D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     April 2005


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Service with a Smile

A marketing expert weighs the challenges of delivering customer service in small towns in the Internet era, when the competition can be half a continent—and a single click—away.

By Cathy Goodwin

Small-town business owners face unique challenges. Often they're selling products and services to people they know—neighbors and friends they see every day. These "locals" want to experience friendly service, even if it's a little more, well, leisurely.

Gallery and art-supplies store owner
Diana Ingalls Leyba: "Our strategy?
We really listen to our customers so
we know just what they want."

But here in the Southwest, customers can also be strangers. Newcomers from California and New York expect service as energetic as the caffeine in their double-shot lattés. Local residents who deliberately chose an easygoing lifestyle may join tourists who bring expectations that are a long way from laid back. So, to be successful, southwesterners learn to serve up the small-town charm with a cosmopolitan flavor—and sometimes surprise their customers along the way.

Following a lifelong interest in customer service (I was a marketing professor in my former life), I asked some business owners and others who deal with the public—chosen more or less randomly—to share their thoughts about the challenges of delivering quality service in a small town. My investigation makes no claims for following a scientific method, but three themes came up over and over again: the grapevine, invisible competition and small-town expectations.

 

Most small-town organizations genuinely enjoy helping people. "It's just how I would want to be treated," says Diana Diaz of the Marshall Memorial Library in Deming. "Everyone who comes here is really nice to deal with."

"Why would you want to give bad service?" asks Michael Sauber of Gila Hike and Bike in Silver City. "It's just as easy to give good service." But, he adds, "If you're being a jerk, everybody finds out, sooner or later."

Or, as David Schlotfeldt puts it, "the grapevine is very efficient." His VCS store in Silver City sells and services vacuum cleaners. "My family has been in this location for 30 years," Schlotfeldt says. "We get lots of referrals. And we work on our reputation. For instance, we'll recommend the best machine for your needs—not necessarily the most expensive." 

Jim Kolb, owner of The Twisted Vine wine bar in Silver City, agrees. "We talk to everyone who comes in and the outsiders have a ton of questions—where can we eat, what's going on." But, says Kolb, "regulars pay the bills. And we get many customers through word of mouth." Some customers came from Arizona, saying, "My friends had a good time here—so I wanted to come see for myself."

Vivian Moore-Craver of Joe Perk says her shop attracts regulars who live far from her Deming location. "Customers drive back and forth across the country," she says, "and they detour off I-10 to have coffee here. I get people from Las Cruces and Silver City, too."

"We're a family business," says Michele Pierce of L&M Flooring in Silver City. "About 70 to 80 percent of our business comes from referrals. In fact, some of our satisfied customers will allow others—newcomers to Silver City—to visit their homes and see the quality of our work. That says a lot about our relationships."

John Masciangelo, co-owner of Dan & John's Rejuvenations coffee shop in Silver City, estimates 80 percent of profit comes from 20 percent of his customers—the regulars.

Silver City residents have no trouble identifying the "good guys." Lois Duffy, artist and gallery owner, has been renovating her new space. She's become a big fan of Mr. Ed's hardware store in the process.

What's the secret of Mr. Ed's? Manager David Chavez says, "I learned from my father, Roy Chavez, who bought the store from the original Mr. Ed Johnson." Today, Chavez uses videos to learn principles of service and says, "I want to keep my customers."

People also mention Albertson's ("very friendly people") and Video Stop ("always happy to see you—even when you have a late fee"). And—believe it or not—many Silver City residents like the garbage collectors. "One of them helped me move a big bag," says Alice Pauser, a newcomer who just opened The Kitchen Gardener.

 

Ten or 20 years ago, residents of southwestern New Mexico were limited to local merchants when they wanted to buy anything from drugstore items to food to cars. Today you can log on to the Internet and shop for prices and features without leaving your cozy home.

But when the competition is invisible, says Rod Billings of Rydeski Insurance, you have to be especially vigilant. Insurance, like many products, can now be purchased over the Internet. To keep up, Billings helps people sort through a barrage of numbers and deal with paperwork. And he emphasizes service.

"The world is a level playing field," he says. "Products are global." In a big city like Albuquerque, he says, you can see your competition on the next corner. But in a town like Silver City, you have to remember customers are mobile. You have to treat them with "respect and gratitude and help them solve their problems."

Diana Ingalls Leyba would agree. "You have to work harder," says the Silver City art-supplies store and gallery owner. "You can get complacent, figuring people can't go out of town—but they can! It's easy for them to go to Las Cruces or Tucson—or shop online. Our strategy? We really listen to our customers so we know just what they want."

Cissy McAndrew, outgoing director of the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce, emphasizes the advantages of buying locally. "What I like about this community," she says, "is that shop owners will try to find items they may not always carry in stock. And they follow up with service."

Interestingly, when asked directly about competition, some businesses claim they just don't think that way. "Competition is not really a concern," says David Chavez of Mr. Ed's. "If we don't carry an item, we'll send customers to the competition. If customers need an item today, we'll even tell them where to go and what their hours are!" 

 

Small-town business owners face customers with a wide variety of expectations. Local residents enjoy a slower pace and seek familiar products. Tourists and newcomers introduce new demands that, business owners say, often must be modified to correspond to local realities. Sometimes, no matter how much they want to meet the public's demands, service providers find themselves up against limitations they can't control.

"Customer service IS different in a small town than in a city," says Julie Miller, head librarian at Western New Mexico University's Miller Library (no relation). "I am attracted to small-town life because of the slower pace and the connections with neighbors.

"But sometimes the characteristics of small-town life are barriers to service," she adds. "With a small staff, for example, we can't stay open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. So we try to identify the hours that are most important to our primary constituents, the WNMU community."

Other times a business owner faces a challenge of introducing products that may not be familiar to the customers. For instance, Kolb of Twisted Vine realizes his customers may not be familiar with all the wine varieties he offers. Therefore, he sets expectations at the outset. "Nobody has to buy a full glass of wine without tasting a sample," he says. And new customers are always encouraged to sip before buying.

Similarly, Moore-Craver of Joe Perk says some customers may not be aware of the different coffee drinks she serves, so she happily explains lattés, cappuccinos and double espressos. On the other hand, Moore-Craver is passionate about coffee, so she challenges herself to meet requests from customers who may have just moved from Seattle or vacationed in Paris. "One customer wants an extra strong coffee, so I make a pot just for her—and she drinks most it," says Moore-Craver. "Another described a special café-au-lait she found in Paris. We experimented and now I can offer a truly wonderful drink to any of my customers." 

Pauser, owner of The Kitchen Gardener, adds, "With a smaller pool of customers, you have to find your niche—and target that niche specifically. That way, you meet a specific set of expectations and don't try to please everyone."

Expectations are the key, adds McAndrew—and some expectations can be unrealistic: "People expect they'll get full service even if they didn't give the local merchant the benefit of making the original sale."

And, she says, customers need to be realistic. "I tell people who want to move here, 'Get to know us.' We like our rural character and slower pace of life. We don't want to be New York or California."

But even small towns have been raising the bar. McAndrew has been working to meet higher customer expectations. "People assume the Chamber is a seal of approval. So we want to be sure our businesses offer high standards of quality and service."

Small-town merchants can also surprise their customers. Rita Sherwood of Repeat Boutique in Silver City offers service people might not expect from a second-hand outlet. For instance, when some furniture was damaged during delivery to a customer, the store repaired the damage at no charge and refunded the delivery charge. "We want to keep people shopping here," she says.

Jeannie Keeler of the Deming library, which recently moved to a new location, captures the two sides of customer service in a small town—the friendliness and the surprise. "The regulars are like family," she says. "And we're eager to add new patrons, now that we've got a new library. But," she adds, "people are surprised when they come in here and see our collection and experience our service. We're pretty good for a small town!" 

 

Cathy Goodwin, PhD, is a freelance writer and business/career consultant based in Silver City. Visit her at www.cathygoodwin.com and www.makewritingpay.com.

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