Finding two people to agree on a definition of an SME is difficult, but finding two people to agree on what constitute the needs of an SME is impossible.
The SME market is the largest in the UK. It employs more people and spends more than all the companies in the FTSE index, but it is more diverse and difficult to manage and control.
So what preconceptions and prejudices, do SMEs labour under when they think of their suppliers. Just what is it they expect, and what do they get?
At the low end, an SME is a company with up to 50 staff with no dedicated IT manager. Paul Sweeney, sales director at Associated Network Solutions, says that any company that has more than 50 PCs is likely to have a trained IT manager and therefore falls outside the definition.
Fear of the new
An SME is a company that will need a lot of hand holding and thinks manufacturers - and by association resellers - are conning it with talk of better products.
They are also, typically, two to three years behind the corporate enterprises when it comes to adopting new technology. They are also hard to squeeze money from and do change their minds.
They are, in short, a very difficult customer base to manage, with high expectations and very shallow pockets.
Bill Hill is the general manager for SMEs at Hewlett-Packard. He says the top three concerns of SMEs are fear of obsolescence, suspicion of resellers' motives for selling new products and a preference for buying from other small, preferably local firms.
"SMEs are putting their capital into IT and they are very scared of buying the wrong product. Manufacturers don't help by constantly advertising new products, which can lead to a feeling that as soon as it's out of the box it's obsolete," Hill says.
One of the reasons SMEs want to deal locally is the huge amount of sales support they need.But selling the advantages of technology to an SME can have its pitfalls as small businesses have their own business practices that are not easy to change.
This can leave resellers in the ultimate Catch 22, having to tell potential customers to buy this kit and this easy-to-use package and completely change their practices to become more efficient. This is not very often greeted with open arms.
Sweeney says most of his SME customer base has no idea about IT and he puts a lot of time and effort for pre-sales consultancy into customers that can't or don't want to pay for it.
While the world is talking about e-commerce and the digital economy, SMEs are just evolving from the DOS world. The big technology driver out there at the moment is email and in-house Web access. This is hardly ground-breaking stuff, but for many SMEs, this is still considered a big leap in the dark.
Sweeney says the pace of change is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
"SMEs think moving at an increasing rate is a bit of a con dreamt up by manufacturers. Some don't need the power of the latest technologies, in which case we don't sell it to them. We are concentrating on stabilising the network, deploying email and providing remote access."
The importance of the SME market can be seen in the focus put on it by the distributors. Two of the biggest, Computer 2000 and Ingram Micro, have programmes to help the reseller tackle this market.
But the vendors are only too happy to keep reminding the channel there is no future in just shifting kit and the vendors clearly believe there is a way to go before resellers - and they usually mean those at the smaller end - start taking their responsibilities seriously.
This usually takes the form of the reseller not being sophisticated enough to accept that SME customers want and need services and support and it is up to resellers to find a way to package it attractively.
Nigel Judd, marketing manager of C2000, says: "The reseller has an opportunity to become the IT manager for an SME. It can be an integral part of a customer's structure to explain the new technologies."
Within this framework, Judd says, resellers should be promoting best-of-breed products. For a video conferencing application, for example, resellers should be able to integrate IBM, HP and Cisco products.
According to Judd's research, up to half of resellers selling to the SME market still concentrate on shifting boxes even though there is no future in just product sales.
Accepting that most of your customers are going to be SMEs, what is the best strategy for attracting and retaining them?
Bill Hill, HP?s general manager for SMEs, says: "Sixty-four per cent of micro businesses are not connected to the Web." This means there is a huge market out there waiting to be addressed - this figure exists through a combination of supplier apathy and customer ignorance.
Behind this is the accepted business equation that holding onto an existing customer is more profitable than finding new ones.
The key to attracting these new businesses is visibility. Too many resellers rely on word of mouth and do very little active marketing. The other priority is keeping in touch with your customer base.
One businessman, who asked not to be named, said: "I first invested in IT about five years ago. I used a reseller because I was not confident enough about the technology.
?After investing in 10 PCs and having them networked up, it went live. I never heard from them again. Last I heard they went bust. Nowadays, I do all of my IT buying on the Web and use a contractor for maintenance and support."
A little help from the Web
If faced with customers suspicious of the advantages of technology investment, there are Web sites to direct small companies to independent references.The government's Information Society Initiative site contains case studies of small firms that spent money on IT and are now reaping the benefits.
For those with no IT infrastructure to speak of, it is up to resellers to make a judgement on how much time it is worth investing in capturing and holding on to these customers.
Small businesses don't need a huge amount of infrastructure, but are most likely to be ignorant of the benefits to be gained, so a lot of effort is called for just to make the sale.
Convincing customers to move into online transactions and online support for their customer base is the way forward.
For the future, the biggest buzz in the IT industry at the moment is setting up virtual markets, and as with the double-edged sword of technology, it is a huge threat and opportunity for SME resellers.
As usual it is mostly the big players that are adopting these latest technologies first, but the suppliers are now rapidly moving down the value chain.
Those selling e-commerce products to the SME market include companies such as Ariba Software and Commerce One, and others are quickly following suit.
Computacenter, which supplies BT though its BTmarketsite network, also has its own Ontrack network. The marketsite principal works on setting up a portal through which businesses can buy and sell to each other.
These virtual markets are being set up by everyone from Oracle to SAP and Informix and they are increasingly looking for customer bases that want to trade electronically. This, combined with government initiatives to drive SMEs to invest in and exploit IT, means SMEs will be looking to resellers to put them on a digital footing.
This is another supply chain for SME customers to exploit, although companies such as HP are now attempting to address this for resellers through its Net Connect programme, which is based on e-services aimed at smaller businesses.
Already the technology exists for even the smallest of companies to sniff out the cheapest hardware on the Internet, and one simply cannot ignore the predictions for the explosive growth in business-to-business transactions over the next few years. Analysts predict the ecommerce software market alone will hit $5.3bn (£3.3bn) by 2003.
Resellers in the SME market have little choice. They can either invest in the expertise that gives the power to offer in-depth pre-sales consultancy across a range of technologies and exploit these technologies for themselves - the eat-your-own-dog-food strategy - or they can see customers bypass them to Web-based procurement.
- "SMEs do not particularly value technology suppliers and tend to bracket vendors and resellers together.
- "SMEs are seen by technology suppliers as requiring high maintenance for little return.
- "SMEs expect a lot of pre- and post-sales support from suppliers as a matter of course.
- "Too many VARs are relying on word of mouth to break into the SME market, but really need more visibility, achievable through marketing.
- "The Web may prove to be the way to SME hearts, and various initiatives are underway.
Cotton seedling freezes to death as Chang'e-4 shuts down for the Moon's 14-day lunar night
Fortnite easily out-earns PUBG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018
Meteor showers as a service will be visible for about 100 kilometres in all directions
Saturn's rings only formed in the past 100 million years, suggests analysis of Cassini space probe data
New findings contradict conventional belief that Saturn's rings were formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago