "next week". In situations such as these, the offer of a ". . . Made Easy" or ". . . For Dummies" book may well help your customer and provide you with an extra sale.
If you or a member of your staff know the product well enough, there's also a fair chance of gaining that extra sale through on-site tuition. The customer will realise you're taking him seriously.
The Swiss Army knife
If you're really on the lookout for products which are SOHO suitable, consider the Swiss Army knife; that indispensable product which seems to be suited to any situation. In IT, there are quite a few parallel products which are ideally suited to small business.
The most obvious of these is the fax modem, two increasingly essential products rolled into one. Take it one step further and add an answering machine. Products along the line of NetComm's Electronic Secretary are just the ticket for the home office running on a tight budget.
Then there's the printer. OK, so just about every reseller has printers in stock, but what about combining it with a fax and even a photocopier? Once again, a good solution for the small businessperson with a small budget and a small office.
Communications play a vital role in the success of any business. In the case of a small business, this role is even more important and, in most cases, more difficult to maintain at an acceptable level. Particularly in a single person situation, there won't always be someone on hand to take telephone calls from potential clients; and this can have devastating effects on business growth and success.
The topic of mobile phones isn't often brought up in the pages of ARN, but that may well change as time goes by. As resellers begin to expand their product bases to include mobile phones or at least partner with companies focusing on those products, this is a technology which you should at least consider becoming involved in . . . for your sake and your customers'.
Working with and for your customer
There's really only one surefire method of determining whether or not a customer is purchasing for home or business use - ask. It's truly amazing that just about all the resellers I come across fail to ask that simple question. And these are people who are involved in an industry which, at its very core, relies on data acquisition and processing!
The more you can find out about your customer, the better. It's a fairly safe bet that the small businessperson will be only too happy to talk about his or her business for hours on end. This is your chance to establish a strong rapport with the customer, learn about the customer's business IT requirements, and have the customer start to think of you as their very own IT staff.
Once you've determined the basis of your customer's purchase, you can work from there. Work in this case is the operative word. Work with and for your small business customer.
In England, "The Knowledge" generally refers to the exhaustive understanding of streets and townships a cabbie must acquire before being given a licence. As resellers trying to capitalise on whatever the SOHO market really is, your "Knowledge" should encompass basic business principles just as much as information technology.
Already there are far too many resellers without "The Knowledge" who are positioning themselves as SOHO specialists. While they may succeed in making a quick buck, they're providing nothing in the way of value for their customers. These are the resellers who shouldn't be in business themselves. Better they go back to cutting code or designing networks, and leave the IT selling to the professionals who do care.