As an attorney, I often find myself defending my profession and explaining why lawyers behave the way that they do (many times poorly). Most of the time, I simply say that lawyers fail to recognize that we are in a service industry. That realization is often overshadowed by the status and prestige of having a six-figure mortgage to pay for law school (note the sarcasm).
But, regardless of the reason, the fact remains that many attorneys do not recognize that we are here to serve. An obvious consequence of this is the long-standing number-one complaint by clients: lawyers don’t return phone calls. While this may be an issue that goes far back into legal history, and may not be resolved any time soon, it is also an issue that seems to be epidemic, spreading through many other industries and professions.
As both an attorney and a small business owner, I believe customer service is the most important part of my job. Without my clients, I have no job. As a result, both I and my wife / business partner do everything in our power to create value and provide more bang for our clients’ buck. It is a daily objective and effort. However, what I have observed and found incredibly disheartening is that many other small businesses no longer feel the way I do.
Traditionally, small businesses stay competitive by adding value through customer service. A small business is not a margin business with thousands of customers flowing through the doors daily. So, regardless of the industry, a small business relies on higher levels of product knowledge, customization, and attention to detail. All the things that are lost in high-volume businesses.
Lately I have seen a growing trend of narcissism in many small businesses. Small businesses have certainly felt the brunt of the economic downturn over the past five years. But, rather than leveraging their core strengths (i.e. providing value through customer service), many small businesses have turned their attention to pricing and margins. This re-focus has two major consequences: 1) the entire reason to support and patronize small businesses (i.e. value) is lost; and 2) the small business essentially re-positions itself to compete with larger businesses that have much better pricing.
In short, small businesses will fail if they don’t provide value through customer service. And, I’m sorry to say, I see a lot of small businesses going under these days and I don’t think that this situation is to blame on big-businesses. Big-box stores have a specific game plan and they do it well. The real issue is that small businesses have to establish their own game plan and execute it, rather than trying to compete with or blame big businesses. If anything, many large businesses have recognized the importance of customer service and are now beating out small businesses in their own game.
In the end, I don’t think small businesses are going the way of the do-do bird, but, without bolstering (and justifying) their product offerings with customer service, it’s going to be a long cold winter for many small businesses.