Thinking small, even if you’re not

I was recently in the market for a laptop. I know enough about computers to know that I didn’t need anything flashy or huge. I just wanted something that would give me more functionality than my iPad when I’m traveling or working remotely. Oh, and I wanted to spend, like, $5 on it.

I started browsing the sales around Black Friday, figuring I would pick one up at my local box store or online retailer. On a lark, I checked Craigslist to see if anyone was selling a gently used laptop in my $5 price range (they weren’t). I stumbled across a post from a local computer store that had exactly what I was looking for in a laptop. I went to the store, but it had been sold already. I started talking to the owner about what I was looking for and he mentioned that he had something coming in that week that would be a good fit. Bonus: it was $100 cheaper than the laptop I originally intended to purchase. Done and done.

Let’s imagine I had gone the box store route and assume I found someone to assist me. Do you think the salesperson would know what was coming in on the next shipment? Or do you think they would recommend a better product to fit my needs at the lower price point? What about this, do you think they would have cared if they made the sale or not? My guess is no to all of the above. Same applies to an online retailer. At the big box stores and online retailers, you’re typically going to encounter employees who are just trying to make it through their shift. There are some exceptions to this rule, famously Nordstrom and Zappos.com. What’s the difference? They think small.

Growing up in small businesses, I’ve always felt that transactions are personal. We’d often start a tab for long-term customers who were strapped for cash or reward good grades with free candy at the convenience store. We’d set aside special pieces of jewelry for customers we knew would love them at the jewelry store. As a consumer, I appreciate when the owner of the coffee shop I just started frequenting knows my preferences after a couple of visits. Or when I follow an ad to a local computer store and end up getting something better than what I had planned. As a business owner, these thoughtful touches can make a significant impact on your bottom line.

So how well do you know your customers? You may not know their coffee preferences, but you should know if they prefer green over blue (always) or if they need immediate turnaround. Get to know your customers and use what you learn to their benefit because when they succeed, you succeed. As we start another year, I challenge each of you to think small, even if you’re not.

Nadia Zerka always orders a medium coffee with cream from Hot Cups, which has the best cup of coffee in Flint, and has since made two additional purchases at the computer store.

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