Why small retailers must work harder on customer service

May 7, 2012 | by James Bickers

This is a tale of two retailers, one of them a single-location local boutique shop, the other a major multinational corporation. One of them recently gave me extraordinary, above-and-beyond service, and the other treated me in such a fashion that I will never return.

Can you guess which one is which?

Retailer No. 1 is a small, mom-and-pop clothing and accessories store, located in our town's hipster/bohemian epicenter. We recently visited, my wife and three small kids, and my fashionista daughter tried on a hat and was checking out herself in the mirror. It looked great on her, and I was totally prepared to buy it for her. 

But before I could, the lady who owns the shop swooped in on her with a patronizing, condescending tone, saying "sweetie, we don't play with the hats in here, they're very expensive, you need to put that back and don't touch things."

Really. Really, lady? Talking down to me is one thing, but making my six-year-old daughter feel like crap is another thing entirely. We were gone in moments and will never return.

Retailer No. 2 is Amazon. I recently made the mistake of putting my old Kindle, still working like a charm, in my pants pocket for a minute or two. Evidently I bent it just enough to ruin the screen, electronic ink now flowing to all the wrong places, and in one absent-minded moment my beloved tablet became a brick.

On a whim, I went to the website and filled out the online request for assistance. The drop-down menu for "reason you are contacting us" predicted what was going on, and in the next step I was asked to enter my phone number. Thirty seconds later my phone rang, and it was an Amazon associate who already had all the details of what was going on.

The call lasted about five minutes, and resulted in Amazon second-day-airing me a newer replacement model, no questions asked. My love for the Amazon brand, already strong, got a lot stronger.

Now, this represents a real dilemma for people like myself, who strive to be locavores and who try our best to support small and regional businesses. But sometimes those small and regional businesses miss the very basics, like making your customers feel like they matter – or at a bare minimum, not making them feel like they are bothering you or are a nuisance.

Amazon has an unfair advantage, of course – no small retailer has the resources needed to pull off their extraordinary web interface, or the phone call within thirty seconds, or the sheer economy of scale at work in their operation. 

But that's why the basics of customer service become so much more important. Here's a message for the lady who owns Retailer No. 1: There's nothing special about your hats. I can buy a hat anywhere. But what I can't get anywhere is human contact with a storeowner, and it's up to you to decide whether that contact is a positive or a negative thing.

On a slight tangent, there's one other thing that really bothers me about the "shop local" movement, a movement which I am otherwise totally on-board with, and that is the sense of entitlement: the feeling that just because you're a local retailer, you're entitled to my business and you don't really need to treat me special. Sorry, this is wrong. Yes, I will give a local bookstore my dollars before I give them to Amazon, but only if you provide good service and treat me well.

Or, to coin Bickers' First Rule of Retail: Don't make my daughter cry.

Topics: Customer Experience , Customer Service , Employee Training , Omnichannel / Multichannel

James Bickers / James Bickers is the senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications.
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