"The economy is in the strongest shape it has been for years, and our survey and others’ points to a more stable environment in the UK, and steady, consistent growth in the next few years," says Ian Isaac, head of Lombard.

Growth encourages businesses to invest, just as many leasing firms are investing in developing their product lines to suit the SME at the moment.

This is true too for Lombard, once the model of a self-contained bank-backed leasing business with its in-house distribution network, but more recently linked to its parent as a divisional section of RBS, with all of its public struggles.

"We restructured earlier in the year to align better with the core commercial and private bank, of Natwest and RBS, so we are better aligned than we ever were," said Isaac.

"We have made changes that will improve the efficiency of the way we manage our workflow and deal flow, and actually we are investing the benefits of some of those efficiencies in new frontline roles, more people talking to more customers, and we are also by doing some restructuring and repositioning ourselves slightly, we are in a good place to invest in our IT systems, and in particular, our digital capabilities."

The Lombard mission, then, has been to align itself more publically with what small British businesses want, after 18 months where job cuts at its parent have not left Lombard unscathed.

"We are playing catch-up in the technology space and we are now seeing our customers demanding multi-channel capability and a straight through, almost paperless and form free, process," says Isaac. "I don’t think we are trying to innovate in this space beyond where other businesses already are, as a large legacy platform, but I do think that some of the things that we are trying to do in the digital market are probably more far reaching and role modelling than what we think customers will demand from us in the near future."

The message is clear then – that Lombard is looking to the digital world as a driver to help push it back into market dominance, with a technological angle.

"The transformation of the asset finance business model is underway, and I do think that all players in industry will benefit from creating multi-channel digital and online availability for customers – the challenge for businesses is to enable customers in certain segments to effectively to a paperless, entirely digitalised transaction, and we’re up for trying to lead the way on that," said Isaac.

"I’m aware the Finance and Leasing Association is working on how to land the message about asset finance more effectively, and what benefits it brings. I think it’s also incumbent from all the asset finance businesses that they develop their own, clear customer messages and customer narratives and shout loudly about them to people in the media and through marketing material.

"Our products represent good value for money, designed only to support businesses that are investing in equipment, and it’s just incumbent on us to shout more loudly about our industry."

The buzz about SMEs

"The SME market in the UK is huge," says Isaac. "I think it represents 50% of all jobs, and 3 million businesses."

The term SME is of course a very broad classification of businesses, from one man bands, to quite substantial medium sized companies so it’s quite a broad target, says Isaac.

"I think the reason why so many people are aiming at that space, is that SMEs are the ones that are least likely to be sophisticated in the range of funding options available, so it’s that group of customers most in need of improved awareness and understanding."

Lombard found that there was a willingness to invest by SME businesses, but that there was a lack of knowledge as to how do that most effectively.

"Businesses were more confident to invest in equipment, and were investing in equipment to improve efficiency or win new customers, or replace outdated equipment. So they are all thinking about growth efficiency, making more money, and serving more customers," said Isaac.

"What a lot of those customers were saying that their attitude to debt had changed, so through the recession and beyond, many businesses were relying only on their own reserves in cash, and would spend as little as they could just to get by in investment terms.

Recognition is a large part of the success that asset finance will have if it accesses the SME market.

"Over 50% of the larger businesses would recognise and use asset finance. If you go down to smaller businesses, and micro business, the awareness is lower [but the business opportunity is still there]. Part of our challenge is to build the challenge from larger SMEs into smaller SMEs"

And once you get customers to recognise the phrase asset finance, they need to be able to understand it.

"One point that came through in our business confidence survey is that customers don’t understand the term asset finance," admits Isaac. "We have had many customers who have said they don’t use it, but they do lease cars and hire purchase sometimes.

People get the terms hire purchase and leases, but not the term asset finance. Asset finance is a good term as a sector, but for many customers, it just doesn’t resonate with them.

"The key point was that these businesses, half of them, would invest more if they were aware of the full range of options. Not only is that holding back the use of asset finance, its holding back investment in equipment and capital goods."