Whether you work in a company or for yourself, everyone has customers…and they may be going bye-bye.
A few weeks ago an associate and I walked into Robbie’s office to discuss adding mileage signs to a local park trail. Robbie is the local parks department manager. I work with a non-profit that builds and upgrades trails in our community (don’t think me altruistic….I want more safe places to run!). He handed us a catalog. “Here,” he said, “buy it from this national company and you’ll have it in a few days.”
On our way out of the office, the woman accompanying me said, “Shouldn’t we look for a local firm to do this? It’ll keep jobs in our community.” I wholeheartedly agreed. She was nice enough to make calls to a few places. Ultimately the job would cost a few dollars more than if we’d gone with the national firm, but the benefits clearly outweighed the cost.
Well, that was a great theory.
After three weeks we called the vendor because we hadn’t heard a word about our signs.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “I forgot to order them.”
It turned out she’d had some family issues and been away. Apologizing profusely, she told us that she’d place the order immediately.
Another three weeks went by without a word so we called again.
“I placed the order but I’m glad you called. We had some questions about what you really wanted…..” I never asked, but I’m fairly certain that the “questions” had been sitting on her desk for about two and a half weeks.
I’ll cut the story short. 1) We received our signs after a three month delay; and 2) We’ll never use this woman’s service again.
Local Should Win Every Time, But The Local Vendor Blows It
In Sam Walton’s autobiography he succinctly defending the early days of Walmart, and by extension, other firms that swoop in and “steal” customers. His position: local companies didn’t get trampled by his store. They abdicated their throne to him. If local companies focused on their strengths, they’d beat the heck out of Walmart.
What are a local company’s strengths?
– They know the customer and the community.
– They can focus on a local advertising campaign instead of losing efficiency with national marketers who don’t know the local landscape.
– They can use their smaller size to be nimble and beat Walmart to the punch on events, community activities and specialized promotions.
Those days are over. Customers don’t trust the local company anymore. Too many local operations work like this sign company. Systems? There are none. Smiles and community involvement? They can’t be bothered. Shops are staid and workers look bored instead of empowered to help customers. The result: national companies win battles that local operations should dominate.
It Makes Me Ill
In our little town people love….nearly worship….chain restaurants. Some of our friends are restaurateurs and they groan every time a new restaurant opens along the strip and people mindlessly flock to it. These friends have restaurants with great customer service and a nice, loyal customer base, but they have to fight every day to make sure that they press their advantage: smiling people who serve fresh food to people who go to the same high school football games and churches. They know the truth: if they let their guard down once the customer will pack it in and head to Texas Roadhouse (which is constantly packed). Why? The customer knows that they’ll get a consistent experience.
It’s a scary day when customers trust big multinational companies more than their neighbor, but what do you do? On my end, I try to shop with the little guy every chance I get. Now that Walmart IS the big 500 pound bully that Sam would have detested, I do my best to stay away. …but I’m clearly the minority.
What does this all mean to you?
If you are an entrepreneur you need to remember that now, more than ever, customers aren’t going to give you a second chance. Competition is too fierce, too skilled, and too inexpensive for you to fall asleep for a moment. Remember that every business is a customer service business (even if your boss is your only customer!). Give your customer a reason to come back.
One last (sickening) story:
this isn’t a new trend….it’s closing in on the end game. When my kids were young, Cheryl had to shop for a dress with two screaming kids while I was working late. At the local store she couldn’t get anyone to wait on her because twin three year olds wouldn’t stop screaming. They just glared at her until she left….and went to Nordstrom. The salesperson found books (which my overly-tired kids promptly ripped to shreds) and helped Cheryl find a dress.
A couple of weeks later we found out the little local store was going out of business. The same day we received a handwritten postcard in the mail that said, “Dear Cheryl, I hope you loved wearing the dress to Joe’s work party. Thank you for shopping with me and bringing your adorable twins, Nick and Autumn. I can’t wait to serve you again, Abigail.”
Yup. The Nordstrom (big chain) sales clerk had written down my name, my kids names, and had stolen the thunder that belonged to the local operation….but they gave it away.
Today’s Workout: 3 x 2 miles @ 10 secs/mile faster than race pace
Days I’ve Run In A Row: 364
On My iPod: The Q&A With Jeff Goldsmith – Iron Man 3
Photo: Maurer Foundation
Matt @ momanddadmoney
Customer service goes such a long way towards repeat business, whether you’re a big chain or a local mom and pop. You can only compete on things like price for so long, but if you can deliver amazing services you’ll have customers for life. In your local experiences here, it sounds like that’s not something they understand.
Done by Forty
What an intriguing analysis. The myth of Main street is that the local guys lose out due to economies of scale and the bottom line. The truth might be more complicated. I also have found that my very worst customer service experiences have come from locally owned stores. Big chains simply wouldn’t allow their ‘floor’ to drop that low; in a store in which the owner is running the register, who is going to reprimand or fire the jerk running the register?
Jake @ Ca$h Funny
I would rather support local businesses any day of the week, but it can be difficult when the service and price isn’t comparable at all. I have a tough time paying more for something when I know I can get the same product for less some place else.
This is exactly how I feel. I try to shop local but honestly the big box stores train their employees to be friendly, helpful, and show more respect. My grandma owns one of the most popular local businesses in town and sometimes even her employees frustrate the hell out of me. They always look bored and stand around talking to each other or stand at the cash register and text. It’s horrible. Maybe small businesses just need to have tighter guidelines with employees.
Mrs PoP @ PlantingOurPennies
I love supporting local businesses, but customer service is key, too! Our time is just too precious to waste it with bad service.
Todd @ Fearless Men
Boom 1 away from 365!!
Your Nordstrom story is fascinating! How often do we hear about how the little guy is more personal than the huge media driven corp??
Great post here, Joe. We work to choose local every time, but if we have two bad customer service experiences (anyone should be allowed to screw up once) we’re done! Our money and our time is worth too much to put up with crappy service, and we won’t do it. Local shops would be far better off to learn that if they ever want to succeed. On the flip side, there’s a small local gas station/convenience store here that does very well, despite it’s higher prices. Why? The cashiers are awesome! They actually seem glad to see people when they walk in the door, and for that reason, we go there often.
Our town has some great local stores that do well despite the presence of Walmart. I would actually venture to say that our practice has benefited from Walmart. Competition is a good thing if you are good at your game. When the other person does not offer good service, it drives those looking for service to you. People looking for cheap are generally not your best customers, so it’s sometimes better to shed them. You always have to remember to value your customers, especially if want them to see why it’s worth more to shop from you.
My wife gets coffee at Starbucks. Her reason? “I know I’m getting the same coffee every time I go in, no matter where I go.”
Because of the Peak/End phenomenon, businesses should focus on consistency rather than being occasionally great and sometimes not-so-great.