For over 25 years, many of the clients I’ve been fortunate to work with have been marketers at large organizations that sell products and services to small businesses. These marketers have been talented, innovative and smart. Ironically, however, almost none of them have ever run, or even worked at, a small business. Time after time, my colleagues and I have seen how easy it is for these smart marketers to fall into the trap of thinking their small business decision-making customers run something that’s like a big business (an “enterprise”), just smaller. In reality, the people who make buying decisions for small businesses live on another planet in a galaxy far, far away from what the marketers envision.

Big businesses have an operational mindset

A major difference is experiencing a reality of what it takes to get things done at a big corporation: organization and structure. For necessary reasons, large companies are organized in a hierarchy and order based on what I describe as an “operational taxonomy” (borrowing the word “taxonomy” from the approach scientists use to map out classifications and connections). Such a taxonomy enables workers with specialized skills and responsibilities to understand where they fit into an organization by department (finance, marketing, IT, production, etc.), rank (assistant to the regional manager vs. assistant regional manager) or mysterious function (fixer, closer, rainmaker). The operational taxonomy of operations is so dominant among large corporations, it has become the way in which business schools organize academically. A person who has an MBA with a marketing focus has become an expert not only at marketing, but where marketing fits into the operations of a company.

Small businesses have a situational mindset

In a small business, people typically have multiple responsibilities and little perception of operational boundaries. (“Hey, can you help me move this table?” the intern asks the owner.) The flexible structure (translation: structure that looks like chaos) gives rise to what I call a “situational taxonomy.” Small businesses often don’t know, nor care, whether a problem is financial or operational, marketing- or technology-based. They simply know they have a problem that needs a solution. And the solution needs to appear now.

What this means if you sell products or services to small businesses

Except for skills and knowledge related to their industry or market niche they serve, a small business owner is typically a generalist when it comes to business operations. Often, we don’t always know what we don’t know.

Unless your product or service is tied to a specific profession or industry, when you describe it to a small business customer, don’t use the language of a big business (or “enterprise”). Don’t talk about features or use acronyms or technical specifications. Talk about the situation a small business owner is likely facing when they are looking for your product. Talk about how your product or service addresses the situation.

Here’s what it’s like when you are a small business owner who wants to buy your product

Imagine yourself at a hardware store asking a clerk if they have one of those thingamajigs that goes with a whatchamacallit. That’s what it’s often like when a small business customer needs your product. We just don’t know the name of your product, or even the category of product you may consider it.

A small business owner or manager wears many hats throughout the day. If you can find a way to help a small business customer understand how your product or service can enable them to wear one less hat, you’ll have a better chance of generating sales and starting a long-term relationship.

(Illustration by Photo by Andrew Prickett via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

(Note: A version of this article by Rex Hammock, founder of, first appeared in Idea-Email, the “un-newsletter” of Hammock Inc., the direct-to-customer media and content company and host of

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