Thursday, December 11, 2008

Small business owners: don't be a jerk

My girlfriend Sophia is an assistant manager at Abercrombie and Fitch, and is thus bombarded with more than her fair share of rude customers. One story she told me this week was about a woman who went ballistic after asking to try on one of the mannequins' jackets and being told no.

Now, people are just crazy, and Sophia has told me many stories like this before. What was so different this time?

Well, the crazy lady played the business owner card: if it were her store, she would have gladly taken the jackets off the display mannequins. This know-it-all "business owner" then proceeded to hound Sophia for her full name and pressed her for her employee ID so she could file a formal complaint, and refused to go through the normal channels.

It is precisely this self-serving arrogance and provincial, narrow-minded ignorance that keeps small business owners from being taken seriously. As a former small business owner myself, I know that the burden is heavy: you've got to worry about employees, customers and growing your business. On top of that, you have the responsibility to make sure any legal paperwork is in order and that taxes are taken care of. But just because you're able to handle this does not mean that you know all there is to know, and that your way of doing things is the only way.

In response to this growing sense of self-importance, here are three things to keep in mind. (I use these reminders to keep myself in check, too.)

a) Rules and processes have a place, even if you choose to forgo them. As a small business owner, you can get by with fewer rules and processes in place. In fact, in most cases you do much better when you're flexible. But larger businesses have a much harder time being flexible; it's not impossible, just much harder. They have to manage everything more strictly in order to hold together the larger whole. A little sloppiness in your store can be passed off as "charming." In a national chain where customers expect extreme tidiness and consistency, that sloppiness is not charm. It is chaotic, and it is poor business.

b) Not everyone enjoys the same latitude to call the shots as you do. You may be your own boss, but most people have someone else to answer to. I've found that being a business owner, seeing the bigger picture, and having the power to remedy things has turbocharged my ability to take the initiative, even after going back to working for someone else. Still, despite having passion for my line of work and understanding its larger implications, I have much less scope to make important decisions. In large companies, even CEOs don't wield absolute power, because they have a board of directors and shareholders to please.

c) You are not special, so don't expect special treatment. A couple of years ago, I received a parking ticket by mistake. I knew that I had moved my car in time, and so I decided that I would write in to contest it. One of my co-owners suggested that I take a tough stance and mention that I was a business owner — as if that had anything to do with my guilt or innocence. I mentioned it anyway, thinking that a little reminder about my contribution to the community wouldn't hurt. Still, I didn't want to rely on that mostly irrelevant fact, so I put much more effort into stating the facts of the case. I drew a diagram of where I had parked, when I had moved my car, when I had been ticketed, and why it was a mistake. In the end I got the ticket waived, but I have a good hunch it had more to do with stating the facts than mentioning that I was a "business owner."

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