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Susan Solovic, The Small Business Expert is an award-winning entrepreneur, an attorney, a New York Times best-selling author, a media personality and a highly sought after keynote speaker.

Customer Service: The Small Business Advantage

Customer Service: The Small Business Advantage

It’s unquestionable that many large businesses are giving superb customer service and that’s why I’m so dumbfounded when I encounter the opposite. Here are two examples:

As I prepared to leave a hotel recently I called for a bellman and requested a taxi. I waited for 15 minutes. Cue the crickets. I eventually wrestled my two suitcases down to the lobby where – surprise! – no one had any clue about the taxi. Further, no one took any interest in helping me handle all the stuff I was dragging along.

That was an upscale hotel. Here’s a big box store example. A friend wanted to buy an expensive game console. There was no one in the department. He tracked an employee down who called for help. No one came. He tracked down another employee who called for help. Same (non)response. Humorously, at the end there were four employees in the department but none knew enough – or had the right key – to help.

(On his way out of the store he passed another employee restocking a shelf while she chatted away on her cell phone.)

Bigger is not always better

Both of these horror stories happened at major national chains. Unfortunately, unless they are superbly managed, the customer service at these large national brands can vary tremendously. As bad as that is for customers, it’s good news for small business owners and also offers some important lessons.

You might not be able to compete on price on some items with the mega-stores. However, you should be able to clean their clocks when it comes to customer service. Spend some time in the facilities of your biggest competitors and see what they are doing wrong and right. Refocus your business so you excel on both fronts. You don’t make their mistakes and you’re even stronger where they seem to be doing okay.

It’s called "excellence" and author Tom Peters went in search of it back in 1982. Be sure your customers and clients find it all throughout your organization.

No time to relax

However, don’t get too smug about the customer service misadventures of your bigger competitors. If you do well and grow your business, that could be you someday. See if you can relate to this: A favorite restaurant does well and opens a second location. After a year or two neither restaurant seems quite as good as the original.

When you experience growth you must do two things:

  1. Maintain your company’s unflaggingly excellent customer service DNA, and
  2. Provide the systems that enable your employees to make great customer service a reality (not just a slogan).

The first point requires personal dedication from the top. If ownership and management start to believe that customer service is a line-level responsibility, it’s game over. The tone must be set from the top.

The second point requires training, empowering, supervising and retraining. It’s not a “once and done” event. In fact, if your customer service is not always improving, it will gradually decline. The second law of thermodynamics – the law of entropy – applies to human systems. They need to be constantly fed with new energy to keep them moving forward and prevent eventual chaos.


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