Should Small Businesses Be Held to Higher Customer Service Standards?

A few weeks ago on the Small Business Bonfire community site, I shared a harrowing customer service tale about my interaction with a small business. I won’t rehash the entire story here, but here’s a brief synopsis for those who aren’t members yet:

I contacted a small merchant to ask a question about ordering their gift certificates online. It was a question not answered anywhere on the gift certificate page, and I needed an answer before I could complete the purchase. A couple of days later, I got a reply telling me “Of course we have gift certificates, you can find them here.” And the shop owner proceeded to give me a link to the page I had already visited.

She invited me to ask questions if I had any, but I was turned off immediately. I had asked a question in my original email, and it was ignored. I didn’t try again; I just moved on without making a purchase.

Several days later I got another email from the shop’s owner. Turns out she had taken my email address and added it to their newsletter mailing list without my permission. I hadn’t opted in, and I was angry. I unsubscribed from the list, noting that I was put on the list without my consent.

Here’s what’s got me thinking, though: If I had been dealing with a large chain or corporation, I’d have almost expected events to transpire the way they did. I’d have been irritated with them, too, no question. But I might have tried again, because somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve just accepted that the Big Guys are bloated and inefficient and notoriously lazy about customer service. To get what I want from them takes perseverance, so I sometimes cave.

“Is this fair?” I wondered.

I asked for feedback from the Small Business Bonfire community to try and find out if small businesses are frequently held to higher customer service standards than the Big Guys. The members there not only know what they want as consumers, they also rely on good customer service to help them sell their services and products.

The Response

The topic generated a lot of feedback, but here are some very relevant comments for all of us small business owners to ponder:

John Bondon of echoed my sentiments saying, “You were dealing with a smaller business.  If you had been emailing a larger corporation, we kinda expect that type of response.  But when you are dealing with a small business, you expect better personal service and more attention to detail.”

Victorio Chavarria at ScavaTec was more evenhanded, noting, “As a consumer, I’m not sure I expect better customer service from a small business. I expect some basic level of service from any business.”

Virtually On Demand’s Karen Taylor commented, “I do think small business owners are held to higher customer service standards and should be.”

Courtney Ramirez at Six Degrees Content wrote, “I think the problem is that many small businesses are strapped for time – they don’t think through the process from the consumer’s point of view.”

Your Turn

Now I’m opening the floor to you.

  • Should small businesses be held to higher customer service standards than big corporations?
  • Do you expect more personal attention from them?
  • Or do you cut them a little slack knowing small businesses owners are overextended?

Image credit: yarranz

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Emily Suess
Emily Suess is a full-time technical marketing writer in the software industry and a part-time freelance copywriter. To learn more about marketing your small business online, check out her copywriting blog, Say It With Me.


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  1. As a small business owner and former customer service manager for small, medium, and large companies I actually expect better service from a large company than I do from a smaller one. Large companies usually budget for training, therefore they have the resources to teach employees and monitor service levels. Small entrepreneurs in most cases don’t have customer service experience or the tools to monitor service levels. Because of my experience, service level is everything. But you don’t have to be a large corporation to provide excellent service.

  2. I had this same problem the other day with Virgin Mobile (which I would not recommend by the way). I have a problem with my account balances. Their online account system says one thing and the invoices say something else. There are 3 different balances and all I wanted to know is which one is correct and why. Same thing happened, I got a few links and an answer saying you owe $X. So I wrote back and said, that doesn’t answer my question. Still waiting for a reply :(

    I think the problem is that people don’t actually read, they skim, and it really isn’t good enough. It does get really frustrating and there have been times that I have thought, do you think I am an idiot beause the response is so stupid it was obvious they hadn’t bothered reading my query properly.

    My advice for small business owners – if you get an email query, ‘read it’ before you reply and make sure your staff in charge of replies are also reading the message before offering unhelpful advice.


    • I think you hit the nail on the head, Michelle. Everyone is always so pressed for time, it’s inevitable that we look to cut corners here and there. It’s very unfortunate, though, when the cutting corners turns into poor customer service. Especially when actually reading and making sure you understand what a customer is saying can save you time and money (and reputation) down the line.

  3. Thanks for featuring my response! Michelle pointed out a great tip for all small business owners – READ your email! Don’t skim. This problem with the company you tried to buy from would have been solved if they had read the email to begin with.

  4. This is such a complex topic! I hope this conversation goes on for a while. I have a zillion thoughts on this.

    Let’s start with training, since I was a trainer for 15 years and know a little bit about it:

    While big business theoretically has budget for customer service training, you’d be amazed at how poorly that budget (if it really does exist) is typically executed. Training in a large company is adopted and implemented very differently than by small biz folks. For one, it’s often imposed by management as compared to readily accepted and desired (or even driven) by small biz employees. As well, the post-training reinforcement is usually lacking. The metrics are often “did the employee take the training?” and sometimes “did they pass a test?” Rarely is a metric “is the employee implementing the skills s/he learned?”

    Moreover, in larger companies customer service training is becoming an operational process instead of a value or skill. Case in point: Big banks. For a good long time Bank of America instructed its Branch Managers to stand at the door and greet me when I came in, cheerfully smiling and saying “what can we do for you today?” It was so unbelievably disingenuous and I hated it (so I stopped going there.) In the past year or so TD Bank clearly implemented a new policy: When I (customer) come through the door holler a cheerful “Good Morning!” from across the other side of the room to make me feel welcome. Every teller did it and it happened at multiple branches. Is this REAL customer service? Of course not!

    So then – how does a small business cope with a lack of training budget? This is fairly easy: Top-down, values-based insistence on quality of service, coupled with leadership-by-example. You want emails responded to quickly? Do it yourself. You want friendly service? Be friendly to your staff AND your customers – all day long, every time. Then, if others don’t do it “right” (and they never will by your standards – right?), ask them to watch and learn. But be sure to give them latitude – never make them holler “Good morning!” across the room. Focus on the result, not the actions.

    If anyone’s interested, I have another soap box speech about how small business owners can get great customer service results… :)

  5. As a small business owner I think that exceptional customer service is what gives us the edge over the big guys. In my niche market (handmade marketplace) I ask my customers to value my time and the quality of materials I put into my items by pricing my products accordingly. I feel I should reciprocate by valuing their decision to purchase my items over mass produced by providing the best customer service I can. Without our customers/clients we would not exist and they deserve our undivided attention. That said, I don’t mind being held to a higher standard in the customer service department.

  6. I agree with Melissa. Fairly or unfairly, many large businesses get a bad rap for indifferent or downright terrible customer service.

    Small businesses need to capitalize on that. Being the friendly face on the corner will get you more business than you might suspect.

  7. I too am a small business owner. I think all businesses-small and large-should be held to the same standard. We should have high expectations. Set the bar way up there! The problem, as it appears to me, often is that the passion and vision of the company is not faithfully passed on to the others in management on down. In many cases, it is very likely that many of the people in the company should never have been hired in the first place. They are a liability to the company. Not an asset. The company culture-large or small- sets the “aroma” of the company or business. Some you walk into just plain “stink.” Others contain the most pleasant experiences.

    As I consider growing my business and adding new team members and subcontractors, I am convinced that they must be as passionate as I am or they are not welcome in my company or on my job site. Plain and simple.

    I have read Howard Schulz’s ONWARD, and I judge every Starbucks I walk into by the standard he has laid out there. Many I find wanting. It should be a company-wide requirement for all current hires and all new ones to read that book. Schulz is passionate about coffee and the experience of an “Italian” coffee house. In fact, it was his transferal of that passion and vision that draws me in to Starbucks whenever I can afford it… and sometimes when I cannot! In all fairness to Mr. Schulz (and others like him), it must be extremely hard to make the transferal of passion and vision a priority in a publically owned comany. The shareholders want $$$-bottomline.

    On the other hand, Zappos has a great company culture. They don’t demand it. They live it. Every year they publish a Zappos Culture Book. Every single team member makes a personal contribution. Each gets a copy. And CEO Tony Hsieh makes certain anyone (outside the company) can have a copy for the asking. Go ahead. Go to their website and request a copy. You’ll have a free copy within two weeks. Those folks love working for Zappos, and it shows.

    Perhaps our settling for mediocrity (or worse), has done many businesses a disservice. Perhaps it has enabled them to be complacent because we still buy from them.

    Any one remember the time when McDonald’s motto wasn’t “Do you want fries with that?” (while the cashier stares blankly at the register), but rather “Service with a smile?” Let us expect more from everyone we do business with. Let us expect more of ourselves. Let us WOW!! our customers. And when we get pissed off by a merchant… let us WOW!! them. Maybe it will be contagious?

  8. Pingback: How to Diffuse an Angry Customer in 8 Steps | Small Business Bonfire

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