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Elton John’s Dolce & Gabbana attack shows impact smaller firms could have

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It’s not John’s music which has grabbed the attention this week – more his well-reported response to comments made from fashion designers Dolce & Gabanna about IVF conceived children and traditional family models.

John, whose two sons are as a result of IVF treatment, responded immediately and furiously launched an Instagram campaign to boycott the fashion group.

There appears to have been a rapprochement between the parties and that’s great, but one of the big points to be taken from this is the ease and assuredness of the singer’s fightback against a business he thought had wronged him.

Okay, he is knighted, he has money, powerful and famous friends, lots of confidence, legal and PR support.

But he did what it seems every British consumer nowadays feel it is their right to do – to speak up against businesses they think are doing them a dis-service or mistreating them or selling them inferior or over-priced products.

Social media has been the vanguard of this change – it is why more and more businesses and chief executives are going on to Twitter, hosting their own personal accounts and taking part in real-time Q&A sessions with their customers.

You see it in the adverts from our major high-street banks – the almost cloying desire to be “touchy-feely”, to stress how much they care about their customers, how they appreciate the difficulties of their personal lives and how much they can help.

The message is “please trust us again”, and it is recognition of the power consumers, enabled by new mobile technology, price comparison sites and the ease of reviewing products instantly online to large customer communities, now have.

But where does business lie in all this? When do you see individual small businesses stand up to larger firms about the problems they face?

Where is the business equivalent of the Watchdog programme when say Susan, owner of a Brighton website design firm complains about not being paid by a big supplier for four months? Where are the RipOff Britain type websites, the Rogue Trader TV shows, where are the FTSE chief executives hosting Q&As with small and growing businesses or the big banks tailoring their marketing campaigns to their equally as important customers in the business community?

At a time when consumers seem to have so much power and have the ear of big business, it seems that the SME community remains timid and unwilling to speak up for themselves.

Instead they wait – wait for politicians at conferences such as the Federation of Small Business get-together earlier this week.

They sit and listen to promises of changes to business rates, of making big business list their payment processes and the amount of invoices they pay late.

Pre-election bluster with little talk now of previous intentions to “name and shame” late payers.

It is a crucial issue, a vital issue for growing businesses. In order to survive, companies need cash flow. And to do your work and then wait an arbitrary period of three or four months, or longer sometimes, to be paid is shocking.

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So what can growing businesses do? If a consumer is not satisfied with a business service they can walk away, never shop there again. Can a business really do that if unhappy with supplier terms from a multi-national or the lending terms of a high street bank?

Well we’ve certainly seen a number of SMEs turn to alternative lenders or new creative sources such as crowdfunding.

They have shown their ability to move and find something they think is better.

Can they do that on issues of late payment? Do they feel they have the power or options to tell a late payer that if your payment terms do not improve I am off?

Do they feel they have the power to name and shame late payers or businesses bullying suppliers on public forums or creating their own hashtags raising awareness about the issue and saying boycott whoever?

Perhaps SMEs need to band together and create a late payment charter which holds every business to basic principles over promptness. If those principles are not followed then not just one but all of the signed up SMEs decide not to work with that firm again. Or perhaps some kind of comparison or a review website where SMEs can rate their experiences of working with other businesses – how they pay, what are their contract terms, where are the successes and the failings?

It’s tough. As a growing business you may feel you don’t have the time, energy or power to fully tackle this problem – you may feel that you need them more than they need you.

You might be concerned about the legal power, the fear of defamation claims if you stand up and speak and complain publicly.

But SMEs have to realise that they do have power, certainly the equivalent of any consumer out there.

Their businesses employ millions of people, their goods supply the stores and online warehouses of the multi-nationals, they are the ones truly innovating and creating.

But unlike the everyday consumer their voice is not being heard loud enough.

As consumers and Elton John know, you have to be heard if you want someone to listen.

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