Size isn’t everything, especially for providing value to customers.

This important fact can help distinguish small “mom and pop” businesses from the big-box chain stores. It gives them a powerful competitive advantage in an age when more consumers crave and expect a high level of service and responsiveness.

Your business gives you direct access to your customers’ needs, attitudes and opinions. You know the kinds of products or services they want, when they want them, and how best to deliver them. To stay on top of these insights, you need to proactively assess what you do and should be doing to keep customers coming back, rather than tempting them to try the “big store” by the mall.

Central Maine SCORE mentor Peter Sassano advises to start by putting yourself in your customer’s place. “How would you like to be treated if you were a first-time customer or a regular? Consider conveniences. What can you do to make it easier to find items and check out, rather then having to navigate a big-box store’s aisles and cashier lines?”

Sassano also advises visiting other stores and service centers, including those unrelated to your business. See what they do that you find appealing, and adapt those practices to enhance your customers’ experience. At the same time, watch for aspects you don’t like, but be sure to understand the reasons behind problems or poor service, such as understaffing and limited inventory, which will help prevent similar problems from arising in your business.

How you connect with customers by phone or e-mail will help contrast your small business from the sometimes bureaucratic nature of big chains. Answer calls promptly and with a friendly greeting. Avoid putting callers on hold for longer than a minute; take a message and respond as soon as possible. If you use an automated answering system, your customer service line should be one of the first options.

Don’t let e-mail inquiries sit for too long. Some systems automatically generate a response to acknowledge the message. Make sure the response text is upbeat and friendly. Designate certain times during the day to handle e-mail queries by assigning the responsibility to an employee.

To learn more about starting and operating your small business, contact Central Maine SCORE at 782-3708 or at [email protected], or contact the Auburn Public Library for an appointment with a volunteer mentor. In Oxford Hills call 743-0499; in Rumford-Mexico call 364-3123. Or contact SCORE at

This column is provided by the Central Maine SCORE chapter.

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