As my son and I left a grocery store in an area where we once lived and had not been to for a couple of years, we noticed a new store across the street. It was a Japanese supermarket selling everything from sushi and ramen bowls to kitschy candies and drinks.
After a little debate, we decided to cross the street and take a look. The doors were wide open and, as we walked in, a woman -- the manager or the owner, I would guess -- told us the store would not open until 10 a.m.
Since it was 9:30 a.m. and we had other things to do, we walked away and likely won't have a chance to go back. By shooing us away, the store lost a small sale, as well as a potential occasional customer, endorser, and source of goodwill. On the surface, it's a small loss, but it betrays an attitude where the customer does not come first.
What should a small business do?
A small business owner or manager should do whatever it takes to serve a customer. If you push a person down the road, ask them to come back later, or otherwise put off a sale (or even just someone browsing) and run the risk of losing that person as a customer. If, however, you bend the rules or do something special for a person there's every chance they become not only a customer but an advocate spreading word of mouth about your business.
In the two years I spent running an independent toy and hobby store, we had a customer-first policy. If we were in the building -- before we opened or after we closed -- and someone wanted to come in, we accommodated them.
We also tried to be open whenever people might come in. That meant late-night hours on Fridays, longer hours during the holidays, and rarely closing on a holiday. We had shoppers in the store as we battened down the hatches preparing for blizzards and I used to open by myself on Easter when some of our single, older customers would come in, have a cup of coffee with me, and do a little shopping.
Once, when an accident down the street knocked out our power, we bought a bunch of flashlights and toured people through the store recording credit card transactions on paper. It was all about making sure that if someone came to our door, we made the best impression possible.
What can you do?
Whenever you make a decision, consider its impact on your customers. By turning us away, the lady at the Japanese supermarket did not lose a lot of business. She did lose the possibility that we would tell friends and family about visiting her somewhat out-of-the-way store.
Decisions like the one she made can snowball. Perhaps by not welcoming us in, she lost $10 that day and $100 over the next year in referral sales. Multiply that by all the other times she may have closed a door on potential customers and the numbers add up quickly.
If you can accommodate a customer, do it. You never know who will become a regular or who might refer a bunch of big spenders your way, and just as bad choices can build up negative effects, good ones can grow in a hugely positive way.