We are well on our way into the crunch of the holiday season. Mailboxes are being stuffed with catalogs and inboxes are being inundated with emails. Everywhere you look big businesses are offering big incentives, enticing consumers to blow the entire holiday budget on their wares.As a small business having your voice heard above the din can seem almost impossible. Sure Small Business Saturday (this year: Saturday, November 24) makes some annual waves, but it is tough to retrain the brainwashed masses to look beyond Black Friday when it comes to holiday shopping.
You can’t compete with big businesses’ massive price cuts and free shipping since you only have so much inventory (especially if it is handcrafted) and so many hands (if it is just you=two). But if you truly hope to toss your hat in the ring then you must offer on some scale what the bigwigs do, plus a lot more.The type of customers who use their heart and soul to determine where to spend their money are already actively searching for ways to shop local and buy handmade. It is your responsibility to ensure that their experience of doing business with you is just as easy as it would be to shop at a chain. The “a lot more” you offer are those extra touches you provide to make shopping with you a positive, personalized experience.
I am writing this post because I think we are all in need of this simple yet dire reminder. As a small business you are not just representing yourself, you are representing all other small businesses. When you turn off a customer for one reason or another you make it less likely they will ever “think small” again.This just happened to me this past week, on Tuesday (November 13th) precisely. I check my bank account every day and was concerned to see an odd (but significant) amount of funds withdrawn by a company that collects rent in California. As a homeowner in Boston I assumed this was a fraudulent charge. I phoned the company to get more information and the customer service representative told me they indeed collect rent payments for various properties and are based in California. However, she also mentioned they collect payments for vacation homes. I began to wonder if this company had withdrawn from my account to cover a night I had booked at a bed & breakfast in Virginia (I’m driving from Boston to Asheville for Thanksgiving). I told the customer service representative that I would phone the b&b owner to verify this before reporting the charge to my bank.
I phoned the b&b owner, who happened to be on vacation. She said yes, she was the one who withdrew the money from my account.Now here’s the thing: when I booked the reservation I asked the owner if she wanted to process my card while we were on the phone. She said no, that she charges guests on the day of their arrival, in my case that was to be November 20.
It became immediately obvious that the owner had decided to process the charge to add to her vacation fund.This alteration in what was supposed to happen gave me unnecessary stress, took up an hour of my time making phone calls, and cost me a $35 bank fee for overdrawn funds when another business tried to process a valid transaction.
Anyone who knows me knows I try-as much as possible-to think small. Because of this I book nights at inns and b&bs when I travel. But believe me, this experience made me rethink this practice. In fact I plan to reserve a room in a chain hotel on my return road trip.That same day, I had to make another phone call to a local restaurant. I had purchased a gift certificate as a holiday gift. Within minutes of purchasing I decided to buy it for a larger amount. I phoned the restaurant to ask if this was possible, and they told me no, I would have to start from scratch; however they would refund the first order. According to the woman on the phone she cancelled my first gift certificate. I then purchased another one.
So here we are on Tuesday, November 13. I look at my account and nothing about this transaction appears to have been refunded. I call the restaurant back, and learn from another woman that the initial gift certificate was never cancelled. I ask why, given the fact I was told it was. Her response, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”With that sort of attitude, with this kind of incompetency, how can small businesses bemoan the fact they are losing to the national chains, to the commerce monsters?
When teaching I often tell my students (small business owners and creative entrepreneurs) to think like Amazon.com. What I mean is that they have to offer that type of straight-forward, dependable service with the personal, relational touch Amazon.com will never have.Let’s look-from a simple consumer perspective-at Amazon.com and use that company as a model for what we need to strive for in our small businesses.
It is Easy for Me to Shop-Easy to Find What I Am Looking For
Amazon is relatively easy to peruse despite their overwhelming inventory. For those of us who create what we sell we can’t hope to offer millions of products, but we can designate the time and energy necessary to maintain a significant amount of options (using limited edition merchandise and high-quality prints to supplement) and we can design user-friendly ways to shop with us. Whether it is our own website, a commerce website like etsy.com, or scheduled events (galleries, weekend craft shows, artist coops, etc.) we should make sure items are presented in a clear, easy to locate manner.I Know Exactly What to Expect
Whenever a creative coaching client of mine says they want to start up a small business venture, or take their career to the next level, I advise them that the first thing they need to do is sit down and outline their business. This includes what their mission is, who they are and what they offer that no one else does. It also includes the rules of their business: what they do, what they don’t do, and what the exact steps are for a transaction with their business. The reason why setting parameters first is so vital is because you then have a concise vision of what your company is all about. The clearer you envision what your business is, the clearer you can articulate this information to potential customers.
Unfortunately we live in a world where consumers are always looking for the lowest price and the least amount of effort on their part. I tell small business owners to dot every “i” and cross every “t”. Customers are going to look for the loopholes, the details you overlooked. Make sure your communication is as precise as possible; otherwise you will find yourself giving more of your time/energy/inventory away than you had expected while losing money. For example it amazes me how loosely a client will intentionally interpret a special deal I am offering. Time and again I have learned to clarify the discount and close any gaps before presenting the incentive to the public.We’ve talked about the importance of communication on your end; now let’s talk about it from the angle of the customer. When I make a purchase on Amazon.com, I know exactly how much it costs. I am given an approximate date of delivery. If there are any issues with my order I am notified. In other words, nothing is left in the gray when I shop with Amazon.com.
As a small business it is your responsibility to respect the customer’s time and money. They have invested both in you, now how are you going to demonstrate your gratitude? I just had to contact a seller from etsy.com to find out when the items I had ordered on October 24 were going to be delivered (I contacted the shop on November 18). The shop owner got back to me saying that the package had been returned to her due to issues with customs but that she had resent it about 8 days ago.Because I had not been contacted when this issue apparently occurred makes me wonder if the story is true. If it is true, why wouldn’t the shop owner have enough respect for my investment in her business to take the initiative to email me? It would have cost her no more than two minutes to do so. Because she chose not to I plan to never shop with her again.
I Get Exactly What I Paid For
Here is the most important factor in why the masses flock to the mall or leap onto their computers, credit card in hand. When you shop at a chain, when you buy mass-produced items, you know what you are getting. There are no surprises.This is where an attention to detail is also obligatory. Make sure you have communicated thoroughly about your product, your services. Make sure images (if you have an online presence) bear a keen likeness to the actual items/services you sell. And because you have an edge on Amazon.com and the like, make sure you add those extra special touches when delivering your product or service. Make working with you a memorable experience-one that customers want to have again and again.
Here’s an example. In September my husband and I went to a bed and breakfast in Vermont for our wedding anniversary. I knew from looking at the website this was a no-frills operation. It was a working farm, nothing fancy, and the room rates reflected that. However, when we got there I was disappointed to see that our room could have used a good solid cleaning. It was clean in the sense that the linens were fresh and the bathroom was neat, but dust covered almost every flat surface and the room had more than its fair share of spiders. I am terrified of spiders so though my husband did his best to decrease the population I did not sleep peacefully either night we were there.To add to this was the fact the hot water was turned off in our room. After waking the first morning my husband had to get dressed, go into a packed garage, make his way to the back, and turn it on.
Now you may think, “Wow, this is awful! What a horrible experience!” but when we checked out, we left knowing we would be back.What the bed and breakfast owners lacked in attention to detail, they more than made up for in hospitality. We left feeling like we had spent time with family we didn’t even know we had.
I’m not saying flaws can be overlooked. If this small business wants to remain viable then the owners need to get on top of the details. If they are deficient in the ability to keep on top of everything, either cutting back their operation or hiring additional help is in high order. But they understand the heart of small business, and that is to provide that personal touch so that relationships can be fostered.You are not Amazon.com, nor will you ever be. But by offering simple ways to shop, ample inventory, clearly communicated services, and personalized attention, you can be much more than Amazon.com can ever hope to be.
I’ll close with this: how should the two experiences I mentioned been handled?The bed & breakfast in Virginia
Looking at the website it seems the owner has a set of rules so that the customer knows what is expected of him/her. Just like there are rules the customer must follow there are rules the business must follow. If I, the customer, was told money would not change hands until my arrival then that is exactly what should have occurred. At the very least, BEFORE charging my account, the owner should have phoned me to tell me she wanted to process my reservation early and ask if this is okay. I then should have received a paid invoice via email letting me know how much had been charged (we never discussed room rates on the phone). The invoice should have included the name of the company that had made the withdrawal (so I wouldn’t think the charge was fraudulent). In her case, the owner only has three rooms in her bed & breakfast, AND she has a property manager-so really there is no excuse. The unfortunate thing for her is that I drive multiple times a year to visit family. What could have been an opportunity for her to begin a relationship with loyal customers has been squandered.
The gift certificate from the restaurant If the initial employee did not truly know how to cancel my order she should have been honest about it. A simple, “I am not really sure how to do this, so let me have a manager handle this for you” would have been fine. Even if it couldn’t have been resolved the moment I called I would have hung up knowing it was being taken care of. Having to make another call is ridiculous, and the second employee should have acknowledged that. At any rate, I won’t be patronizing their business again.Think Big
Yes, there is a tremendous amount of detail to take into consideration, but you know your limitations. If you have other obligations and can only do so much (and this is the case for most of us) curtail your small business to what you can handle. Your ultimate priority is to have happy customers spreading the word about the wonders of doing business with you. The more pleasant the experience of shopping small, the more people will find the experience superior to shopping big. And the more people prefer shopping small, the more they will encourage others to do the same.