It’s the Little Things

It’s the Little Things

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The best businesses always focus on the small details: the chocolate on your hotel pillow; the free, last-minute delivery to a valued customer; the smile, warm welcome and “Thank you for your business” from attentive sales associates.

Those small but meaningful gestures will mean even more to independent retailers as they embark upon a New Year. It's true for all of the obvious reasons, but more so as big-box retailers continue to improve their social networking campaigns, leverage new communications platforms such as Twitter and add service strategies that bring them closer to the customer.

Case in point. I was on the train the other day when I ran into a former colleague who now works for one of the largest financial service firms in the country. As we talked about new communications and marketing strategies, she gushed how the company set up a division where employees scan e-mails and Web sites for customer complaints and immediately respond via Twitter or e-mail, asking what they can do to help.

“The customers are blown away,” she said. Best Buy's Twelpforce, staffed by Blue Shirts and the Geek Squad, does the same through Twitter. Even Walmart is in on the game.

All of a sudden, a name, and in some cases, a face, is given to a large corporation, adding an intimacy that is the hallmark of smaller, independent businesses. When you thought the competition couldn't get tougher, it just did.

If your company isn't exploring the customer service options these new technologies allow, make it your New Year's resolution to do so. No matter how much the economy improves this year, consumers will still spend cautiously. But they will spend, especially with the businesses they've developed the best relationships with, and relationships today are as much about an electronic handshake or smile as they are about the physical ones.

Speaking about real customer service (or the lack thereof), about six months ago my local Starbucks increased the price of a medium coffee (sorry, I still can't get used to “grande”) to $2.01. No big deal, except that two out of 10 times some twit (sorry again, but at this point they turn into twits) behind the counter demands the penny and I walk away with a pocketful of change. And, of course, they only ask for it on the day I don't have any change.

I know it's a very little thing in the grand scheme of the day, but it irks me to no end. I even started buying my coffee from the family-owned corner store. The coffee tastes like sewer run-off, but the people are friendly and will even spot me a few dollars when I'm short.

Anyway, the other day I figured I'd give my taste buds a treat and my stomach a break and returned to Starbucks. The line was unusually long with holiday shoppers. I finally ordered my usual, and the TWIT asks for $2.01. I give her a $5 and she turns her back to finish up another order. A minute later she's back and asks again for the $2.01. “I gave you a five,” I said, keeping my temper in check with the holiday cheer. “No, you didn't,” she answered. It went back and forth for a while.

Maybe this one, I thought, is on work release from the state prison for the Customer-Service Challenged and Retail Insane. I felt compassion. I let it slide and forked over a $20. Another employee finally caught on to things and asked what was wrong. After hearing both sides of the story, she looked at the twit like she truly was insane, gave me back my $20 and $5 and said the coffee was on the house. Overcome with joy that “the customer is always right” motto still exists in this cold, heartless world, I threw the $5 in the tip jar, walked out whistling “Jingle Bells,” relished in the holiday magic and vowed to once again buy my coffee at Starbucks.

Sure, the corner store now loses my coffee revenue, but I make it up to them by buying extra beer.

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