How can small businesses compete with large companies

By Robert Half on 9th October 2014

As a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME), it can seem as if you're forever playing David to other companies' Goliath. There's little doubt you offer a great service to your customers, who keep coming back time after time, but still your bigger rivals seem to have the edge. 

Large companies often have the size and scale to corner the market, and the prestige and financial clout to hire the best people.

As a small business how can you compete against large businesses all the time? It's important to remember, there are ways to compete with large businesses when it comes to hiring the best talent. SMEs should realise they have certain advantages over larger organisations, including agility and the ability to specialise. Exploiting these strengths allows small firms to vie for custom more effectively and build profitable businesses.

At the same time, SMEs should appreciate that - in the digital age - there is no need for them to be a prisoner of their own image and stature. The accelerating globalisation of business means small firms can, to a great extent, become whatever they want to be. With the latest technology at their disposal, small companies can compete with large companies now, more than ever.

SMEs have some advantages over large businesses

Even companies that take a traditional sales and marketing approach - focusing solely on consumers within their local catchment area, and in-person sales - can steal a march on their rivals. The key is for SMEs to recognise what they are good at, where additional value can be offered to end-users, and where bigger businesses may struggle to deliver.

The inherent agility and flexibility of small companies allows them to respond faster than larger firms, which can be a major plus in an evolving business landscape. While small companies can't always compete with large companies on pricing and product choice, they can often bring new services to market faster than larger firms. Major companies can get bogged down by corporate processes and red tape, giving SMEs a window of opportunity.

In many small businesses, the main decision maker is also the person working on the front line, offering the benefit of their expertise to customers. They can provide a specialist service, but also one tailored to the needs of individual customers. Many people are fed up with the one-size-fits-all approach taken by national chains, and are hungry for bespoke service and a great customer experience.

SMEs can compete with large companies

Technology has changed the game for many SMEs. In the digital age, it's possible for small companies to compete with large companies and to take on an altogether different personality, if they so choose. By operating online, being active on social networks and taking steps to raise brand awareness, they can present themselves a larger, more outward-looking organisations. A company may only have a small number of employees, working out of a tiny office, but using the web they can reach out to consumers across the globe.

The availability of super-fast connectivity, cloud solutions and ecommerce channels means even the smallest companies can access business-grade IT. They are able to launch professional-looking, ecommerce websites - facilitating 24/7 sales - and play an active role in online conversations via blogs and social networks.

The only real constraints on SMEs' ability to trade globally are a lack of capacity, and the skills needed to handle a worldwide customer base. But should an SME see a surge in product or service orders, they always have the option of bringing in new employees and moving to larger premises. Temporary employees, for instance, can help cope with spikes in demand.

Customers are interesting in buying goods or services they need, from brands they can trust, at the right price point, with high-quality customer service. Using the internet, SMEs can deliver on each of these fronts. Providing they can market themselves effectively and reach out to consumers, small firms have the opportunity to compete with much larger businesses.

Building a 'big brand' for your SME

So what can your small business do to compete with large companies more effectively? Here are a few suggestions:

Define your mission, vision and values

Consumers need to know what your company is about - and so do potential employees. Once you've established a set of values, capture these in your vision and mission statements. They define the purpose of your company and what it is trying to achieve, providing a focus for the future. The statements also help customers, partners, suppliers and job applicants make an informed decision about your business.

Deliver professional service

Your SME needs to deliver great service to customers the first time they get in touch, and on all subsequent occasions. This means answering calls, responding to emails and social media comments, and putting customers first at all times. If your company doesn't have the staff to cope with the influx, bring in more people. Or alternatively, invest in virtual office services, which provide access to customer service experts who can act as your 'front desk'.

Focus on your employer brand

In order to build a successful company to compete with large companies, you need to get good quality people onboard. This means making your company an attractive place to work, and ensuring staff members have sufficient incentive to remain with you for the long term. Building a strong employer brand is essential - if you develop a poor reputation the best candidates will stay away. If you're going to make a bad impression, you'd be better remaining an anonymous start-up with no customers. Work with recruitment agencies to define your hiring strategy and how to avoid making common hiring mistakes.

Invest in your website

Overseas consumers aren't going to turn up at your local village shop, but they may well visit your website - all they need is the URL or your brand name and a search engine. Having an updated , professional looking website - with language translation options - and a trusted ecommerce portal can encourage online sales from all manner of destinations.

Become a thought leader

SME leaders can become even more valuable assets for their companies if they are able to develop a reputation as an industry expert. Writing insightful blog posts, commenting on other people's articles and sharing content and links can increase your profile. Attracting Twitter followers and Facebook likes certainly won't hurt either, but you've got to ensure a steady flow of great content. That's the only way to attract people's attention and keep them interested.

Hire quality people

Attracting top talent to your business can give it a real boost. You want to be bringing in skilled, experienced professionals who have the energy, drive and ideas to take the company forward. Building a quality team can offer access to quality contacts, opening up further opportunities for the business - either directly or indirectly.

Can your small business attract the best people?

When it comes to hiring employees, small companies can find it difficult to compete with large companies and offer the same remuneration packages - it's simply a case that they have longer arms and deeper pockets. So in order to attract the top talent, you need to offer professionals something else of value, persuading them to overlook the big firms and come on board your SME.

It's important to sell the opportunity to the best candidates - promising them active involvement in company decision making at the highest level and input on the strategic direction of the SME. Offering an executive role in your company - however small the business is - gives the professional the chance to move up the career ladder and boost their CV.

You can promise the talented individual a degree of autonomy, giving them the room to act and add value to the business as they see fit. By nature, small companies are less bureaucratic than larger firms, and it might be that the new recruit can effectively write their own job description. They should be able to get involved in as many aspects of the company's business as they like, providing they can add value.

Another potential benefit your SME can offer is flexibility - both in terms of time and location. Allowing talented people to customise their working day, or operate from home where appropriate, can allow you to hire people who may otherwise have been inaccessible. Those who have young families may be particularly interested in working on their own terms - something your SME can potentially offer.

Being flexible in terms of pay and benefits can also help attract talented people. It makes sense to tailor the remuneration package to the needs of each individual, ensuring they get maximum value from what you are able to offer. You might not be able to compete with larger firms in terms of salary, but there may be other perks - potentially even equity in the business - that appeal to the best people. Find out more about the latest hiring trends and salaries in the Robert Half Salary Guide.

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