Customer Service: Your Only Sustainable Competitive Advantage in a Big Box World

by Joanne Steele on July 20, 2016

farmer's market

Pierce Family Farms sells freshness.

That’s expanding a quote from Becky McCray in an interview she did with Pamela Wilson at Big Brand System.  (Thanks Becky, for another insightful look at small town business.)

This is not easy to hear, especially when you have a small local business you’ve put your heart and soul into.

But all those “unique” items and services you’re staking your future and the future of your town on can be ordered from Amazon or Etsy!

All those fantastic amenities you’ve added to your lodging or guide service are also part of cruise lines’ packages and big hotel selling points!

Your only sustainable competitive advantage is your customer service!

I’m helping a friend plan her wedding. She just moved to my town, and is used to using Amazon. She has used it so much in the past, she has earned free shipping. So why wouldn’t she sit in her jammies and order all the things on our list for the wedding rather than drive up to the little craft and material store in Mt. Shasta?

One reason: customer service.

Micky knows every bolt of fabric and button in her store, and together they can build Analyn’s dream. Micky is a 24/7 craft person and can probably think of things we haven’t imagined… magnificent customer service.

Last week I went to the Siskiyou Food Summit, a day-long conference on the local food economy in my California county. At one point, someone in the audience asked the presenter how to encourage locals to buy from the farmers’ market rather than the big box supermarket. The presenter went into a long answer about how many times that dollar spent in a farmers’ market circulates in town.

The person sitting next to me whispered, “Tell that to a mom trying to make every food dollar stretch in this terrible economy.”

Speaking to the needs of that mom is what will bring her to the farmer’s market, not some philosophical diatribe on the economy.

When small local businesses including local farmers remember that it’s customer service – serving your customer – that matters, they automatically speak to their customer’s needs.

I willingly spend more per item at farmers’ markets that I would at a supermarket because everything lasts longer and I don’t have any waste! That is a great selling point that I rarely hear from those hard working farmers.

I heard something like that last week, which caused me to come home with twice as much lettuce as I could use in a week. The farmer, who is also the seller, told me that this would be the last week for lettuce till fall. She then showed me how to package the butter lettuce head in paper towel and plastic to keep it fresh for over a week.

“These were picked this morning,” she reminded me, “and anything you buy at the supermarket is probably close to a week old by the time it gets to the produce aisle.” Sold. I will happily eat her wonderful butter lettuce for another week, without tossing any slimy leaves in the compost.

Don’t ever forget that big brands sell products and services better than you can ever afford to do.

But you sell solutions. And you do it much better than they can. They have whole departments packed with smart people trying to figure out how to do what you do.

You are Micky at Weston’s in Mt. Shasta helping Analyn get the wedding of her dreams.

You are Chantal at River Dancers Rafting, helping grandparents put together unique unforgettable adventures with their grandkids.

Your are Kirsten from Hunter Orchards, spending that extra few minutes to show me how to test my peaches for ripeness.

Who are you and how are you providing solutions for your customers? (Please, shamelessly promote yourselves with a link to your website in your comment)

 Here are several past posts on customer service:

In a Small Town Everyone Is a Tour Guide

Exceptional Customer Service Is More Than Please and Thank You

How to Encourage Good Customer Service in Small Tourism Towns.


1 frances July 21, 2012 at 8:39 am

Yes, the advantage we small businesses have is all the above, service, mermories as Loretta Zortman pointed out & farmer’s market examples pointed out, and so much more. In my mind out here in Idaho it all boils down to narrative, which is dialog with those that enter our shops/endeavors. We have stories to tell, information to share, all the while underneath it all runs the current of selling, often indirect, which makes connections which makes sales. We’ll always have that advantage over bigger businesses. Spending time does bring the dime!

2 Sharon Roberts July 21, 2012 at 7:22 am

Nice article. I agree one on one customer service is where small business can shine.
We can be the information source for our guests/customers to save them time and get them exactly what they need.

3 Joanne Steele July 21, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Don’t ya just love all these great examples of customer service and marketing! Keep’em coming! These provide as much insight as my post!

4 Kim Phillips July 21, 2012 at 6:25 am

Lucid Marketing is a one-person shop (me) that provides high-level marketing strategy, social media, content management, branding and web graphics to other small, local businesses. I am located in Kingston Springs, Tennessee (pop. 3,000) and bring 30 years of marketing experience to helping other small businesses, without the expense of an advertising agency. More at

5 Loretta Zortman July 21, 2012 at 5:46 am

Just a small resort owner on Norfork Lake in Arkansas with cabins and a boat dock — but I feel I’m setting the stage for folks to make life-long memories with their loved ones. I’m helping them Ctrl-Alt-Delete — and reboot their life. I’m a “tour guide” just trying to assist in delivering incredible Ozark experiences. Sometimes people need a little reminder how to focus on what’s really important in life: Family, friends, and enjoying life’s simple moments. 🙂

6 Judy Schnable August 5, 2012 at 5:20 pm

My husband and I work on maps of our area. What part of Norfork do you tour guide. Would love to “noodle” with you personally, about the area. If you’d be interested, please start a dialogue @my e mail address. Thanks

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