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You MUST Sweat the Small Stuff

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It's The Little Things That Make or Break a Small Business

If you make a poor impression in small things, why should customers trust you with larger ones like buying your product regularly or giving you a big order? In the last two days, I've seen this simple fact proved three times.

I ordered software from Company A. It came with a 30-day trial period, after which I was to be charged for the purchase if I hadn't returned the package. It's now 44 days later and I'm still waiting to be charged for my purchase and receive the code to convert to the full version. I'm having to chase them to take my money.

Company B took an order from me in person, then failed to deliver the goods. When I called them, they remembered the order, but said they had "mislaid" my credit card details, so hadn't shipped my order. No call to me to explain or get my credit card details. Just silence. Until I called to complain.

Now it may be only me, but in both cases I made a mental note not to do business with those companies again. Since they couldn't handle basic administration, I have little confidence in their ability to do anything else well.

The Hallmark of Success

It's nothing fancy. In fact, it's just the opposite.

Successful businesses consistently do all the boring, fundamental, basic, necessary and unexciting little things unsuccessful people put off, ignore or do only when they have to.

It's attention to details. Making sure regular customers are remembered and called by name. Keeping up to date with vital paperwork. Calling people to stay in touch, not just to push a new product. Giving helpful advice and not trying to turn every conversation into a sales pitch.

All the small things that turn a customer into a regular who will choose your business, even if you charge a little extra than the "big box" store down the road.

If you don't sweat these every day, you might as well give up.

Are You Serious?

Small businesses don't have a stranglehold on their market. You never have to buy from them because there's no one else. Typically, they're trying to make their way against flat-out competition from every angle, and you, the consumer, have all the choice in the world. If they screw up the basics, you have many other people to deal with.

Why buy from a small business?

Because they offer things the big stores find really hard: a tight focus on a single product area, with people who truly know their business inside out, not a green college kid trying to make a few bucks.

Because they aren't always trying to sell you whatever the management in Idaho or Vancouver or Hong Kong has decided is the thing to push this month.

Because they remember your name and treat you like a human being, not just a "customer:" a walking credit card to be relieved of as much cash as possible in the shortest possible time.

Sure they don't have a massive stock. Or the lowest prices. Or wall-to-wall TV advertising. But people buy from people, not faceless bureaucracies.

So What's The Problem?

Why do many small businesses fall down on the vital small stuff?

I guess entrepreneurs aren't much drawn to admin. They're originally salespeople or inventors or marketers or dreamers. The admin is an unpleasant chore they do only when they must. But it matters. Lord, how it matters!

They say every disgruntled customer tells around 15 other people about their bad experience. Can your business handle that much negative publicity? If you really hate admin, or you're more disorganized and memory-challenged than your Uncle Chaz who's been hospitalized for twenty years, hire someone efficient to do it for you. Until you do, you're wasting your hard work selling by losing customers as fast as you get them.

Here's how it should be done. I called a small nature tour company recently with a query about one of their upcoming tours. Next morning I got an e-mail from their president. He explained he's presently leading a tour to one of the remoter parts of Mexico, answered my query and apologized for not being able to call me in person.

That's sweating the small stuff!

Guess who I'll be doing business with in future

Your brand isn't just your logo and color scheme. Nor your carefully crafted marketing message. It's what everything you do says to potential customers about who you are and what it will be like to do business with you. And it's usually the small things that speak loudest. Most people get the big things right, because they're paying attention to them. Then they trip themselves up in some small area, giving an impression that's quite different from their public face.

Which do people believe? Okay, you answer that one. I know which I think better shows the real person.

Adrian W. Savage writes for people who want help with the daily dilemmas they face at work. He has contributed more than 25 articles to leading British and American publications and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune.

You can find his blog on small business life at

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