Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods has many retailers fearing that Amazon has become a terrifying fog that will slowly suffocate anything in its expanding path.  In the years since, it has taken the retail industry by storm, expanding beyond books to offer fresh groceries, streaming video, engagement rings, and practically anything your heart desires in Prime-style two-day delivery.   How does the little guy compete?  Trying to compete with Amazon by also offering an online way to shop is  an uphill battle — Amazon is the starting point for a customer’s search, the company handles fulfillment and delivery with award-winning precision and speed, and a small retailer might not even know the first thing about building a website.  Many successful small business retailers today are surrendering online efforts and instead are offering what Amazon can never: a shopping experience that is worth leaving the house for.

It turns out that small retailers can provide not just products that we want to buy, but also a sense of connection.  It is the drive to connect with others that compels us to change out of our sweats and leave the house.  Exceptional customer service is not an algorithm that can guess your next purchase or creepily predict your pregnancy due date. Exceptional customer service is building relationships with customers that provides the connection we long for.

Building relationships with customers is what retailers in small towns have done for centuries, and they do this by their nature.  For example, my parents live in Florence, Alabama.  Although the online options are cheaper and faster, I prefer to shop for clothes when I head back to Alabama at Lilly’s Sportswear.  The store owner remembers my name, asks about my mom, and gives me one-on-one attention helping me find what I need.   Compare this to an online checkout experience where customer service might look like  a pop-up that says “You have 7 days to return your purchase after which all sales are final.”



Here are 10 tips to improve customer service at your store and win the hearts of customers in the age of Amazon:

  1. Encourage employees to learn the names of customers. Have the employee introduce themself and ask for the name of the customer.  Particular attention should be paid to repeat customers.
  2. Train employees in empathy.  They should pay attention to what a customer might need but isn’t asking for, like opening the door for customers who are pushing a stroller, helping them to the car with their bags, or offering a chair to customers who seem not well.  
  3. Be a manager who treats employees how you want them to treat your customers.   
  4. Have your employees share with each other stories about your customers. At Homebase, we have a periodic meeting where each employee spotlights a customer and what makes them unique.
  5. Build excitement!  Take the time to have fun team building games with your employees to encourage a positive and fun environment.  It will bleed over into the experience in your store. .
  6. Review large sales with the team.  Who was the customer?  What did they buy?  Were they any upsells to their purchase that could be suggested to other customers?
  7. Broadcast when employees go the extra mile to help a customer with creative and exciting rewards.  You don’t have to spend a lot to reward that employee.  You could fill the fridge with the employee’s’ favorite snack or cut out photocopied pictures of their face to paste all over the break room.  Your employee will feel extra special, and the entire team will know that customer service matters.
  8. Give back to the community in ways you can afford and that matter to your customers.  The most popular store in Kingwood, Texas, is the local hardware store.  The owners throw an annual 4th of July dance party open to all in the store’s parking lot.  They landscaped a major intersection in the town.  They are frequent volunteers at local fundraisers.  When you think of Kingwood, Texas stores you think of Alspaugh Hardware.  
  9. Use social media to get personal with your customers. You can do more than just promote your store.  Instead, celebrate your customers’ triumphs, communicate support if they are requesting it, and share some of your employees’ personal milestones if they are open to it.   A local Mexican restaurant, El Patio in Houston, posted on their page a request for donations for a long-time server who needed a bone marrow transplant.  I not only donated to the cause but I now prefer going to El Patio to see how the server is doing.
  10. Help them save money.  Steer customers to items that might be on sale.  Everyone loves saving a buck, and they’ll likely give it back to you many times over with return visits or higher tips..  

Stores that take a few extra minutes to get to know their customers will increase customer loyalty and human connection.  And in the age of Amazon and digital interactions,  that human connection is more important than ever. Customers will reward you for it.