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Zig When They Zag. As big companies push automated customer experience, small businesses must embrace the personal touch

Avatar photo by Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator | February 9, 2024

Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) were the dominant business stories in 2023. AI will develop an entirely upgraded skill set this year (and for the next several years), and large companies are already adjusting by channeling customer service through AI conduits. McDonalds is testing a completely automated restaurant. Large tech firms are laying off customer facing portions of their company. Big retail is under pressure to pursue more online environments and less intensive in-person customer interactions.

The reasons behind the push is clear. Automated systems can run 24/7, at a fraction of the cost of their human counterparts. AI can call upon vast databases for instant chatbot feedback on web portals, and contextual translation through AI allows most major language interactions to convert to user defined languages within seconds. What AI cannot do is form relationships, enhance the environment for consumers in innovative ways, and obtain actionable information through consumer interactions beyond the singular transaction. When big firms “zig” towards environments with zero human interactions, small businesses must “zag” towards experience based consumer relationships.

Small businesses still must embrace technology to enhance their record keeping, analytics, outreach enhancements, and business decision making. But, if small entrepreneurs hope to compete by creating equally sterile environments as their multi-national counterparts, it is a losing proposition. What does that mean for your business?

  1. Keep your workspace in good repair.- I recently had to drive to a regional (larger community) activity and I took some time to explore. Areas that had damaged ceiling/floor tiles, were dirty, and/or had unattractive storefronts instantly created a low value reaction in my mind. If they couldn’t afford paper towels and glass cleaner to keep their windows free from an obvious accumulation of dirt (like, a lot), what else weren’t they cleaning in their kitchen? If they didn’t care enough to keep up their aesthetics, why should I trust them to guide me towards what I should buy?
  2. Find your Instagram item.- When is the last time that someone walked into your place of business, looked at something, and said “that’s cool! (or whatever people younger than me say these days)? People can buy things anywhere. They associate value and recognition to places that have things that stand out (in a good way). Every restaurant has seats and every retailer has shelves. Every entertainment venue has light and sound. What’s your item (or items) that draw someone’s eye? What are the things that lead to stories that inspire memories in your business?
  3. Push for reasons to interact.- Every retailer hears the dreaded “I’m just looking”. Restaurant servers have interactions that make them sometimes think “I could be replaced by a QR code on a table”. Entertainment venues can quickly devolve into a space where interactions are limited to transactions. Why? It’s mainly because people don’t see the value in interactions. What can your interactions do to make the life of your customer easier, better, or allow them to experience something new? If you don’t bake in reasons to interact within your business strategy, all of your communication will simply become transactional. If all of your communications are simply transactional, it’s pretty easy to forget loyalty and conduct transactions someplace else.
  4. Socialization is necessary.- Human beings want to make connections. Even the most introverted among us want to be part of a “tribe” or have our special places that make us comfortable and where we are known. Successful businesses engineer socialization so people feel valued when they walk into a store and maintain that feeling. AI currently is unable to create a social atmosphere, and small businesses can use the social needs of the general public to drive more traffic and sales.
  5. Think of customer relations as a relationship.- Are you excited to see your friends? Do you make future plans? Do you help them? Quality relationships take work and trust, but they also require a level of fun and belonging. Are you greeting and working with consumers in a friendly manner to maintain relationships, or are you simply pressing the transaction?
  6. Measure the things that actually matter.- We are communicating a lot of strategies that fall into the “feeling” realm, but it is critically important for businesses to grow profitably. If you forget the profit motivation, it can be difficult to measure what is working and what isn’t. Gross sales, items per ticket, visits, loyalty (multiple visits by the same person), profit, and market trade area expansion are all important areas to measure. If fifty people like an Instagram post, but none of them are visiting your business, how much does that metric matter? Make sure you are measuring things that lead to actual success.
  7. Become the “third space”.- This concept is called a lot of different things. It can be a person’s “happy place”, their “favorite spot”, or the business where they “know people.” In essence you want to build relationships that make people feel like your business is an extension of their life. A self checkout counter in a big box is probably never going to achieve “third space” status, but a friendly conversation with a local retailer may (over time) achieve loyalty goals.
  8. Create unique products/services.- If you create a different customer experience than the big guys, you will still have people that recognize all the same products. Having some universal products is okay, but it is important to spend time in your business creating items unique to you (or at least unique to the immediate region). Part of breaking the standardization of high tech bulk product suppliers is finding opportunities to be “one of one” in the creation of a product and/or service. If you can sell the public on your unique capacity to provide something they cannot find anywhere else, you can drive more traffic. Local artisans, your own staff, or the Emporia Main Street Fabrication Lab may provide your business the “one of one” experience you can sell, and an interaction with a unique product that customers resonate towards.
  9. Train your staff.- All of the strategies above require a trained staff that clearly understand your expectations and are rewarded for exceptional service. If you don’t hire and train people for positive interactive environments, you won’t have positive interactive environments.
  10. Create a valued vibe.- “If it wasn’t for these dang customers I could actually get something done”; that’s an emotion that consumers can pick up on right away. The success of your business depends entirely on your consumers. If they aren’t a priority, your business will not succeed. Conversely, if customers feel like your top priority (based on your actions and the strategies listed above), they are more likely to engage with your business on a regular basis.

The push for more technology and less customer interaction is a staple in big business. How will your operation respond? What can you do to stand out with your consuming public in the evolving world of customer service?

About the Author

Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator

Jessica Buchholz is the Community Development Coordinator for Emporia Main Street in Emporia, Kansas. She specializes in event planning, volunteer recruitment, alternative marketing, media/public relations and fundraising. During Jessica's tenure at Emporia Main Street, she has helped grow events to an international level and she has created a series of new activities to meet organizational goals.