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Small Company, Huge Image

Alan Weiss isn't a household name, but you can't argue with his success. President of the Summit Consulting Group in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, he consults for Fortune 500 companies, speaks around the world, publishes books like Million Dollar Consulting and isn't shy about letting you know he drives a Ferrari. Having interviewed him several times and seen him spinning stories on the platform, I assumed he must have a large, well-oiled office operation backing him up. I was shocked to learn that his office consists of just him and his wife. No employed staff!

Whether or not you've achieved Weiss's material success, you can create the impression of a large establishment by positioning the light so that it casts an enormous shadow. If you have a five-truck delivery business, people will assume you have hundreds, and that in turn positions your company to grow. Or, like Weiss, you can simply enjoy the extra profits derived from keeping overheads low but your image large.

You'll seem bigger and more important than you really are if you follow at least several of the following guidelines.

1. Company name. Make sure the name of your business suggests solidity and size, and get opinions on this from people you can trust to be honest. Many naive entrepreneurs try to get this effect by calling themselves "XXXX Enterprises" or using their initials in a company name. Perhaps because these tactics are too obvious, they don't do the job. Trust the intuitions of seasoned business folks on this, because prospective customers make snap judgments from factors like the name of your business.

2. Phone numbers. Did you know that you can get local phone numbers in a city where you have no physical presence at all? One Boston entrepreneur I know created the impression of a bicoastal operation because her business card also listed a Los Angeles phone number (which rang into voice mail). Look in the Yellow Pages under "voice mail services" for companies that will make these kinds of arrangements for you.

If the Yellow Pages represent a prime source of business for you, people deciding who to call sometimes make judgments from the telephone exchange. You can seem to have a slew of branches by establishing phone numbers linked to several different towns and having them all actually ring at your one office. Bell Atlantic calls this "remote call forwarding" and charges less than $20 a month per line plus a few cents per call.

Likewise people assume you're a more settled, larger business if you have an 800-number.

3. Telephone answering. If you have a home-based business, how you answer the phone is especially crucial. Don't allow crying babies, whining kids or barking dogs within earshot of the phone, and get into the habit of answering with your company name and/or your own instead of just a "Hello." Other no-no's: busy signals (what, you can't afford voice mail?), no way to leave a message or send a fax after office hours.

You'll know that your telephone setup is sending the right signals when callers act surprised that they've really gotten you on the phone.

4. Location. During the 1990s recession, my business partner and I rented a small office in a very well-known building for next to nothing. Most long-time Boston residents recognized the building's name or address and didn't know one floor had been turned into an "incubator" arrangement, where small companies shared one receptionist. We had access to a beautifully appointed conference room whenever clients wanted to meet with us. In the Yellow Pages, you can find similar incubator offices listed under "Office & Desk Space Rental Services."

I know others who've created the impression of a larger company through office sharing -- renting one small room and secretarial services within a bustling office. Similarly, I was impressed when two kids barely out of college who were starting a new company handed me a business card with a Rowe's Wharf (Boston harbor, expensive, mostly law firms) address. "My mother's apartment," one of them confessed.

5. Visibility. Consider why radio stations perennially run contests where they give away prizes to cars sporting their bumper sticker. When people see evidence of you everywhere, they think you rank up there with big-name organizations. Depending on your business, visibility might take any form from brightly painted, can't-miss trucks to your ads appearing month after month in a certain spot of a newspaper or magazine. Speaking engagements around town, articles by or about you in the local business paper all add weight to your business identity.

6. Generosity. When I received unannounced bonuses of note pads and an insulated mug with shipments from the online bookseller, I thought, "Boy, they're doing so well they're giving away free stuff." In fact it works the other way around: exceeding expectations by giving away useful objects helps cement customer loyalty. The imprinting of these useful objects with the company name and logo powerfully reinforces the customer's appreciation of your unexpected gift.

7. Reliability. I think one reason I assumed Alan Weiss had to have a big organization was that in all my contacts with him, he did as he promised. His voice-mail message said someone would get back to me within two hours, and he did. I told him what kind of information I needed, and he promptly delivered it. Similarly I've reaped thanks when I've returned calls promptly and sent out material right away. In many people's minds, reliable implies reputable and well-established.

Now if you're thinking that large companies don't necessarily deliver as promised any more, you're right. And if you seize it, there lies a competitive advantage for your small company with a powerfully huge image.

Alan Weiss
President of the Summit Consulting Group, Inc.