A question we often hear from our retail clients is: How can I compete with the big-box stores in the area?
The answer is that personalized service can help distinguish small independent businesses from big box chain stores. It gives small businesses a powerful competitive edge in an age when consumers expect a high level of service and responsiveness.
Start by putting yourself in your customers place. How would you like to be treated if you were a first-time customer or a regular?
Consider conveniences. What can you do to make it easier to find items and check out, rather than having to navigate a big box stores aisles and cashier lines? Try to stay in touch with your customers through emails, blogs and social media. Demonstrate your expertise with timely suggestions, promotions, ideas and how to information that will keep you on their mind.
Do some benchmarking. Visit other stores and service centers, including those not related to your business. Are there practices that you find appealing and that you can incorporate into your business to enhance your customers experiences? Your friendly, courteous interest in helping them solve a problem has got to be one of your strengths to compete effectively.
Sometimes the convenience of your location is key. Consider how your location can influence customer traffic, as well as having your inventory or service offering fine-tuned to support most customer expectations for one-stop shopping.
Make a note of the practices you dont like and make sure you arent doing the same. This will also help you avoid such practices arising in your business.
Examine how you respond to your customers by telephone and by email. A prompt and friendly response will help you differentiate your business from the often indifferent nature of the big box stores. The two most prevalent customer complaints are being put on-hold and not having calls or inquiries returned on a timely basis. With respect to emails, some providers permit an automated response indicating the inquiry was received and a response will be forthcoming within four hours. Make sure you or someone in your business prioritizes timely response to customer inquiries.
Dont forget your suppliers. They are likely different than those who supply the big boys. Your suppliers have a stake in your business, so ask them for help. It may include price specials, co-op advertising, supplier sponsored on-site demonstrations and new product introductions at your place of business.
In all likelihood you are a member of the community where your business is located. Promote that relationship. A few bucks supporting the local Little League Team or the Girl Scouts will project a favorable image.
Heres one last thought: No matter what youve heard, the customer isnt always right. A better line to live by might be, The customer always wins, because if the customer doesnt win, he doesnt come back and then you lose!
C. NORMAN BECKERT Idaho district director for SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives