Thursday, March 31, 2005

Compete the only way you can - by listening to your customers

Anita Campbell of Small Business Trends reports today on an interesting experiment that happpened in Cleveland (Ohio) last week; basically, a number of bloggers made a city-wide tour one day, visiting every coffeehouse in the area that offers free WiFi access to its customers. (A reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer followed along; here's his article on the "tour," for anyone who'd like to read more.) Here's the interesting thing, though - of all the coffeehouses visited that day, only one (Pantera) was owned by a chain or franchise; all other franchised coffeehouses in Cleveland charge their customers money to get online.

Let's face facts - as a small-business owner, you have absolutely no chance of competing against chains when it comes to price, quantity, selection or any of another half-dozen issues that come with owning a business. One of the only advantages you have over chains, in fact, is the very fact that you're small, and that you can keep your ear much closer to the ground when it comes to what your customers want. This was Ms. Campbell's point as well, that these independent coffeehouses all offer free WiFi because their customers have said that they want free WiFi, and have demonstrated that they will patronize independent coffeehouses with free WiFi over the chains. Any small-business owner who isn't listening carefully to what their customers are saying, and providing what it is that they want, is basically ignoring the one and only true advantage they have over a soulless multinational corporation. I urge all small-business owners to keep this in mind, the next time one of their customers says, "You know what would be cool? If you had..." (Thanks to Jeff Cornwall at "The Entrepreneurial Mind" for pointing this out.)