I had fun last week speaking with talk show host Jim Blasingame, the “small business advocate.” (In fact, listening to the first segment of the show — embedded below — I was probably having a little too much fun at first.)

One reason I was keen to do the show is that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about showrooming. You’ve probably heard about showrooming — maybe you’ve done it yourself. It’s when a customer goes into a retail location to touch and feel a product and then goes online to buy the product at a lower price.

Showrooming causes a particularly acute problem for small business owners. Their very existence is at stake: Just last weekend, I walked by a small bookstore in Concord, Mass., and saw a sign in the window that said, “If you see it here, buy it here, to keep us here.”

I sympathize with that small store owner’s plight, so I’d like to offer some advice: Putting a sign in the window that begs people to buy from you is the wrong approach. Do customers want to “keep you here” because of convenience? Nope. They can get lower-priced products delivered the same day at little to no shipping cost. Do they want to add you to the list of charities they support? No, and you don’t want that either — you’re in business to make a profit, and you probably take pride in being able to do just that.

Here’s a better way to compete: Focus on delivering a superior customer experience. As a local business owner, you have the chance to know your customers better than any website can know them — even the increasingly sophisticated websites that make recommendations based on past behavior. If you develop that understanding and marry it with expertise about the products or services you offer, you’ll have a winning combination.

As my co-author Kerry Bodine and I describe in our new book, Outside In, the reason this approach works is that it appeals to people at two fundamental levels of the customer experience pyramid:

  • Meets needs. The best product for any given customer is the one that meets their individual needs at a moment in time. They might not even fully understand those needs themselves due to a lack of knowledge about 1) the product category; 2) a task they’re trying to accomplish (like home repair); or even 3) their own emotional state (e.g., they need reassurance as much as they need a product). Reading those needs and making a match with the “just right” product is something that humans will do better than software for the foreseeable future in the vast majority of product categories.
  • Easy to do business with. Some websites do a great job of helping directed customers get to a product or service quickly and efficiently. But even great sites like Amazon.com are less good at navigating customers to a solution when they’re not directed — and those are the type of customers who walk into a store looking for help. Yet retail associates often focus on tasks like stocking shelves instead of making a beeline to customers and trying to help them. Training staff in simple techniques like asking the customer an open-ended question — “what brings you here today?” or “what can I help you with today?” versus inviting a “no” with the closed-end “can I help you?” — gives a small business an advantage. That’s especially true if the sales associate gets the right product into the customer’s hands and then walks her to the cash register with it.  

If you want to hear me describe a small business that follows both of these practices beautifully, you can listen to me on The Small Business Advocate show below.