Ace Hardware has customer service at the top of their quotient for success. When Jeremy Melnick’s grandfather opened his first Ace Hardware store in 1950, there were no Wal-Marts, Lowe’s was a five-and-dime, and Home Depot was 29 years away from opening. Despite the intense present competition, business is good. The reason for success, explains Ace CEO John Venhuizen, are store owners with a deep knowledge of their local market, inventory fine-tuned to a neighborhood’s demographic and the sort of exacting customer service a typical big-box store with low pay and high employee turnover just can’t match. Jeremy Melnick, 43, knows the make and model of bathroom faucets installed in every condo complex and apartment building within a short drive of all his Chicago stores–a boon in attracting fellow small business owners, like local plumbers, to Ace. “It’s a differentiator,” says Venhuizen, “and it’s exceedingly hard.”

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Jeremy says, “We’re making our money $20 to $25 at a time.” Ace hardware doesn’t sell lumber, but does sell what seems like every kind of lightbulb in production. Rather than navigate the labyrinthine aisles of a big box or wait in the dark for an Amazon delivery, go where the customer service is supreme, Ace Hardware. Ace actually opened its first warehouse just prior to the 1929 crash and subsequent economic devastation, its founders capitalizing on a need for hardware and tools as homeowners were forced to do their own patching up and repairing. They are still a retailer-owned co-op, which means its store owners are its only shareholders. Thousands of entrepreneurs like the Melnicks band together to boost their collective buying power and reduce costs.

How can you improve your customer service? This question especially applies to most artists and entertainer as sole proprietors. I always appreciate GoDaddy, where I host my website, as I get a live person on the phone every time I call. I hope that never changes! When I was recently ordering additional copies of my book, Stuck is Not a Four-Letter Word, I insisted on enough of a discount so I could offer the book in the back of the room sales at a price to at least match Amazon’s prices. (Amazon discounts everything!) With some of my products, I offer free shipping. (also something many online sellers offer!) As more of our population expects immediacy with downloads and same-day service, keeping up with the expectations of quality customer service and shipping features is no easy task!

My website Sheet Music Page links to for sheet music downloads on demand. It takes extra work on my end to upload files, artwork and descriptions, but SheetMusicPlus is a site moving forward with the download technology the consumer expects. Customer service can take on many forms. I know of speakers who send prospective clients special content boxes with copies of their books, and even a specially produced video, advertising their upcoming event for the organization. (after the event books them, that is!) Providing immediate downloads of songs, videos and sheet music is a wonderful business feature and form of customer service. Put your thinking cap on. Even if you’re a small fish in a big pond of big-box businesses, learn from Ace Hardware. Apparently Ace still works hard at their customer service and as a result, is thriving in an ever-changing economy. That means there’s a chance for you and I!
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