If you believe the findings of a lot of the polls of small business people and surveys of chief executive officers these days times are tough.

A recent nationwide Heller/Roper Small Business Barometer poll reports, for instance, that inflation continues to "plague small business." The majority of the CEOs queried feel their cost of doing business has increased more than the general rate of inflation. The smaller the company, the bigger the problem seems: 57% of companies with 40 to 99 employees said costs had risen faster than the inflation rate, compared with 49% of those with 100 to 299 employees and 41% of those with 300 to 499 employees.

Regional polls report equally gloomy results. A Small Business Service Bureau Inc. poll of its 30,000 members throughout the Northeast revealed that 40% of the respondents believe "the climate for small business will deteriorate over the next decade."

Gloomiest of all was a poll by atlanta-based Systematic Business Research Inc. that found more than 60% of small businessmen say they will close down by the end of the year if interest rates don't go down. The most pessimistic CEOs were in retailing and real estate, businesses that are hit particularly hard by high interest rates.

Such polls have to be taken "with at least a grain of salt," cautions Julie Nickerson, vice-president of the First National Bank of Boston, which, along with the Smaller Business Association of New England, conducts monthly small business polls. "We are measuring what CEOs feel about their businesses," Nickerson comments. "The polls aren't reporting hard data."