Seasons of loathe: Customer service adventures in rural Michigan

By Chris Wendel

Traveling throughout the Grand Traverse region on a regular basis, I’m able to witness plenty of positive and negative customer experiences. Many of these experiences point out general deficiencies that still plague smaller rural businesses.

Smaller towns tend to have single location establishments that depend heavily on the commerce of seasonal visitors, tourists, and residents. Working in retail myself for over 15 years in a small tourist town, I can attest to the perils of depending on 8-10 weeks of good business for your year’s income. The margin of error is small and the crazy days of summer are rarely regained after Labor Day. With in mind, don’t make these fatal mistakes.

Not accepting credit cards: I’ve ordered food twice in the past week from businesses that did not accept credit or debit cards and the signage that was intended to inform customers blended into the collage of other advertisements. One of the situations involved ice cream and there was no automated teller machine in sight to rectify the situation.

Minimum charge amount for a credit card transaction: One establishment I recently visited had a un-posted minimum purchase of $15 for credit card purchases. It should be noted that I rarely carry cash in my wallet so,  I was forced to add items we really didn’t want until the total reached the store’s minimum. I thought this practice disappeared in the 1990’s, but the bottom line is, I’m not returning to that business.

Closing early in the evening:  Prime time for many retailers in small towns is between 6 and 10 PM, not a good time to be closed and losing business. People walking off dinner and under the mild influence of alcohol are great potential buyers. If you want the evening off hire someone to work the store (they’ll pay for their wages and then some with the additional sales).

Closed on Sunday:  I respect business owners that want to spend Sundays with family, as a day of rest, or attending church however, there are also customers that will be alienated with your business . The choice is yours. Enough said.

No web site: Plenty of business can come a retailer’s way from customers who don’t purchase on the spot in your store. A simple one page web site (more one where orders can be placed) can be accessed once a visiting customer has left town and made a delayed choice to buy from you. Follow up sales can be missed if there is no web site or phone information printed on a brochure or business cards. Keeping up with your great summer customers even when they are in the area can boost sales throughout the year.

The key is to retain the rural small town quaintness but still be savvy and alert to the needs of your customers. The old adage: “Make hay while the sun shines” rings true for the seasonal small town business. Remember, it won’t be long before you’ll be yearning for these hectic days of summer, during the short cold days of winter.

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