service with a smileInternet-based technologies continue to transform businesses in ways scarcely imaginable just a few years ago. Online travel services, for example, have become the norm – a matter of convenience for customers, and for businesses often a source of access to larger markets.

This also includes online customer care services, including everything from securing the right repair person to hosted software platforms that automate and consolidate a host of administrative services.

Along with such convenience, however, have come complaints from many customers about a lack of personalization, the inability to communicate with a knowledgeable source in a timely manner, and when necessary, to actually talk to someone. Emails, texts, tweets, and posts have somehow replaced a simple, “How can I help you?” from someone who makes sure you are helped.

In “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley sang of “that same small town in each of us,” evoking for many that slice of time and place where people knew their neighbors as a rule and, more importantly, cared about them. It also included small, independently run businesses that knew their customers and went the extra yard for them. Even big cities are just a series of small towns strung together with neighborhood delis, shops, and favorite restaurants.

Online commerce overall has yet to catch up with such local personalization, but there are indicators that local businesses are hearing their customers’ pain about the lack of personal touch online and doing something about it. According to HubSpot, marketers who personalize their web experiences see, on average, a 19% increase in sales.

In what follows, we will look at some ways in which “small town values” are being brought to bear on online business, and how technology and the human factor can combine to create the ultimate customer experience.

Top 5 Small Town Values Businesses Should Adopt as They Take Business Online

 1. Be friendly and caring because you reap what you sow. As an Okie from a small town, one thing I learned early on is that nobody likes a smart aleck or someone who puts on airs. Say “hello” to strangers and friends alike and when you ask someone, “How Ya Doin’?” show you mean it by waiting for an answer and offering real concern. In the online business world, that translates as making sure your platform is easy to use as well as friendly.

Friendly? If your platform is not inviting and simple to navigate, why would customers want to enter? Make it easy for your customers to communicate and collaborate in real time, just as they would at the local diner where communication and engagement can be as simple as a smile and a nod of the head for, “More coffee, please,” and where waits are short.

2. Be nice, but know when to mind your business, or “You are a good guy…but you still can’t date my daughter” Customers can find it convenient when their online habits and needs are catered to, sort of like walking into the local store and the person behind the register knowing what you need before you ask, making it easy to buy.

However, there’s a big difference between that and tracking a customer online like a bloodhound. Sending out special offers or recommending additional services, based on online behavior, makes sense – but not if it’s a constant barrage. Someone who rings your doorbell all the time becomes a pest, the same as someone who pops up in your inbox night and day.

3. If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. When I would go into the local hardware store in the town I grew up in, it was normal for the person behind the counter to be an expert at fixing all kinds of things. It was also the norm for them to be friendly and courteous.

The same rules should apply online. Your staff should be experts who can answer all kinds of questions and resolve issues as well as know how to handle all kinds of challenging situations, including acting professionally with those who test their patience. They also need to be quick and efficient without cutting the customer short on service.

4. You can’t listen if your lips are moving. Henry Ford’s comment about the Model T, “You can have it in any color you want as long as it’s black,” would never fly today. That sort of attitude also wouldn’t do in the town where I grew up, where business owners were your neighbors and friends, so if you needed something, they did what was needed to get it for you. It should be the same online.

If customers are asking for shorter wait times, more easily accessible information, quicker turnaround on service issues, or any of a multitude of issues, you should use that information to change their experiences, and your business, for the better. Be responsive. If a customer posts a comment and asks for feedback, only to get an answer days or weeks later (or worse, not at all), that is just bad business.

With the speed at which business moves today, the demands on online businesses grow by the day, and so in turn is their need to be quick change artists in real time.

5. You’re not just a customer…you’re family. Ever been to a diner in a small town where not only is the food great but so is the service? They know how you like your coffee before you even ask. Get that sort of treatment and chances are pretty good you’ll go there again and again. In the same way, make sure the customer’s online experience from beginning to end is nothing less than stellar. Make them feel welcome, and then service them as though they are the only customer you have.

If they are returning customers, your online rep should be able to have easy access to their information, including any sort of helpful notes about their experiences and preferences to date, so the customer does not feel like a visitor but a family member. In today’s world, where you’re competing with the world at large, bringing small town values online can make all the difference.

The online world with all its automation and 24×7 instant access to information has made it easier for consumers to get whatever they want whenever they want. But all the clicks and sophisticated platforms also must lead to a superior customer experience where the courtesy, convenience, and attentiveness of a small town store make their presence felt in the virtual world.