Ask the experts which big companies really deliver on their promises to small business, and the same nine names surface time and again. These giants, it seems, finally get it. Maybe they have entrepreneurs running their small-business group, or they deliver real information in real time over the Web. Whatever the key is, they all provide exceptional customer service--the one thing all small businesses demand. "If there's any hint of a lack of attention, small companies notice it right away," says John Cicco, who helps big companies market to small ones. Another common denominator for the nine: Small-business sales account for a big chunk of their revenues. Truth is, they can't afford to ignore you.
AMERICAN EXPRESS CO. (AXP)
2.5 million small-business customers
Why They Get It: The AmEx small-business credit card, unlike most, is not just a gussied-up consumer card: Your credit limit is based on the credit history of your business as well as your personal credit history. Cardholders get discounts at partner merchants without having to bother with extra paperwork (AmEx was a pioneer here). Plus you get double frequent-flier miles if you charge your small-business taxes on your AmEx card.
UNITED PARCEL SERVICE INC. (UPS)
1.2 million small-business accounts
Why They Get It: You can count on the company's cadre of 87,000 well-trained drivers--just about every one of whom you would trust with the keys to your business. No ivory tower executives here. All employees are required to do a stint sorting packages and driving trucks before joining the corporate operation. UPS is the only company that delivers to every street address in the U.S. Offers online package tracking, too.
INTUIT INC. (INTU)
Almost 3 million QuickBooks users
Why They Get It: With an 85% share of the retail accounting software market, they must be doing something right. And they really do care what you think. Executives keep in touch with their market through weekly "dine with a customer" lunches and "follow me home" sessions, where execs shadow a small-business owner for a day to see what it's like in the trenches. The head of QuickBooks marketing used to run his own small consulting firm.
FEDEX CORP. (FDX)
Number of small-business accounts not disclosed
Why They Get It: Small-business owners can negotiate their best deal over the phone when they set up their account, and the discounted rate will be automatically embedded in their account number. FedEx stations in Kinko's copy centers are guaranteed to have one of the latest pickup times in your neighborhood. Great reusable boxes. An alliance with U.S. Postal Service gives FedEx the ability to place drop boxes in post offices. Online package tracking.
STAPLES INC. (SPLS)
8 million customers
Why They Get It: Kiosks on the sales floor let you order out-of-stock items, pay for them in the store, and have them delivered to your office. "Stand behind guarantee" means if you have trouble with one of Staples.com's online partners, which provide everything from health insurance to debt collection, you can clear up the matter through Staples rather than contacting the partner. Staples' ambitious Web site offers online incorporation services. The head of business services previously was a successful serial entrepreneur, and its chief marketing officer was chief operating officer of a 50-person marketing company.
WELLS FARGO (WFC)
1.5 million small-business customers
Why They Get It: Wells pounced on centralized credit scoring in the late '80s and revamped the company to focus on small businesses. Borrowers can get up to $50,000 on a one-page application. It was among the first banks to take the Web seriously. Researched marketing is now linked with the National Federation of Independent Businesses and National Association of Women Business Owners.
PAYCHEX INC. (PAYX)
352,000 small-business clients
Why They Get It: Unlike other payroll processors, they're small-biz specialists--Paychex's average client has just 14 employees. Branches in 103 markets mean you can speak to a real human if the company's other channels--Web, fax, and phone--fail you. "Pay as you go" workers' compensation product lets you buy insurance without a downpayment or a painful annual audit. Founder/entrepreneur B. Thomas Golisano still runs the show.
THE ACCIDENTAL EXPERTS
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CO. and MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL
A company doesn't have to go after small-business customers to win their loyalty. These companies just provide consistently great service at reasonable prices. Marriott hotels (MAR) all feature business centers, and half the rooms have high-speed Net access. The less expensive Courtyard hotels offer in-room workstations. Marriott's loyalty program is the fastest in the industry to yield free lodging.
As for Southwest (LUV), its average one-way airfare is just $85. It has the fewest customer complaints and the best baggage-handling record in the U.S. On its Web site, you can see all the possible fares for a given route.
Sure, these companies are the exceptions. But if you've got an eye on growth yourself, it's nice to know that big doesn't always equal bad.
These big players want your business, and for the most part, they're doing a good job of serving entrepreneurs