It's hard enough for small businesses to compete with the big corporations, so you'd think that excellent customer service is something the small guys would embrace to help them stand out.

Well, here's a story that might make a small business--specifically, a retailer--cringe.

A few weeks ago, I decided to get our doggie, Dwight, a new bed. And instead of shopping "big," off to the Internet I headed to snatch up an ultra cool and modern canine travel bed from a small business.

I found a cool site that had a cool bed where he'd be styling and comfy. Bonus: The site said it would ship in one to three days from when the order was placed--just in time for the New York flight we had coming up.

But I had a frightful thought. What if it didn't ship? Okay, that might be a bit dramatic. After all, the poor guy does have an existing bed that he could use. But it wouldn't be ideal.

So I called the company to make sure it would ship in time. They seemed like a pleasant local shop in Houston--even better. (And I easily found them on the Web; good for them!)

I asked them about when the order would ship, and here's what transpired (name of company changed for protection):

Friendly Fur: Considering we just got your order and it takes three days to process it, it won't be going out until later next week.
JP: But, but, it says that it takes one to three days from order placement.
FF: That's when we place the order.
JP: Oh, I thought it was when I placed the order. I wish you guys had published that bit of information.
FF: And, if you cancel, the system is going to charge you about 5 percent, just so you know. By the way, it says it on the website.
JP: Yeah, if I read all the fine print and click around to where it's hidden. Why 5 percent?
FF: Restocking.
JP: It was never de-stocked! Frankly, according to you it hasn't even been ordered yet!

Frustrating? You bet, but not just because I wasn't going to get the merchandise. I was frustrated because this small business could have had a customer for life, one that could tell everyone about the great experience and products.

If you're a small retailer, you've got it hard enough; don't lose a potential customer because of bad customer service and annoying store policies. Remember, I found them online while doing an organic search. They didn't have to pay a cent in advertising for me to find them.

Here are my three takeaways from this experience:

1. When anyone places an order on your site, the time it takes to ship starts that day, that hour or that minute. A customer isn't going to care how long it takes you to process it.

2. Get it in a box and ship it. Use USPS; if it fits it ships!

3. Never, never, never have your customer service people start reading what your website policy says. If someone is unhappy with a situation, at least let them leave and cancel with you, or you'll feel their wrath!

I did finally find a place, a small business on Amazon, where I knew the order would be processed and I'd get it in time. And most importantly, Dwight had a super comfy bed to relax in after a long day exploring the Big Apple.

As a small business, what are you doing above and beyond to compete with the big boys?

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