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  • Writer's pictureMark Olivito

The Small Business “Sorry” Dilemma

I root very hard for the success of the small, locally owned small business. A thriving small business community is a cornerstone to a great OVERALL community.

But I can’t help but scratch my head at a recent experience.

The Scene?

  • A local deli in an industrial area of NJ. Opens at 6am, serves typical breakfast food, coffee, etc.

I asked the owner “how’s business been?”

“Extremely slow, never seen it this bad. We’ll see?”

Sounded ominous. And to be honest, a bit de-flating. Maybe because we were chatting about a Jets loss on Monday Night football. Starting the day off with negativity < Optimism!

He proceeded to make the sandwich, I poured a cup of coffee. Sandwich was good and better than the local chains.

But something I took for granted as I finished and topped off my coffee before leaving:

“We charge for re-fills, I’m sorry, that will be $1.65!”

“No problem!” I paid, left and as always, re-played that event and how a small business chooses to compete, or not.

Every business owner has the privilege of making whatever decisions they think are right for their business, it’s one of the beauties of a free economy.

But their WAS one word in this exchange I found a bit telling:

“I’m sorry.”

Apologies in business are somewhat rare. When done with sincerity they are a great customer service building gesture.


Why apologize for your OWN decisions related to how you run your business?

I had some thoughts what prompted his apology….

  • Maybe it’s a new policy?

  • Many customers take a self service station as a license for granted (admittedly presumptuous))?

  • He sees perplexed looks on your customers faces?

  • He really is sorry for charging for a re-fill….

How about a new tool:

The Sorry Meter:

If you find yourself compelled to apologize for business decision, maybe you should think about an alternative to avoid the Sorry to begin with?

There are plenty of alternatives to the dilemma:

Post a humorous sign by the station:

  • “Crappy coffee is cheap and free re-fills work. Great coffee costs money, so we proudly charge for a second cup. Because Life is too short to endure crappy coffee”

Sales Pricing/Promotion 101.

  • Give Free Re-fills for higher ticket transactions. Make it a reward for valuable customers.

  • Just Increase the price of cup #1 and offer free re-fills. Yes, the single cup customers subsidize the multi cup customers, but most would rather have the experience “built in” to the price.

  • Interestingly, this small business had ZERO internet presence. No web page, social media engagement, etc. No Yelp reviews, etc. Maybe his audience is not active, but I doubt it.

How about creating a “Customer Manifesto” that outlines the principles of service and the pricing charged for that service?

How about some direct engagement trying to understand the person walking in the door, what they are about, do they work in an office (or Manufacturing plant) with many people that could be potential customers?

Hustle takes the shape of many forms.

Not recovering costs in business (and then a profit) is a surefire way to bankruptcy, so I would never advocate giving away anything that does not look to generate profit.

All businesses struggle with the need to generate profit TODAY, vs the LONG-Term health of the business. Sustainability is driven by, loyal customers. Loyalty drives Lifetime value, and it’s always preceded by a relationship.

The Challenge?

We are in a hyper-competitive world with so many choices. One decision can either INCREASE trips or $ ring, or DECREASE it. The battle is the transaction. The WAR is the lifetime value of the customer.

It’s possible to win both, but like most great things in life, it won’t happen by accident.

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