I Am Not Your Customer (rant)

Lesley Tweedie

I own a brick and mortar business in Chicago and I am also the founder of Little Independent, which is a web-based company that sells t-shirts and mugs with small business logos.   

We’ve been around since 2011 but we’ve only recently re-launched with this new product.  Our original website was an aggregate marketplace for items from independent retail stores.  It grew to have almost 100 stores in 22 states but it wasn’t effectively delivering on the value proposition I had intended for stores or shoppers.  We had accomplished a lot but I decided to close that site down and try something new. 

I am pitched to a lot and I have also spent a lot of time presenting my own product to small businesspeople.  I know it is very difficult.  I had a few thoughts I think might help entrepreneurs and sales reps that want to reach independent retailers and restaurateurs. 

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1.  I am not your customer. In my store I am trying to solve problems and provide products and services for the people who call, e-mail or stop in.  When you call, e-mail or stop in to sell to me, I throw up a wall because it usually seems like you don’t respect the dynamic I’m comfortable with.  Maybe we can work together somehow but I’m not used to being the customer in my business and I don’t care for it.

2.  A few times a week an entrepreneur will ask to talk to me about their company because it focuses on small businesses and that’s my thing.  I always hear “I really wanna help small businesses.” Or “I’m just so passionate about supporting local.” That’s great to hear and hopefully those folks both walk the walk and talk the talk.   Action speaks louder than words.  Truthfully we want your business, not your help.  The best thing you can do for small businesses is to be a good customer.  Shop, eat and drink local.  Tell your friends why and where you do.  Don’t ask local shopkeepers to price match Amazon while you scan barcodes in their shops on your phone.  Do all those things and mean it before you look to me to be your customer.  Be mine. 

3.  Try to see things from my perspective.  I’ve got pitches flying at me from all sides.  There are some services I need like legal, accounting, utilities, and distributors but once I have them established I’m not likely to change unless I become unhappy.  If you’re offering a new service I don’t already have, it’s probably a “could do” not a “have to” for me.  Keep in mind there are so many things I could do that may or may not help my business but as long as I’m meeting my goals (full tables, happy customers, turning inventory, bills paid,) I don’t have to do anything.  Sometimes I get the impression that entrepreneurs think I must be soft in the head to not jump up and down to try their new thing because it’s just the best thing ever and will totally be game changing for my business.  Keep in mind, it’s my choice and sometimes I choose to say no or, not right now.  It’s not because I’m not a good business owner or not ambitious, I just have my own customers to focus on. 

4.  On that note, you have to overcome the fact that you’re not the first person pitching me this month, week or day.  That’s not your fault but it’s a reality.  The deal market became so oversaturated.  All the pitchers wanted to explain why his or her thing is different.  Give or take, they all sound the same to me.  Maybe I’m not listening well, but I’m busy.  Everyone wants something from the shopkeeper.  Content. Time. Discounts. Have you even ever been in my store? Are you my customer or are you another sticky hand tugging at my skirt?

5.  Don’t assume I have a problem first of all.  Then, don’t assume that if I did have a problem I’d be looking to you to solve it for me.  Do I even know you? Are you my customer?  So many entrepreneurs jump quickly into the “What’s your struggle?” narrative.  Just because I’m a small businessperson doesn’t necessarily mean I’m always struggling. 

6.  Don’t give up. I hope some of what I said helps you think about how to deliver a sales pitch to a brick and mortar shopkeeper.  I do it all the time and I’m not like the best ever at it.  It’s really, really hard but if you believe what you’re offering is a good product for small business then, spread the word.  You’re a small businessperson too.  Just be empathetic, respectful and most importantly, be a good customer.   


Some specifics based on things that actually happen all the time:

  1. If you call, start by asking if it’s a good time to talk.  If I say no, offer to call back or ask if you can e-mail me some information I can take a look at when I have time.
  2. Don’t stop in a Saturday. Don’t stop in when I have customers in the store. Don’t stop in if I didn’t ask you to.  Maybe, don’t stop in at all or if you do, be nice and quick.  “I’m not sure if this is a good time but I just wanted to drop off some information about blabityblah and I’ll follow-up with you later.”
  3. Follow-up.  Sometimes I tell an entrepreneur “No, not now but follow-up with me later.” and a lot of people don’t.  I have the luxury of taking my time to make a decision so, if you want me to say yes, check in. 
  4. Be nice. There seems to be a trend or sort of mean pitches.  Pointing out flaws. The “I thought you might want to know why you’re losing customers” angle.  Ummm… really?  I know our website is not responsive.  We’re gonna hire someone to fix it.  Will it be you? Prolly not.  It’s kind of like Adam Levine on the Voice.  The say something kind of mean so they’ll want to win your love approach.  That doesn’t really work for me.  Be kind. We’re doing a lot right.  If we hadn’t been busy helping customers, we would have updated the site already.
  5. Don’t say negative things about your competitors while pitching. It doesn’t make you look good. 
  6. If you ask if you can stop by, I will probably say no.  Just put your info. out there in a clear, and concise way.  Make me aware of it. Be nice. Be on my radar. If I need your service, maybe a year later, I’ll come to you.
  7. Edit the e-mail you’re copy and pasting so that the name of the last business you contacted isn’t there.  Duh.
  8. I could cut and paste actual pitch e-mails but this is plenty long already. Thanks to Built In Chicago for giving me a place to rant. 

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Joan McAlpin
I LOVED this rant! A year ago, for financial reasons, I took a job with a software company after 15 years of working with my husband at our own small business. Every word you wrote rings true to us. Kudos for putting it out there as a learning opportunity. Your candor and honesty strike me as authentic. And for me, authenticity is the mark of a strong brand. Best wishes to you!
Lesley Tweedie
Thanks so much Joan! You've made my day. :)
Joan McAlpin
Happy to oblige :)
Alex Fedotov
You forgot to explain where the mean shopkeepers will go (and it can happen pretty soon) if they fail to listen carefully to what they are being said now. I can explain if you want.
Lesley Tweedie
I see your point Alex. It's always good to hear people out and it's never good to be mean. It's important to try new things especially when you like the presentation. The landscape is always changing but if any retailer has a business that they deem to be doing well right now, they must be doing something right. Not saying you do this, but I would hope you would never pitch a business-owner with an attitude of "If you don't listen to me, your business is doomed to fail." I've gotten those pitches and fortunately, we're still standing. Some of those other businesses are not. I want everybody to be successful though. More business, more better.
Alex Fedotov
It is outright stupid to say to a business owner "you are doomed to fail", nobody argues that, but... The small grocery stores indeed HAD customers which they were serving well, then the grocery store chains came... The small hardware stores HAD customers who they were serving well, then the Home Depot came... Department stores HAD lots and lots of customers who were HAPPY, then the vertical retail companies like Walmart emerged... Now, the e-commerce companies are landing their biz on your turf, where your happy customers are living, and they are not joking... It's a wiser strategy for a small biz owner to pay more attention to the bigger picture right now. For example, look at the malls... will they survive? And this is a big question mark.
Lesley Tweedie
Of course things change. No one is buying buggy whips either. I know a lot of indie grocers, hardware store owners, boutiques, books stores, coffee shops, eateries and others that are still around and still HAVE happy customers. Will all survive? Of course not, but there is a place for business that's not online or a chain. Always has been, and in my opinion, always will be. I am not not paying attention to the big picture. We're always trying to provide the best service and customer experience we can to keep people coming in and recommending us to their friends. Basic or innovative? Whatever works. My point here though was about pitchers. Anyone approaching me to get me to buy, not with the intention of buying from me, is asking me to be a customer. Therefore... customer service. Gotta run. Thanks for the dialogue though. :) PS: This is sort of biased hippy stuff but still, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-human-cost-of-stuff/bright-spots-o..., it's not all bad for independent businesses.
Alex Fedotov
Think about the fact that 60% of Americans do their research online (and up to 85% for some types of items and services) before ANY purchase decision (and it keeps growing says Gartner). Why bother to resist what the potential 'happy customers' want?

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