Monday, April 15, 2024

Critical Competencies Necessary to Sustainably Serve SMEs

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) comprise the largest group of businesses globally and subsequently offer the most significant business opportunity for all IT Service Providers. In Canada, SMEs comprise 99.8% of all businesses. Over half of those have less than four employees, and about 74% have less than ten employees.

Irrespective of the size of these organizations, they all have significant information technology needs. Unfortunately, however, SMEs experience multiple challenges in adopting new information technologies. They have limited financial resources and rarely have personnel allocated to IT functions. Furthermore, that personnel often lack the specialized skills to train other employees to adopt new technology or support application development. SMEs often lack sophisticated IT infrastructure or elaborate procurement processes to select vendors that could optimally serve their needs.

All of those challenges create a ripe opportunity for responsive IT service providersto offer solutions required by SMEs. The desire for greater flexibility and scalability, emboldened and necessitated by the COVID pandemic, has further enhanced the need for multiple IT services, including cloud services, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), system integration, internet services, and software maintenance.

Yet it is not the technology that drives the relationship development or maintenance of vendor contracts. It’s the people providing the IT services that hold the key to sustainable service provision.

There are three critical competencies—knowledge, skills, and abilities—that, if possessed by the service-providing team, would not only set them apart in gaining the business but also ensure a sustainable, long-term, mutually rewarding experience for both the service provider and the client.

Most IT service providers compete on price, quality, delivery and service. Some go a step further in providing tailored and flexible services to meet the unique needs of their clients. However, a true competitive advantage that would be hard to replicate comes from the mindset and ideology of the service providers. That mindset and ideology require the following three competencies in its personnel:

  1. A genuine interest in and understanding of the client’s business
  2. Ability to build and maintain relationships
  3. Skills to plan and manage the human elements of change in technology adoption

A genuine interest in and understanding of the client’s business

One of the common reasons reported in empirical research for a client switching service providers, besides cost, is the people factor, described as both a genuine interest displayed by the service provider staff and how well they demonstrate an understanding of the client’s business. This competency is directly related to customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

How does one develop an interest and understanding of the client’s business? By being curious and listening and doing both from the beginning and from a place without assumptions. Usually, the service providers work on tight schedules to deliver the service, support implementation and then shift to a minimal ongoing support model. Their focus is often driven by the requirements of their implementation process rather than curiosity about the client’s business and how their technology would provide the necessary solution to solve the client’s problems.

Service providers that commit to learning about the client’s business and integrating that information into their implementation plans would surely earn respect and credibility from their clients, which lends to solutions that more accurately and fully meet the client’s needs.

Ability to build and maintain relationships

The second competency that contributes to client satisfaction is the IT service provider’s ability to build and maintain relationships. This competency cannot be reserved for the client-relationship manager. It is the responsibility of the whole team—from implementation to the service support team.

Interestingly, most SMEs can dedicate only a very small number of employees to engaging with the vendor. This should simplify the challenge of building a relationship with those few individuals. However, one caution worth mentioning is that usually, the few client representatives may work with multiple specialists on the vendor side. The vendor team members must frequently communicate with each other to inform each other of client expectations, preferences, and pet peeves so that overall, the vendor representatives can assure a smooth and positive experience for the client without the client having to reiterate their preferences to the different team members.

A key element of this relationship building and maintenance involves sharing control and decision-making with the client. It involves not just passively addressing the client’s concerns but actively soliciting them and co-creating solutions that would meet their needs. This should create greater ownership over the solutions and a sense of a team with the service provider.

Skills to plan and manage the human elements of change in technology adoption

Most IT service providers equate change management with training provided to the administrators, super users, and the client’s employees. In some cases, that is further abbreviated by the train-the-trainer model, providing a demonstration and possibly some job aides for the administrator, who would then deliver this training to the rest of the users.

The staff working for the service providers have two key opportunities to establish a competitive advantage using this competency. One is in managing the change attitudes of the client representatives, who may ebb and flow from eagerly wanting the change to resisting the different implementation phases or decisions. The second is to help the client bring a critical mass of employees on board to adopt the changes. The former requires strong personal agility and resilience, while the latter requires planning and support beyond the traditional training programs and job aides.

The IT service provider could benefit from developing this competency in the human dynamics of change management and proactively building it into their change management processes. The service provider team would partner with the client to identify and manage the different sources of resistance for its staff. They would also deploy the previous two competencies to co-create communication messages throughout the implementation journey to help clients’ staff not only be aware of the upcoming changes but create opportunities for them to get involved with the new way of doing things.

IT service providers who invest in developing these three competencies will find greater success with their clients. Not only could they expect unsolicited positive feedback and word-of-mouth referrals, but they also should have lower issues being identified post-implementation. In a rapidly competitive world of IT service providers, these three competencies could lend to a competitive advantage that would be hard to replicate for their competitors.

About the author:

Sandeep Aujla is an HR and change management strategist who guides organizations to transform their work cultures into being more respectful, responsive, and results-oriented. She leads this work through consultations, coaching, and training provided by change agents certified in her signature approaches at Multilevel Leadership Consulting Inc., operating out of Brampton, Ontario.

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