Twenty-five years ago, American Express was the first company in the financial services sector to create a team and business unit dedicated to serving small businesses and offering small-business-specific products. Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, Senior Vice President of Customer Marketing and Experience for American Express OPEN, says those years’ experience and time spent getting to know the needs of small businesses is what inspired American Express to broaden its focus beyond offering credit cards to giving small businesses tools and resources that can enable them to do more business and grow.
In this exclusive National Small Business Week interview with Yahoo! Small Business Advisor, Reilly shared American Express OPEN’s insights about small businesses in the U.S.
How important do you think small businesses are to the overall economy?
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses create more than half of U.S. jobs and more than half of our $11.7 trillion GDP. Clearly, they are a vital and important barometer of the health of the country. And whether small businesses are thriving or not is a pretty good indicator of how the economy is doing.
What are the most important skills or traits a small business owner needs to succeed?
An article on our Open Forum site by Kentin Wait outlines the Five Essential Characteristics of the Entrepreneurial Mind. I’ll offer two of his ideas and two of my own.
First is creativity. Most small business owners see things differently. They’re typically driven by a constant need to ask “what if,” and they tend to have an uncanny knack for seeing the holes.
They also tend to be open to experimentation, which makes it fun to work with them. They’re bringing new and novel things to the marketplace and their experimentation can truly be experimental, unlike in large companies where what we call experimenting is typically a very structured test-to-control.
A trait I see when I am speaking with and working with small business owners is very strong resilience. Especially when you see what happened with downturn in the economy, they just don’t give up and will look for ways to fight back, which is certainly inspiring to me.
Another is a spirit of independence. Small business owners tend to want to do things on their own. They don’t aspire to be part of big corporation and most don’t aspire to be bought as a company.
What single piece of advice would you give to a struggling small business owner?
Tap into the resources that are available to you. The small business space today is so different from even just a few years ago in that there are now many resources available.
Also, with the advent of software as a service, there are a lot of capabilities out there that in the past were only available to large companies. Be open to that and research and understand the opportunities that are out there.
Social media is the other piece of that. Our research shows that most small business owners know they need to start leveraging digital in general and social media in particular, but they’ve put it off and have some anxiety about it. Through our Small Business Saturday initiative, we gave small businesses tools to create a Facebook page and a Twitter handle. And Yola is a digital toolkit we provide that small businesses can leverage to create a website. These tools are free for all small business owners whether they’re cardholders or not.
In the current economy, what should a small business owner be focusing on in order to succeed?
To re-emphasize that last point, social media presence is important! But also, focus on customer service. Our American Express Small Business Monitor Survey revealed that 96 percent of small busines s owners said providing customer service helped them survive the tough economy.
When you think about why many of us frequent small businesses it’s because they know us and they provide us with a level of service. A good example is a small business owner who we got to know through our partnership with Make Mine a Million named Adrienne Simpson who owns Smooth Move Senior Relocation Services in Atlanta. Adrienne saw that the housing transition for seniors is very emotional and she had a passion for helping them. She realized she needed to find and train staff to have the same level of emotional commitment and patient care that she had. So she hired people with social services backgrounds and found that was a way to grow her business despite the tough economy.How do you keep your finger on the pulse of small businesses across the country?
A few ways. We do extensive research, such as the Small Business Monitor twice a year. That captures broadly how small business are feeling, their hiring needs, whether or not they’re planning on investing, and it taps into economic impact and how they’re feeling about growth. We also do research on small businesses’ specific needs. And our customer service reps have one-on-one relationships with our top customers.
In addition to research, we keep our finger on the pulse through advocacy programs. Make Mine a Million is a program to help women who tend to have lower revenue growth. And we have a government procurement program to help businesses get their fare share of government contracts.
We also host a lot of forums where we bring businesses together to do training. Those are a great opportunity to hear their challenges.
And finally, we’ve gotten into the social media space to not only hear what businesses’ needs are but to engage in conversation with them. It’s a much more real-time engagement to supplement our periodic research.
Do you have a special message to small businesses in recognition of Small Business Week?
National Small Business Week really does shine a light on the independent small businesses that make our economy run and our communities vibrant. It was one of the reasons we created Small Business Saturday. It’s a day that we created in partnership with small businesses, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it’s the day we’re asking consumers to shop at small businesses. We wanted small businesses to have their share of the holiday shopping. But more importantly as a cornerstone of this movement to support what you love about your small businesses. The National Small Business week is another way to shine that light. I encourage people to support and thank their small businesses.
I had a great experience at one of my local small businesses. I have a seven-year-old daughter, and anyone who has a child that age knows that every weekend brings another birthday party. There’s a toy store in our town, Glen Rock, NJ, called The Grow-cery. We were on our way there last week to buy a gift for a birthday party when we ran into one of my daughter’s friends and her mom, who mentioned they planned to go to the same store a few minutes later to buy a present for the same little girl, a seven year old who likes arts and crafts. When we chose our gift, I was able to say to the store owner, “Someone else will be in a few minutes from now to buy a gift for the same party. Make sure you don’t sell them the same thing we bought!” That’s what takes it to the personal level and why I love going into the local store. And that’s what people should be celebrating next week.
What do you hear small businesses asking for that isn’t being supplied today.
Small businesses are asking for new and innovative ways to scale their businesses. One example of an opportunity area that we’ve tried to support is the Victory in Procurement Program. It’s designed to help small businesses get their share of the large volume of consumer products and services purchased by the U.S. government at a rate of $500 billion annually. A government mandate says that 23 percent of all federal contracts need to be awarded to small businesses, but to date the government has not made that quota.
In speaking to small businesses, we found that it’s very complicated to go after a government contract. It’s tough enough for a business to set up a Facebook page. You can only imagine what you need to do to get a government contract. So we set up training programs with government employees who come in and show owners exactly what they need to do. And we created resources to help small business owners team up with another small business to get a contract together.
Why does your company help small businesses?
This brings us back to the first question. Small businesses’ success drives the economy. It makes sense for us to help them succeed. We believe that if we help to increase the size of the pie, everyone will get a share of it. We feel it’s our mission to help small businesses grow. It’s in the DNA of American Express OPEN.