Running a small business successfully depends on a lot of things.

But first and foremost, is the ability to attract (and create) loyal customers. Some of us call this marketing.

When you’re a small business owner strapped for resources like time, money and people, it can be a real challenge to get your marketing done.

But you must figure this out, if you want to succeed.

Here’s a real-life example of what can happen when you don’t…

Once upon a time in a small coastal downtown village, there were three very cool coffee joints. One was a neighborhood favorite, and had been there forever. The second was fairly new, and was part of a multi-national chain. And the third was a brand new, locally-owned establishment that tried and failed to compete with the first two.

What happened to that last café?  Let’s take a look:

The original, long-standing local coffee joint (let’s call this one “P”) was situated just at the end of the main drag and featured an outdoor area with tables and chairs, plus comfy couches inside.  It offered free wi-fi and had a homey ambiance. It’s location wasn’t the best, and parking was nearly impossible, but it still had many, many loyal customers.

The newer, locally-owned guy (let’s call this one “J”) was situated in the middle of downtown and had plenty of convenient parking plus easy access to the freeway. It also had great indoor and outdoor seating, free wi-fi, and fabulous decór with an artsy feel. How did it choose to differentiate? It offered healthy and organic, fair trade alternatives that the other two did not.

The newer, national chain (we’ll call them “S”) was just across the street from J and offered minimal indoor and outdoor seating, free wi-fi, and had great parking and easy freeway access. Even though J seemed to have most of the advantages (location, parking, options, etc.), eventually they couldn’t compete with S or P and had to close their doors.

Why? Many folks who wanted to support this new alternative to S just plain didn’t.

Owners of nearby businesses often complained that the community didn’t care about supporting the local economy.  But many of them still went to S (or P) and shunned the easier-to-get-to J. After awhile, so did I. Here’s why:

  1. Long wait times and slow service.  In comparison to getting coffee at S or P, it usually took J twice as long to fill an order.  If there was a line, well…you’d have to pull up a chair and start reading the paper. This is fine if your goal is to relax. But if you’re on your way to work, every second counts!
  2. Spotty inventory. J offered its customers a menu of specialty juice drinks in addition to the coffees.  But many times, inventory on particular ingredients was so low or nonexistent that orders couldn’t be filled.  Even persistent customers would tire of going in, only to be told, “Sorry, we’re out of that.”  I think the employees were tired of it, too. They usually delivered that message with a bit of an attitude. S and P never EVER had that problem.
  3. No Community Participation. While J occasionally attempted to market itself with an ad in the local paper, it never took advantage of any opportunities to partner, network or otherwise participate in a larger way with the greater community.  The owner was “too busy” and for some reason didn’t see the value that participating would bring. S on the other hand was part of a huge marketing machine that included things like gift cards, a website, and sponsorship of local events. P didn’t do much traditional marketing, but was a regular sponsor of community activities. They also were really good at providing great service and making their customers feel at home, so word of mouth marketing picked up the slack.

There might certainly be other reasons why J closed its doors, but these were the ones visible to those paying attention.

And even the good intentions of J (to offer organic, fair trade and healthy alternatives to S and P) failed to help it succeed simply because people weren’t feeling the love.

Moral of the Story: You can have all the advantages in the world, but if you don’t take care of your customers, you’ll literally kill your business.

The over-riding reason people continue to buy from anyone is because they feel taken care of. They may come to you initially because of your unique offerings or expertise, but in the end, it’s all about the relationship.

Customer service is a huge part of your marketing! What works for you? Have you found any unique ways to build the love into your business? Do you have a best practice for showing your customers that you really care? Share with us in a comment below.