By Daniel Hunter

Most British consumers now expect small businesses to provide support and advice to their customers online, such as on email and social media, according to new research Fasthosts Internet Ltd, a leading UK web hosting provider.

The survey of over 2000 UK consumers also finds that 37 per cent of consumers now already expect even the smallest firms to reply to online enquiries outside of regular office/shop hours.

For 40 per cent of consumers, the availability of small businesses on social media channels appears to be a critical factor for being relevant and competitive alongside larger vendors. The majority of respondents admit that, if advice and help was available online, they would prefer to buy more often from smaller companies, and Fasthosts advises all business owners to think carefully about addressing the trend.

Today, an ever increasing proportion of purchases across all business sectors are carried out online. Online comparison and research has become a huge factor in the way most people choose products and suppliers.

However, new data from Fasthosts shows that consumers are now also measuring small local firms against what online capabilities they offer for after-sales support and ongoing advice, as integral to their purchasing decision. Some 59 per cent of us now seek small businesses that are available to us online with help and advice via email, live-chat, and on popular channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

The availability of small business owners and staff around the clock now appears a driver in our likelihood of whether to purchase from them. Some 56 per cent believe that small businesses in general need to reply to online enquiries more quickly.

Nearly two thirds of consumers (65 per cent) believe that in order for small firms to succeed they should be more flexible about providing expertise online outside of regular opening hours. Importantly, 48 per cent believe that for a small business to be relevant or useful to them, it needs to offer support or expertise outside 9 to 5 hours. Overall, 53 per cent of all consumers said they would buy more from small businesses if they were available to communicate online in the evenings or early mornings.

Furthermore, 40 per cent feel more likely to buy from a small company they can address questions towards on Facebook or Twitter, and 36 per cent more likely to support firms that can answer important requests in the evenings or early mornings.

Women appear most successful in sourcing the help they need, with 43 per cent having successfully secured support or advice from a small business outside regular trading hours. Some 81 per cent appreciate being able to identify a face with a company.

Worryingly, it appears that a significant number of consumers have felt disengaged from selecting smaller businesses. 54 per cent of shoppers ‘wish that small local companies were as approachable as larger companies’. For example, 30 per cent of shoppers overall have been interested in the goods or services from a small business but have felt too shy or inhibited to enter small business premises to purchase them.

This is very much the case in younger age groups with 52 per cent of 16-24 year olds, and 43 per cent aged between 25-34 years reporting this issue. Thus, social media offers possibilities to inspire and reassure new audiences and generate new footfall into a physical store.

“Nowadays, online presence is no longer just about having a professional looking website — engagement and inspiring customer confidence is the aim," Claire Lewis, Marketing Director at Fasthosts, commented.

"Business owners must interact with their audience, and demonstrate their relevance and value to the consumer. Business decision makers and consumers have turned to social media as a valuable and sociable research tool, and even the smallest businesses can benefit from leveraging this trend”.

Significantly, in 2013 there is both a fondness and strong appreciation for the knowledge and expertise of the small trader. 59 per cent of respondents feel that having a long-term dialogue with local businesses would help them feel more part of their community. Some 58 per cent wish they were ‘more able to champion’ firms in their local area. More than half (51 per cent) of shoppers report that they are willing to pay a higher price than a larger store can offer, for goods or services, if they are accompanied by superior expertise or support from a small firm.

“There is clearly much potential for business owners to use the web to share their expertise and drive awareness and enthusiasm for their offerings. The challenge is to align a small business with modern shopping patterns and continue to respond to new expectations for convenience and timeliness," Lewis added.

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