Horror StoriesDo you run a small business? Then this Halloween, I am going to share a very frightful observation with you.

See that big box store down the road from you? Their lowliest employees know more – in fact, probably a lot more – about customer service than your small business does. And that fact may end up killing your business.

Of course, small business owners love to talk about providing personalized service and being closer to their customers. I know, because I run one too. But so many of them don’t get the memo, it hurts us all. Here are just a few examples from my life:

Huh? You want a refund? My wife and I used to go to a family-run ice cream stand down the road. One day, the ice cream in her sundae was sour. The manager’s response? He picked up a spoon, took a taste of her partially-eaten sundae, sourly replied “Tastes fine to me,” and walked away.

See no evil. The first (and last) time I tried a local printer, they printed my business cards crooked. When I pointed this out, they looked at me like I had three heads and said nothing – and then when I made a suggestion (um, print them again, just maybe?), the response was, “Gosh, that would mean we’d have to start the whole job over.” And this same firm actually had the audacity to promote itself locally by handing out photo-op “customer service awards” to other businesses!

You’re on display. One night I stopped at a farmer’s market, in search of some tomatoes that were ripe enough to use for dinner that night. As I put aside one hard tomato after another from a large bin, a surly farmer remarked, “Son, are you going to eat these tomatoes or frame them?” At which point I had a sudden flash of insight about why I liked shopping at big grocery stores that didn’t hover over me and shame me for getting what I want.

And don’t even get me started on all the contractors who don’t show up, don’t listen, constantly upsell, and forget how to answer their phones when something goes wrong.

The common denominator with most of these businesses? There are three, to be exact. They have no clue what to say to customers. They are focused on their interests, not mine. And most importantly, these firms are all dead, dead, deadsky nowadays – probably railing about the unfairness of competition, costs, taxes or whatever as they shuttered their doors, clueless that the real problem was chasing away paying customers.

Now, back to the big box stores. Go ahead and make fun of them as soulless corporate behemoths. But remember that they have refund policies, warranties, and trained employees. This is why people drive past you and patronize them. And, in part, why they have deep enough pockets to survive the times that they act like jackasses themselves.

So here is the spookiest thought of all. Sum up everyone’s experiences like mine, and realize that a lot of people view patronizing small businesses as sort of like eating their young kids’ cooking – they’ll do it if they have to.

So what can you do? Read customer service books, train people, and create policies – even if you’re the only employee. That way you’ll have your very best chance to make it to next Halloween, without your business turning into a pumpkin.