Can You Find Great Service in a Small Town?

Main_streetI live in a picturesque small town. It’s a great place. Being a good citizen, I support the local small businesses that are the backbone of the community. I want to support them. I want to give them my business. They are my neighbors and my friends. We live together, play together and worship together. Our children are friends.

But these small, local merchants make it difficult for me to remain a loyal customer. The "backbone" has osteoperosis. They give crappy customer service.

  • I walked into a store to buy some bird seed. Based on the type of store and their inventory you’d expect them to carry bird seed. I was met by the scowl of an employee who informed me in a snobbish tone that they don’t carry birdseed because it attracts mice. Maybe it would also attract customers who want to buy it. I went to Wal-Mart, was greeted with a smile and bought my bird seed.
  • I walk into the local coffee shop almost daily. I’ve been a regular for almost three years. They should put a sign above my usual booth saying, "Tom’s Office". Not once have I been greeted with a familiar smile. If they know my name, they’ve never used it – even though I often initiate and greet the baristas by name.
  • I love fresh baked goods from the local bakeries (as my bathroom scale can attest). One bakery has a well known reputation of offering grouchy service from crabby women. I thought the "Soup Nazi" was funny on Seinfeld, but I don’t want to experience it personally.
  • Update! I’m actually writing this post from my coffee shop "office" (stop in for a scowl sometime – I’ll buy you a cup of coffee). I ordered a coffee and a cinnamon roll when I came in. After 30 minutes they hadn’t delivered the cinnamon roll. When I went up for a refill on the coffee, I mentioned this. It was promptly delivered. No apology. No "thanks for your patience." No "Gosh, Tom, you’re such a great customer. Sorry we blew it. Next time the cinnamon roll is on us!" The attitude could be construed as "Who cares? Screw you. Where else are you gonna go? What, you think there’s a Starbucks on the next corner?" (sometimes I envy Starbucker just for having the pseudonym)
  • I walked into the local small engine and equipment shop several weeks ago, money in hand, to buy a lawnmower. I waited for several minutes for someone to approach me. When someone finally asked if they could help I said, "I want to buy a lawnmower." I was utterly flabbergasted at the response. "Listen, I need to unload some stuff in the back. Can you come back in an hour or two?" (I wish I was making this up).

Maybe these local merchants take loyal local customers for granted. Maybe they’ve grown lazy knowing that they can count on a certain amount of community goodwill and support. Nevertheless, when you can’t compete on product quality/inventory or price – you must compete on service. Guilt and community loyalty will only go so far.

To be fair, not all my experiences have been negative. But I have precious few illustrations of quality service from the local business community, and that makes me sad.

Am I alone here?

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  5 comments for “Can You Find Great Service in a Small Town?

  1. May 25, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Tom, my small town experiences have been a bit different, thankfully. One in particular that comes to mind was in a little town in Illinois named Litchfield. A friend and I had gotten into a car accident at about 5AM on our way to go visit our folks for Thanksgiving – the car was undrivable, needing a new windshield and radiator. The tow truck brought us into Litchfield, and we knew we were in a special place when the car dealership went out of their way to find the parts, plus send us across the street for a free breakfast, served by the friendliest people I’d ever seen. We visited several other retailers that day, and every one of them gave us top-notch service (including the Western Union person who bent a rule or two to get us the money to pay for the repairs). We were on the road again by noon (that was a miracle), but I’ll never forget that day and that place. So hopefully that balances the ledger a bit Tom (and I’d be happy to lend “Starbucker” to you if you ever needed it!)

  2. May 25, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    You know, SB, you bring up an interesting point. I would bet, if your breakdown had occurred in my town, you would have had a similar experience. We would go out of our way for a stranger. It’s the familiar, everyday citizen that get the mediocre service. Sort of like when I was a kid and “company” came for dinner. The fine china would come out and the mother who spent all day griping, groaning and complaining suddenly became June Cleaver. Maybe it’s just human nature!
    Thanks for the offer. It’s just, when you live 40 miles from the nearest Starbucks, just seeing your pseudonym pop up gets my mouth watering. C’est la vie!

  3. May 26, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Good point Tom about how we treat strangers better than friends sometimes. I wonder why that is? One of those imponderables I guess. And 40 miles from a Starbucks? I shudder the thought. Have a great holiday weekend.

  4. May 26, 2006 at 11:54 am

    You as well, my friend. Hope you get a much deserved rest!

  5. May 27, 2006 at 1:36 am

    Customers Taken For Granted

    I guess not all businesses in small towns give great service. After reading Tom Vander Well’s post about getting great service in a small town, I am forced to retract my previous post and statement: There’s definitely a big difference…

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