Communication and the Small Business Owner

Yesterday morning, a part of the hose on our washing machine broke and we were faced with the task of replacing it. A simple part, it is available at most hardware stores with a decent plumbing section, yet we had the worst time trying to track it down. Why? Because most of the small local hardware stores in our part of town seem to be trapped in the 1970s.

There is a Home Hardware store a few blocks away from us. Traditionally, they are closed on Sundays, except in the summer. From Victoria Day to Labour Day, they open on Sundays from noon to 5pm. (I’ll ignore the Sunday closing thing because that’s not what this rant is about but I can’t help but point out that in this modern era, not all of us are Christian and need the day off to be with Jesus.) As this store would be our first choice, we check the Home Hardware website, only to discover that the hours listed indicate the store is closed on Sundays. Since we’re sure they’re probably open, because they have been open on summer Sundays for the almost 20 years we’ve lived in the neighbourhood, Greg calls the store. Not only is there no answer, there’s no voice mail. What to do?

Now I don’t expect a store to have a voice mail where you can leave a message, but sweet sassy molassy, don’t you think it would be a wise business move to have a message on there listing the store hours? I mean seriously, I pick up the phone and call a store for one of two reasons – to see if they have a specific item in stock, or to find out their hours – if their hours are not listed online.

In the same vein, a friend was on Facebook this morning, ranting about how she tried to make a reservation at a local restaurant and how the restaurant neither answered their phone or replied to a message sent via Facebook. That restaurant lost a customer; as she couldn’t get in touch with anybody there, she went somewhere else – a place where not only was the phone answered when she called, but it was answered by the chef because other staff were busy.

I am the first one to join in the chant when the ranting starts about how social media takes over our lives. But it’s 2012, and most of the western world expects to be able to get immediate answers to their questions. Especially when the question is “are you open today”.

I also get that small businesses are often overwhelmed with work and that stuff like updating websites is the last thing to get done. But that doesn’t cut it anymore, and I really can’t believe that small business owners of all stripes don’t realize how much business they’re losing because they are poor communicators.

A business’ website is their 24-hour business card. It doesn’t need flash or music, but it does need to have basic information that is accurate and up to date. This should take priority above all else. You can’t sell me anything if I don’t know where you are and when you’re open.

And every single business should have some sort of voicemail system. It doesn’t need to have the capacity for people to leave a message, but every single business should have some sort of message indicating store hours. An unanswered phone is a lost customer. If we had known for sure that the local Home Hardware opened at noon, we’d have waited and just gone there. Instead, Greg had to call other stores in the area, and spend an hour running around to find the part we needed.

No one is saying that shops and restaurants have to answer the phone when they’re closed. No one is saying that they have to be online posting to FaceBook, Twitter, Tumbler and Pinterest  and “engaging” with their customers every half hour. But I don’t think it’s asking too much for any business, big or small, to have a website and a voicemail message with accurate, useful information about things like location, hours, and (for restaurants) reservations.

If you, as a business, can’t offer at least that, then I, for one, am taking my business elsewhere.

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