Seeking Small: Why Big Retailers Envy Mom & Pop


mom-n-pop-shopThere are a few local stores I visit often – enough so that they know my name, preferences, boyfriend’s name, work/travel schedule, and even my pets. They call me on my cell phone when something new is available that they know I’ll love. They make sure I know in advance about events they’re holding. In return, I’m glad to pick up the phone when I see that they’re calling.

These are the experts in personalization and targeted messaging. They are the kings and queens of the customer relationship. And the big box retailers of the world are tremendously jealous of them.

When it comes to knowing customers, no one does a better job of it than a local store. There are three main reasons for this. First, a small business owner has fewer customers and is more involved throughout those customers’ interactions. Second, the small business owner has a more social interaction, creating a connection between them and the customer. And third, the small business communicates in a person-to-person manner. These correlate to the three keys of true customer loyalty and engagement:

  • gather information
  • build a connection, and
  • engage authentically.

Gathering Information

Customers interact with small business owners and employees continually during the course of their transactions. The owner or employee helps them choose items, takes their payments, asks for their contact information, and resolves any issues all without having to hand off to someone else. They are a trusted partner when it comes to their customer’s needs for their goods and services.

At a larger store, these functions are split up. A sales representative helps the customer select products. A cashier takes the payment. A flyer or machine may ask for contact information. And a customer service representative resolves issues. These groups generally have little to do with one another. The handoffs between departments are non-existent. As a result, information about the customer’s needs gets dropped along the way. By the time any information is requested from the customer, it is often in an impersonal manner and of a non-descript nature – an email address, a phone number, and a willingness to opt in to messaging. A marketer attempting to use these snippets of information has to then make drastic assumptions about the customer’s true motivations when they later try to build a connection.

Building a Connection

Customer and Shop Assistant in a Home Interior Shop Choosing From Fabric Swatches

Small business owners build rapport with their customers that extends beyond the transaction

True inter-personal connections take time. That’s something that smaller stores can give to their customers without it costing a penny. In a small business setting, the owner or employee takes some time to talk and connect with the person who is their customer. They ask a few questions, request feedback regarding the products or services received, and watch for opportunities to connect further and make appropriate suggestions.

On the other hand, employees in larger stores are often given incentives to rush through a transaction so that they can get on to the next one. They have no opportunity to connect with their customer, only with the transaction – which items do they want, do they have them available, what options are there, will they take an upcharge item, etc. They don’t want or need to know the background story of why someone is looking for a particular item. The customer is treated as just one of many that the employee has to deal with during the course of a shift to make a quota. There is typically no genuineness in the thanks that a customer receives for their patronage or any follow-up on their satisfaction by the person who helped them. That, of course, is someone else’s job.

Engaging Authentically

The start of this article talked about how individualized it can be to engage with a small business. The information that a small business owner gathers and the connection that they build with the customer allow them to promote subtly and with pinpoint accuracy. They solicit feedback, both good and bad, and take it to heart. Sometimes they don’t even have to ask. Customers may provide feedback on their own with the full expectation that it will be acknowledged. More personal updates may also be shared which include information that could impact future business transactions.

Larger companies often get feedback but don’t quite seem to know what to do with it. Survey responses get lumped together into averages that tell a story of mediocrity. Product reviews are moderated by people unconnected to those making inventory purchase decisions or are simply tossed onto a website without an employee ever seeing them. Customer profile data is sterile and lacking personality. All these shortcomings conspire to keep companies in a content “push” mode rather than “pull” or even “discuss”. As a result, the content that gets pushed is less personal and promotes the goals of the company (sales) rather than addressing the needs and concerns of the customer.

Those Poor, Big Companies – What Can They Do?

It’s almost comical to think about a phrase like this, but I have painted a rather bleak picture of big box stores to this point. So here are some feasible, heartfelt suggestions as both a loyalty marketing strategist and a customer.

  1. Provide incentives for employees to spend more time with customers. It’s not a bad thing for individual representatives to get to know the people they are working with every day or to “own” a customer relationship. This sets the foundation for a socially-based interaction in which a representative can be seen as a trusted partner well before any mention of customer loyalty or programs. It also empowers the employee to view themselves as a meaningful part of the customer relationship rather than a pawn in the corporate game.
  2. Train and cross-train employees continually. One of the key differences between the way small business employees act from those of larger stores is that they are more informed about their offerings. They have often tried out many of them or gotten information directly from a vendor. Training employees, giving demonstrations, and allowing them to interact with the product gives them more insight that can lead to more authentic engagement with their customers.
  3. Rephrase your questions. The first question that an employee asks a customer is very indicative of how the rest of the interaction will go. Approaching a customer with “What can I help you find today?” implies that the employee is there solely to put products into hands. “What can I help you with today?” is a better approach in that there is no inherent mention of products or sales. Leave questions open-ended so that the customer can describe the reason behind their visit.
  4. Offer clienteling applications for employees to capture customer preferences. These device-enabled apps allow employees to enter information you would want to use for ongoing engagement based on actual customer interactions. The application should pull together not only what you see in transactions, but also what the customer has conveyed as being important to them. These things do not always align, but together can produce specific insights into the needs of the customer.
  5. Have a culture of customer relationships at all levels. It’s not just providing tools and coaching for floor employees. Large companies have to embrace genuine customer relationships in order to truly foster them. That may mean reevaluating objectives set for employees throughout the organization to realign with a more customer-centric view.

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