CX Lessons from Independent Businesses

When it comes to delivering consistently good Customer Experiences, it appears as though bigger is definitely not necessarily better! Over the last decade, independent businesses have increasingly struggled to battle against the ever-growing tide of the corporate world. With more money, resources and power, there are not many countries on the planet who have seen the independent business owner win the battle for survival against the corporate machine.

When consumers want everything to be easier, quicker, and cheaper, it is tough for the small business to differentiate itself in such a competitive landscape. Whilst national and multi national corporates throw everything they can at complex ‘omni channel’ strategies and spend millions on fancy marketing campaigns, the small business owner has to try to stay afloat amidst an environment of increasing business rates and shrinking margins. On face value it looks like a very bleak picture.

However…… you may have sensed there was one of those coming….. although life as an independent business is undeniably difficult, I believe that when it comes to the world of Customer Experience, the independent business is starting to win the battle of big Vs small! As always, I want to explain exactly why by bringing it to life with a story or two… or three….. Let me start with one about a pair of shoes:

The crippling pair of shoes and the cobbler

pioneer shoe repairs

Sitting proudly on one of Britain’s best High Streets, Pioneer Shoe Repairs looks as though it could have legitimately been trading when you were still wearing short trousers! Although I do not know exactly when the business was founded, I believe that this ‘run of the mill’ shoe repairers and key cutters has been plying its trade in the North West of England for a very long time. Having lived in Chester for the last ten years, I must admit I have not noticed it before, always choosing to visit a national chain for shoe and key related services.

Last week, I discovered that they are anything but ‘run of the mill’. I recently purchased a new pair of shoes. They were not cheap – yet after the first week of wearing them, the backs of my heels were almost crippled!! I am not exaggerating!! I spent almost as much money on blister plasters as I did on the shoes themselves!

Describing the excruciating pain (as a man I am probably embellishing slightly here) to my neighbour, Gill, she immediately suggested that I visit Pioneer Shoe Repairs in Hoole. ‘They are amazing’, she exclaimed. ‘They will sort it out for you’. Gill went on to explain that the shop had been in Chester ‘forever’ and was incredibly RELIABLE and TRUSTWORTHY – it had to be worth a go.

So last week, with the incriminating shoes in hand, I visited Pioneer Shoe Repairs for the first time. The immediate thing to strike me was the welcome. A man was busy with a very noisy machine, but it did not stop a lady from giving me a beaming smile and a friendly ‘good afternoon’. I explained the problem . A brief conversation with her colleague and the offending shoes were whisked off to a back room. Much banging and a couple of minutes later, the man reappeared with the shoes.

‘All sorted’, he said. I asked how much I owed him – ‘absolutely nothing’, was his reply. The lovely man also said that if they were still troubling me, I must bring them back. I insisted I pay him something for his trouble – he politely declined. I can confirm that he sorted the problem. The most uncomfortable shoes in the world have become the most comfortable.

So what is the lesson here – the recommendation I received was absolutely bang on. I will never go anywhere else for shoe repairs or key cutting again. I will tell anyone and everyone who needs those services that there is only one place to go. These people are doing a fantastic job of offering a great, friendly, reliable, trustworthy and very personal experience. It is no wonder their business has been in Hoole ‘forever’.

A bit of peace and pasta


Sometimes you stumble across a hidden gem – one that serves up an experience that does not just meet your basic expectations – it positively surprises you. Albertini is just one of those hidden gems on an unremarkable street in between Kings Cross and Euston in Central London. For ten years, it has essentially operated as a cafe during the day, serving up fabulous breakfasts and sandwiches with typical Italian hospitality.

My father, Eric, has been a huge fan of Albertini ever since he started working across the road from their restaurant. Like many of their customers, he is known to the staff by name – this family run business has made a point of making the experience with its customers as personal as possible. On Friday, on my way back home after a week in London, my dad suggested that we have dinner at Albertini. I was a little skeptical. Firstly, I did not know that they served dinner; secondly, I viewed Albertini almost like a ‘greasy spoon cafe’ – not a restaurant for dinner. Despite my reservations, I agreed.

The restaurant may not look particularly glamorous, but it is spotlessly clean. It also has a real atmospheric buzz to it. I realised that my dad had made the right choice as soon as I looked at the simple, unfussy menu. The service was exceptional – friendly and warm. The food was AMAZING – I can honestly say that it was the best Spaghetti Bolognese I have ever eaten in a restaurant – the value for money was unbeatable. For years I have battled to find somewhere to sit and eat while waiting for my train at Euston station – never again.

This independent business knows exactly how to serve up a personal, fabulous quality experience to start or finish a long train journey perfectly! Albertini is not the only independent restaurant that has made me feel this way about a dining experience – it can often feel and taste so much better than the same experience in a national chain.

How long does it take Ian Golding to change a lightbulb?

alec ainley

The answer to this question is ‘a long time’ – especially if the light bulb in question is a tricky little blighter from inside a microwave oven! A few months ago, I was faced with just this challenge – a task that may sound simple to many, is not that easy for a DIY challenged male like myself. You may not even construe this particular task as anything to with DIY, but for me, it is!

Having conquered the not straightforward task of removing the lightbulb from the microwave oven, I did what most uneducated folk tend to do when they need an item such as this. I visited every national DIY retailer, followed by every supermarket within a ten mile radius. Not a single one of them could help me. I was drawing a blank everywhere I turned. As I was starting to despair, it was my wife, Naomi, who once again came up with a suggestion that would resolve the problem – why she just does not decide to cut me out of these tasks altogether I will never know!!

Naomi suggested that I telephone a local independent electrical retailer called Alec Ainley. They have been in Chester ‘forever’ (there is that word again), Naomi said. ‘If anyone can get it, they can’. So, always one to take my wife’s advice, I called them. What followed epitomises the essence of this post. Friendly, knowledgeable, uncomplicated – the man I spoke to knew exactly what I needed within 60 seconds of my phone call. Although he did not have the light bulb in stock, he said he could get it within 24 hours.

True to his word, 24 hours later and I had a message on my phone saying the light bulb had arrived. Going in to Alec Ainley’s premises is like going into a time warp – it looks and smells exactly as you would expect an electrical retailer to be. Once again, I was met with warmth, personality and someone who obviously loves what he does. If I ever need a light bulb of any description again – I know where I will be going. Is it any surprise that this business has been around for over 30 years?

Where is that taxi?

chester airlink

My last story is one that is rather apt for me at the moment. Regular readers of my blog will be fully aware that I travel a lot. I therefore rely regularly on transfers to and from Manchester or Liverpool airport. Anyone who travels – either on business or for pleasure – knows that there are certain elements of the experience that can be very stressful. Transfers to and from the airport are very high up the ‘stress’ list. It is therefore imperative that you are able to rely on whoever is responsible for taking/collecting you – you need to be able to trust that they will be where you want them, when you need them.

For the last two years, I have used a local and independent taxi company to do my transfers – Chester Airlink. They are a model of RELIABILITY, TRUSTWORTHINESS and are able to do everything I need to them to do whilst making the experience a personal and enjoyable one – now who would have thought you could say that about an airport transfer?!

Quite simply, they do exactly what they say they will – spotlessly clean taxis; friendly drivers; always on time – they take away any unnecessary stress from the experience – and for that I will always be grateful to them. It is not often I say that I am grateful for a product or service, but the experience this group of professionals gives me makes me feel that way.

So what is the summary of all of these stories? All of these businesses have been in existence for a decade or more. They take pleasure in doing what they do. They do the right thing for their customers in as personal and friendly a way possible. They take pride in doing what they do exceptionally well. They are as reliable and trustworthy as any business you will find.

They do not have fancy websites and apps. They do not spend money on expensive and extravagant marketing and advertising campaigns. There are no gimmicks or bells and whistles. Just good old fashioned personal experiences that do exactly what their customers want.

As we reach the end of 2016, the quest for year on year double digit growth may be just what is preventing the corporate world from consistently emulating what these and many other independent businesses are able to do. Of course it is challenging to almost impossible to get thousands of people doing what I described in the first paragraph of this summary. That is why I believe (and very much hope) that the future for independent businesses is long and bright. Those of us who want a little bit of love and care – have a look at the shops in your local high street – when did you last visit one – go in and have a look – you may be surprised at what you find….. and experience!