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Selling Service, Not Steak


I ran into a friend recently who at one time came into my coffee shop every day before work. But I hadn’t seen him in a while. He’s a Lexington resident who runs a small business like I do.

Then he told me this story.

He had recently lost his biggest client to a big box competitor who undercut his pricing.

Yet the competitor’s core business did not offer the scope of services that my friend did.

While he was wringing his hands, wondering what to do next, he started getting calls from his former client’s customers. Scores of them. We’re not getting the service we used to, they told him, and we’re not getting expertise in some of the product groups we are interested in.

The client called him back. They said, “We need you.”

So what was it my small business friend was able to offer that his nationwide competitor wasn’t? What prompted consumers to complain? Why did his client, who had replaced him with a faceless national company, call him back?

The answer is simple. My friend offered more than just product and services. While that’s the purpose of any business – to find a need and fill it – there are intangibles that come into play. And what my friend had offered was something many small businesses offer in spades: expert, personalized, one-on-one interaction with customers. He understood what his customers wanted. He delivered and then provided follow-up to ensure they were happy. His competitor did not.

Take my steakhouse example. True story.

Dallas, Texas: Popular high-end steakhouse. The medium-rare porterhouse I ordered was overcooked. I told the waiter and he graciously offered me a free dessert. Polite, nice, but it still marred my experience. I never received what I wanted. So I told everybody. And I never went back.

Seattle, Washington: Popular high-end steakhouse. Same story. My medium-rare porterhouse was medium. I told the waiter, and not only did they prepare me another steak cooked the way I wanted it, but they did not charge me for the meal. That was a $60 steak. I told everybody. And I went back again and again, took clients there, and bought a good many more $60 steaks over the years.

So what’s the difference? Dallas was selling steak. Seattle was selling service and a dining experience.

As consumers we often pass by our local businesses to get a better price from the big boys. While I am not knocking the big boys, it’s important to understand the added value that local business provides.

Another example: I cook up a mess of ribs every 4th of July. While it might seem cheap and easy to pick out five or six plastic-wrapped racks from a supermarket, I chose instead to go see the folks at the Old Timey Meat Market, a Lexington small business. I received personal service from an employee who gave me his full attention until I was ready to check out. We talked about beef versus pork ribs, preparation methods and tenderizing. He was clearly an expert, he was enthusiastic about his product, and he seemed more concerned about my being satisfied with the fully-cooked product on the plate than merely selling me some meat. The act of buying a few racks of ribs was transformed into a pleasurable and memorable customer experience. And having people tell me on Independence Day that these were my best ribs yet only served to validate my decision to patronize a small, local business.

Lexington small businesses have much to offer in the way of exceptional service. Many of the small business owners I know personally strive to go above and beyond in order to please their customers. We are fortunate to live and work in a community that prides itself on the quality of products and services offered by small business.

Keep it local.


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