Purpose – Programmes providing services for small- and medium-sized enterprises are important. Yet, quality and impact of many of these programmes lag behind expectations. This paper attempts to shed light on the reasons behind this disappointing state of affairs. Design/methodology/approach – Modern theories of innovation and services marketing management are adopted as a conceptual framework, because these theories generate major insights about how business services should ideally be provided. The usefulness of this framework for analysing business service programmes is demonstrated through its application to one particular programme, the small business service (SBS) in the UK. Findings – Using this approach, the paper identifies several key issues. Major weaknesses in programme structure and implementation practices emerge, mainly revolving around customer focus, incentive problems and organisational issues, and the lack of a systems perspective. Research limitations/implications – Given the suitability of the framework for the analysis of our case, it could also prove to be a promising tool for analysing business support programmes in other settings. Practical implications – Managerial priorities for improvement in the UK emerge. There is a need to improve the incentives facing boundary-spanning staff. This should be backed up by further organisational reform, to address the fragmentation plaguing the current system. Originality/value – The methodological approach, of viewing practice in a SBS programme through a theoretical lens, is novel. It could be a useful supplement to conventional performance and impact assessments that are more factual in nature.