IT vendors 'failing many small firms'

Survey: Small firms claim that IT vendors are not offering them tailored technologies, and after-sales service and support is little better

Small and medium-sized companies, which make up over 90 percent of the trading companies in the UK, feel let down by technology providers and are often forced to accept systems designed for much larger users.

That's the conclusion of a survey commissioned by networking equipment manufacturer Cisco and released on Wednesday. It should make worrying reading for IT vendors who have seized on the SME market as a potential source of salvation, at a time when much of the enterprise IT market is reaching saturation point.

According to the survey of 400 UK SMEs, 42 percent said that they felt "left in the lurch" after purchasing technology, due to insufficient post-sales support or training.

The second largest complaint, highlighted by 41 percent of the companies questioned, was the feeling of having enterprise-scale technology imposed on them, as opposed to products tailored to their needs.

"Considering that 99 percent of businesses in the UK are less than 250 staff, it is woefully inadequate for technology providers to be just providing products designed for businesses with 1,000-plus workforces," said Bernadette Wightman, head of SME sales for Cisco in the UK. "If they don't have the right core technologies in place then small businesses can't hope to benefit from the new breed of enabling and empowering technologies."

The survey also showed that the availability of helpdesk support was a deal breaker for 54 percent of IT purchases. "Clearly once businesses have invested they need continued access to technical engineers, operating system software maintenance and easy to understand configuration instructions," said Wightman.

Cisco is not the only IT vendor attempting to court small businesses. Last September Microsoft announced a renewed effort to target SMEs with a specially tailored package of server software. Code-named Centro, the mid-market server software combines the Windows Server operating system, Exchange email server and a set of management tools.

The package, based on the company's Longhorn version of Windows Server as well as the next release of Exchange, Exchange 12, isn't expected to arrive until 2007.

This is not the first time the Microsoft has attempted to crack into this sector of the software market. The software giant's interest is understandable: There are roughly 1.4 million such firms worldwide, according to AMI-Partners.

IBM announced nearly two dozen new offerings for SMEs last year — the single largest rollout in its three-year-old Express Portfolio lineup. For IBM, the SME arena is worth trawling, given its estimated $360bn (£200bn) market size.

"The SME market has hundreds of thousands of customers, a high growth rate and special needs," said Elaine Case, director of IBM's SME unit, speaking after IBM launched its SME offerings.

CNET's Ina Fried and Dawn Kawamoto contributed to this report.