So, here's my premise.

Society's bounds between various parts of the community at large have been condensed down to the point that there is very little space that doesn't fall within the bounds of business, pop culture or politics. Digital media and communication channels, ever-present and easily accessible in a number of different ways, have tied the world's populations together in ways that have never been accomplished before, creating echo chambers that falsely reinforce views, hyper-compressing fads and trends into spikes rather than slower oscillations on public consciousness  and, in general, creating a landscape where Gangnam style can compete on the same footing with a State of the Union address for importance and share of the public consciousness.

Because of this leveling, those boundaries are overlapping. Farther and farther every day, it seems, due to the various tools every person has at their disposal to control what they wish to pay attention to. To reach the most people, those with something to say have to put their message in numerous channels so that they can reach their constituencies. What brand feels it can exist without video on YouTube, chatter on Facebook, blip-blogging on Twitter and an information-rich, entertaining web site? More to the point, why do we have politicians who feel the need to show up on Hollywood gossip-heavy Entertainment Tonight?

As a result, there is no longer a place, it seems, for a simple, sole-proprietor small business. When I was a kid, we still had a 5-and-dime store, a drug store that still had a soda fountain, a grocery store, and more, all in a small town of less than 15-hundred people, all locally owned. They posted their ads in the local newspaper, but by and large, they simply opened their doors. As long as they kept did their best to keep everyone happy and paid their taxes, they were more or less left alone.

Now, a small business can count on a veritable mountain of activity that they need to attend to, most of which has no direct effect on the actual business they're in. Government wants a bigger role in what they sell, how they sell it, and how much money they keep as a result of their efforts. The population at large, as well as the famous and pseudo-famous, feels compelled to give their opinions worldwide on every encounter they might have with our small businessman, sometimes positively, but more often negatively on Yelp!, Twitter, and other crowd-sourced opinion and blogging sites. And competitive businesses can monitor our theoretical small businessman's success or failure from anyplace on the globe, adjusting their own strategies and product offerings accordingly, often in real time.

The question is, is there still room for the small businessman in the public consciousness  in the political discussion, or in the economic landscape? And if so, how can it be done successfully, and what can be done to ensure this basic entrepreneurship continues?

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Every small business is looking for some competitive edge in this pathetic economy, and many feel like Big Retail has all of the advantages when it comes to selling consumer goods. But something as low-tech as a phone may be your best weapon in the competition front lines.

In truth, the only advantage Amazon or Walmart has over a small business is price. Getting knowledgeable help from most of them is rather a game of seek and find, whether you're trying to track down an in-store "associate" who can answer a question, or trying to actually call customer service on a gasp phone.

Go ahead. See how long it takes you to find an actual phone number at Amazon's web site (www.amazon.com/customerservice). I'll wait.

Welcome back! Now, if they wanted to talk to you, would they hide the phone number? Probably not.

Most small business owners have no interest in taking customer service questions over the phone. It takes time. It takes manpower. And it only takes one irate customer to ruin your whole day, no matter how many other acceptable calls (or even happy customers!) you may have during the day.

The thing,is, we live in an "all about me" culture today, and the last thing anyone wants to do when they have a question is to wait for an email to be answered or waste time waiting on hold, only to talk to a call center employee in Malaysia that may or may not have a passable grasp on English, and may or may not solve your problem at step 17 on their checklist.

If you can make every customer transaction, indeed every customer contact, feel like it is "all about them", you can start to level the playing field between the slightly cheaper price on products that a customer may get somewhere else.

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Do you have customer horror stories? Drop them here!
 

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This article missed the mark a bit for small businesses, but I think there are many ways in which a small business can compete with a behemoth like Amazon or Walmart.

Off the top of my head:

1) Location convenience - A giant retailer can only build so many places, and Amazon doesn't build anywhere. While 2 - 3 day shipping is nice, it doesn't get it to me today. Don't have a storefront? Deliver today in your area!

2) Product knowledge - If you know your product line like few other people, you will outshine the generic listings on Amazon. Blogging and writing about your products on a regular basis demonstrates that knowledge. Make sure all of your customer-facing people know your product, too. Oftentimes, this means specialization.

3) Service - Provide a buying relationship that they can't get with another retailer. This may include product recommendation based on need, easy returns, or a deep selection of products in a narrow niche that you and your staff are the authorities on.

The way to compete with one of the giants is not to try and do better what they already do well. It's finding a chink in their operation and exploiting it. They aren't perfect, and there are plenty of things the big retailers don't do well that any small business can do.

I'll post more on this subject here tomorrow :) Do you have a small business that has won customers from a Big Retailer? I'd love to hear your story!
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