What we can learn from big business and multi-nationals

Set aside the criticism

Multinational companies have been much in the news recently over their tax arrangements. This is not the place to discuss those, but as we have heard so much criticism of Amazon and Starbucks amongst others I think it is time to remember what we owe these companies in gratitude.

Days of OJ

I first bought books from Amazon.com in 1995. At the time I wanted to purchase publications which were not available in the UK about the trial of O J Simpson. I had watched the trial live on Sky News most nights until the early hours as I was recovering from major but successful surgery, and I was in too much pain to sleep. I made a complete recovery but also became fascinated by the detail and the “bloody glove”  and wanted to read the books from some of the main players.

The only way to get these books was to order them from Amazon in Seattle. They did not work out as too dear, and they were delivered within a week. Actually I made several purchases as the books were published and all arrived fairly quickly considering they came such a long way.

Now Amazon in Europe delivers very quickly even on Super Save / free delivery terms. They have not let me down.

Coffee houses and City business

English: This is a panorama of 3 segments take...

Leadenhall Market. “Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0”

When I first worked in the City of London, it was difficult to get a decent cup of coffee except for the cappuccinos in the Italian diners such as Obertelli’s in Leadenhall Market. This was ironic when remember that the City’s financial business originated in coffee houses; the Stock Exchange, the Baltic (shipping) Exchange and Lloyd’s, the insurance market. When Starbucks moved in, everyone upped their game and their model was copied by others. Suddenly you could get a very good coffee in many places and of course the coffee chains have spread all over the country and the world.

As with Amazon, we have become used to good service and reliable products such that we take them for granted.

Distant days

When I was a young lad we could not always rely on good service from businesses, large for small. I remember that my Mum was happy with the service in the local dress shop but the draper next door was “miserable” and presumably not committed to good service or refunding unhappy customers.

It was a large chain of stores in the UK, Marks and Spencer, who first offered almost no-question refunds on items customer took back. Now nearly all the stores do it. Customer service is a recognised culture.

What lessons can we take?

We in small business can build our reputations by not only offering the great reliable service that many of the large companies manage to deliver, but by putting our own personal stamp on the service. We can be available to the customer and often build a more personal relationship such that we will be recommended and not taken for granted as Starbucks are, though they deserve more.

We can be better than the best large company because we can be flexible and we have discretion, which an employee of a multi-national perhaps cannot always have. Obertelli’s is still in Leadenhall Market too as proof of how a successful small business (as it was) can compete strongly.

So thank you for the lessons, Amazon and Starbucks, and for teaching us customer service and showing us how we can be the best, and even better than you.

What do you think?

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Shops and the personal touch


That friendly hardware store

Times are changing

There is no question that shopping has moved on in the last couple of decades. It has moved to out-of-town retail parks and it has moved on-line. As a result, many shop premises in the UK are empty, and the owners of those shops that remain are struggling with their businesses, just to keep afloat.

When town and village shopping areas on what used to be the main drag dwindle away, so does the sense of community. People always used to feel that they belonged in the area they lived; a sort of neighbourhood spirit. All that gets lost when shopping moves away. It even affects the other centres of gathering such as community centres, and the local pub is not what it was in terms of old-fashioned gatherings of friends.

Queen of Shops

Even Government has recognised that there is a social change as a result of the drift from the High Streets. We have had a very commendable report from Mary Portas, “Queen of Shops”, as to how to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape and also to change the thinking of the local authorities.

Even so, local shop owners need to think how to engage their customers so that they “belong”. It is all about getting a following, and in a way it is the same process as getting one on Twitter or Facebook. Businesses have to be interesting, and chatty, and when they discuss their products it needs to be in a friendly helpful way, with no blatant selling.

Getting personal

My own local village has two major supermarket companies who have small stores by their standard. It is not really fair to our local (franchise-owner) grocer, but that is life. However the four obviously successful shop businesses in our local community all have one things in common, and that is the personal touch.

A while back I mentioned our local Chinese takeaway.  Actually, we have two, but only one cooks your food to order in front of you. People love to watch.

Then we have the bakery. That is quite a distinction from a bread shop, which just buys in its products. If you pass the bakery in the small hours (I don’t very often) you can see the bread being baked. All food shops of this sort probably need to buy in a certain amount, but if we can say that what we buy is locally produced that induces that sense of belonging. The bakery staff also recognise their customers and chat, again making a connection we don’t get in the supermarket.

In our village, we get the same experience in the fish-and-chip shop as in the bakery. The staff are friendly, and we can see our food being freshly cooked.

The fourth great business is the hardware store. One might expect they would struggle against the out-of-town retail and DIY outlets. Their secret is that their staff are so helpful. If you cannot see an item you want, they can usually find it somewhere. If not they can order it. If you need a special light bulb for your granny’s night light they will find it and fit it for you. They are more expensive than the big store in the shopping park, but you get great service, and save the cost of expensive fuel.

Old-fashioned value

What do all these businesses give you? That’s right: value for money, that feeling that they what they offer is worth paying for. They can charge more than the big outlets because they have to in order to be profitable, but they also have a loyal customer base. That is known as goodwill, and it is so important.

In a sense, these businesses over-deliver, or at least they appear to. That extra personal touch is so important in keeping the loyalties of all our customers, whether or not we are High Street businesses Those that run shops in the High Street or village street can still make it once again the Main Drag, but it will take that personal touch.

Do you remember to get personal in your business?


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