Small retailers have very few advantages over their larger rivals. Customer service, however, can be one of them if you put the work in.
Most big retail chains lack a personal touch. Customers wait in line to be helped by people who don't know them or their situation. In other cases, people are forced to call impersonal "help" lines on which the goal is getting them off the phone, not solving their problem.
These weaknesses can provide an opening for small business owners. You can provide exemplary customer service, and it's not even that hard. Follow these steps, and you can build a connection with your customers that your big rivals probably can't.
1. Know your customers
Back when I worked in my family's ladder-and-scaffolding business and later when I ran a local toy store, we had very large competitors. One way we competed was by getting to know our customers. This went beyond knowing names in many cases to actually understanding what their needs were.
In the scaffolding business, that might mean knowing that a customer liked to rent certain pieces of equipment and having them ready for him or her. At the toy store, it often included greeting people and showing them new finds -- not always things they might buy, sometimes, just stuff they would find cool.
2. Never say no
A little more than a month ago, my son and I drove to a gaming store, where he hoped to look at Pokemon cards. It was a little bit out of my way, but he wanted to go and had some money to spend. It was early afternoon, and when we walked in, the person behind the counter told me they weren't open yet and we should come back later.
We left, and the business lost a potential customer. The man -- perhaps the owner or manager -- was in the store. He could have easily said, "We're not officially open, but you're welcome to look around." Even if his systems were down and he could not process an order, he still could have made us feel welcome.
Back in my toy store days, I always answered the phone or door during off hours. If customers arrived at 8 when we opened at 10, I walked them around the store, and they got a little something extra. I never turned anyone away because it was closing time or because we weren't open yet, and by not doing so, I created new, loyal customers.
3. Go the extra mile
You can never go too far for a customer. That might mean setting aside something you know someone will want to buy or calling to check in on someone who has not been in for a while.
At the scaffolding company, there were countless times when I loaded needed equipment into the back of my station wagon to drive to a job site so work would not be halted. With the toy store, we delivered items to sick customers and opened on many holidays because many of our older customers had limited options on those days and needed someplace to go.
The customer is king
A big-box store or other large retailer can offer discounts and impressive technology, but most can't take the time to know their customers on a personal level. You can do that. If you put the needs of your customers first and do anything you can think of to improve their experience in your store, you will build a loyal audience to sustain your business.