Landing a contract with a big company can feel like a huge victory for your company. Aside from the financial opportunity, working with a large company can provide excellent exposure and can help you land other clients in the future.
But larger companies do not operate like small businesses, and they often expect their service providers to have a big company mentality even when they’re still a small team. Consequently, you may have to adjust the way you work with big companies in order to keep them happy and keep you sane.
Let’s start by asking an obvious question: Why would bigger companies look to hire a small business services in the first place? Why not just do the job in house? Or hire a big company that can meet their own big needs? It could be a variety of reasons. Big businesses have to watch their bottom line and hiring an outside company doesn’t come with the overhead that a full-time employee has. Perhaps their in-house talent is swamped with work, and they need someone to pick up the slack so they can meet their internal deadlines. Maybe the service you’re providing to them is specialized enough that they didn’t really have a choice but to hire you for your expertise. Or it could be that the city they’re in is providing tax incentives to work with small businesses.
Whatever the reason may, there are a few things you should consider when starting to work for a big company so that your relationship can continue pleasantly and profitably for years to come.
Learn the Lingo
Every company has its own internal language it uses to describe procedures, reports, departments – pretty much anything goes. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the way your client refers to things, so that you have clear communication with them. Nothing could be more embarrassing than a mistake based on a misunderstanding. You’ll wind up looking unprofessional, something you want to avoid at all costs.
When you begin as a new vendor for a big business customer, don’t pretend that you understand something that you don’t. Confirm what the various acronyms and abbreviations they’re using mean, write them down, and make flash cards if you have to in order to memorize their jargon. Remember, the faster you can talk the talk, the quicker you’ll be able to provide service.
Along with learning how to speak the corporate language, you’re going to have to learn how things work. From security to get into the building all the way through a project completion meeting, your big company client is going to have a particular way of doing things, and you’re going to have to adapt to it.
When you first start working with your first big business, go over the correct company procedure for any action that you’re required to perform. If the client always wants a follow-up email to phone conversations, that’s what you do. If the client has a specific format or code structure for invoices or bills of lading, make sure to follow the format. If anything comes up while you’re working with your big business clients, don’t assume anything; call your liaison and make sure you’re clear on the procedure you need to follow. And don’t forget, procedures can change without any warning, so it’s a good idea to “refresh your memory” to make sure you don’t get caught by surprise.
See if you can get a copy of the company policy manual so that you can review it to make sure you can comply with their internal employee requirements even though you’re not an actual employee. You might find yourself face-to-face with a stickler for the company rules and being able to acknowledge that you are 100% in compliance with company policy will definitely impress everyone.
Having to tell your company point of contact that something is going to be delayed because you failed to follow a company procedure properly won’t reflect well on you, so take the time to learn how to do things the company way.
One word of caution: don’t go overboard with gifts, especially if it’s commonplace in your industry. Gifts such as holiday gifts might seem innocent enough, but some companies, especially ones that have government regulation, might not be able to accept them as it might show favoritism or be seen as bribery. Make sure to double-check what is and isn’t acceptable before bringing anything to your client. They’ll be gracious enough to accept it, but it could create unforeseen problems in the future.
Dress to Impress
Your company may or may not have an official dress code, but many large businesses do. They expect their employees to look and act professionally while on company premises. While it may be okay in your office to wear cutoff jeans and a t-shirt, it would be better to dress to your client’s standards when visiting their offices, if for nothing else then as a show of respect to their corporate culture.
The same holds true when your clients come to visit you at your offices. Try to give your staff enough notice to dress to your customer’s standards when expecting a visit from them. It’s not going to kill anyone in your office to wear nice clothing every once in a while, and you might even find that the office feels a little more “professional” when everyone dresses up for work.
Who knows? Now might be the time to formulate your own dress code, now that you’re playing in the big leagues.
Embrace Your Size
Small business are known for being able to adapt quickly to rapidly changing markets and especially technology. Big businesses are slow to respond to change, since they can’t adapt as quickly, so they look to smaller businesses to be able to take advantage of changes that they themselves can’t handle short-term. If you’re doing work as a proof of concept (also known as being a guinea pig), be prepared to make a presentation to the higher-ups if you are successful.
Big companies know that they move at a much slower pace than smaller companies. Some of it is due to corporate culture, where people are hesitant to change the way things work. The approval process probably moves more slowly as well, with layers of management having to sign off on contracts, projects, or purchases. Small businesses, on the other hand, can make decisions more quickly, since the only person that has to make a decision might be you. Being able to decide instantly whether or not your business can fulfill the requests being made of it makes big businesses a little envious.
Speed, adaptability, and flexibility are all hallmarks of small business. You are a small business, and that’s an advantage, so make sure to use it.
Bill Early, Bill Often
In large companies, it’s highly unlikely that the people you’re working with are the same ones that are going to be writing the checks to pay you for your services. Unless you’re working for the finance department, that is. Navigating the system in order to get paid is one of the things you’re going to have to learn about your new customer.
Go over the procedures that you will need to follow in order to submit your invoices properly. Familiarize yourself with any forms, government and tax filing information, or anything else you need to do in order to make the billing procedure go smoothly. Get the contact information of anyone in the finance department who might be able to help you as well, since your point of contact might not know the answers to your questions, and you don’t want to pester them unnecessarily.
One good tip is to arrange with your contact to bill at the beginning of a project cycle, so that by the time you’re finished, you can get paid without having to wait for another billing cycle in order to be paid for the work you delivered more than a month ago. Many companies use what’s called a net/30 billing practice, which means they will pay the balance due at the end of 30 days.
Don’t wait too long between sending bills, either, since that will create problems in your cash flow. Once you are ready to send an invoice, send it quickly, so it can reach the people who need to process it as soon as possible.
Let’s say you’ve talked to a representative from a big company, and things are going well. They mention a product quantity they need, and you respond with absolute certainty that you’ll be able to fill the order. Then, when the day the purchase order comes in, they’ve requested three times the amount that you discussed. Now what?
As a conscientious and well-prepared small business owner, you’ve already gone to your bank to talk to them about opening a business line of credit or small business loan. You’ve spoken to your manufacturer and told them to be ready to gear up for a bigger order than usual. You may have even spoken to your shipper, customs agent, delivery company, and anyone else that might need a heads-up that things are going to get hectic. Then when the order does come in, no one in your supply chain should be scrambling to find shipping containers, warehouses, extra trucks, extra shift workers, or any of the pieces to the puzzle that could impact your scheduled delivery date.
The same holds true for any type of company, whether you are a construction contractor or provide offsite file archiving. Study your business workflow. Check for choke points or bottlenecks. Prepare a contingency plan. If you gain the reputation as being reliable and able to handle unexpected situations with calm, measured professionalism, your customers – large and small – will stay with you for a long, long time.
Balance Your Business
Don’t rely too heavily on your big business client for your income. Even the best big business clients move on. They may have determined that it is more cost-efficient to hire employees to perform the services you provide. Or, a new corporate policy might have come into effect without you knowing. If your big business client accounts for too much of your accounts receivable, and then decide to stop retaining your services or purchase your products, your previous victory could become a crisis for your business.
Go over your books with your accountant. Try to determine what your business finances would look like if you didn’t have your big business client. Then work out your course of action to take if the worst should happen and you lose your major revenue source. You might even want to hunt down new smaller business opportunities, to reduce the overall percentage of your income that your larger client accounts for.
Keep Communication Lines Open
Check in with your point of contact at your big company client from time to time. Don’t be afraid to ask about new opportunities that might be available within the company where you can provide the professional level of service equal to their needs. Your call might remind them of something requiring your services or could be the prelude to a new project. There are plenty of things that go on at the company, and your quality of service may have been noticed by colleagues of your liaison. You’ll never know unless you ask.
Don’t be afraid to advertise or mention that you are a vendor for a big business, unless you’ve signed a contract stating that you won’t. It will give your business a tremendous amount of credibility with other businesses. More importantly, it will show other big businesses that you can provide services to the high standards that larger companies require.
Landing a big company as a client or customer can be the stepping-stone your business needs to take it to the next level. You’ll be nervous at first, but if you’re confident you can deliver, then go for it! It could be the best thing that ever happened to your company.