(Listen to this post, here.)
They closed the bagel store near my house.
That’s right, closed. I showed up for breakfast a few weeks ago – as I have been doing two or three times a week for the past ten years – and the place was shut down cold.
Uh oh, that’s a problem.
And so thinking as clearly as a man without coffee can think, I hopped back in my car and drove around the corner to Panera Bread.
I figured what’s the difference, right? They have bagels, they have coffee … they even have free Wi-Fi and a heart-stopping selection of pastries to choose from.
But you know what? A few things – a few very important things – aren’t right.
It’s not the selection or the price or the convenience. It’s not the quality of the food, the cleanliness of the store, or the accuracy of the order-taking.
The fact is, it’s not any of the things we think we care about when deciding where to eat breakfast.
No, the critical differences between my privately owned, one-off bagel store and the highly automated food factory that is Panera Bread, are both more subtle and more important than any of these objective features…
The bagel store was personalized. They knew my name and I knew theirs. They prepared my “usual” without my having to say anything (sesame bagel with hummus; horseradish on the side; medium, black, dark roast coffee). Sometimes, if they saw me drive into the parking lot, my coffee was already waiting by the time I walked in the door.
The bagel store was consistent. The coffee was always hot, the bagels were always fresh, the people were always friendly.
At Panera, it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes the coffee has been sitting lukewarm in the canister for a couple of hours. Sometimes it takes forever to get your food. Sometimes you get a friendly person and sometimes you don’t.
It’s not that Panera doesn’t care, by the way. It’s just that when you run a huge operation spanning over 1,800 locations in the U.S. and Canada, it’s really, really hard to deliver anything better than a reasonably good experience, most of the time.
The bagel store was a community. I said hello to the same people every day: The high school basketball coach who dressed up on game day; the two elderly sisters who hung onto each other as they came in the door; the bagel baker himself, who left to go home at 9:45 each morning.
There’s none of that at Panera; it’s huge and impersonal. And while I already recognize some now familiar faces, there’s scant chatter or interaction between the patrons. We’re all together, but we’re all alone.
So, why does any of this matter? Good question.
It matters because everything about why the bagel store experience is infinitely more satisfying than the indifferent exchange of money for food at Panera, relates to why you, as a solo professional, can outperform your larger competitors.
You, too, have the opportunity to make the experiences that people have with you and your business more personal, more consistent and more cohesive – and all in a way that differentiates you from the big guys.
How? Here’s a few ideas:
- Do things that don’t scale well. Send handwritten notes; answer the phone when it rings; send unanticipated gifts to clients and colleagues (books are always well received); stop forcing people to fill in a form on your web site in order to send you an email. Big organizations hate exceptions from the established process – they are hard to manage and they slow down the machine. So do things that machines aren’t good at doing.
- Be more human. Tell stories from your own experience; use real photos of real people on your web site; voice an opinion; speak and write like a normal person (like this – see how easy it is?).When you tell a story about a place you visited, tie it into a business lesson and include first-hand photos along the way, you’re doing something that a big company can only dream about.
- Stir the pot. Introduce like-minded colleagues to each other; host a local get-together and invite some friends to join in; tell others about the people and resources that you’ve found valuable.
Here’s the bottom line. No business can succeed without delivering good quality products or services at a reasonable price.
But in a world where pretty much everything you buy is “good enough,” it’s the soft stuff that’s going to make me take notice, tell my friends, and keep coming back.
P.S. If you can recommend a personalized, consistent, breakfast-eating community in the greater Hopkinton, Massachusetts area, I’d appreciate it!
Discussion Questions (add your comments below):
- What things do you do to leverage the small size of your business?
- Do you think horseradish and hummus is a weird combination?
- Well maybe you should try it before making assumptions, don’t you think?
- I’m sorry, that was unnecessarily harsh.
Share your comments below!
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Great post and yes, you have it right. I read along and knew that I had to send you a note and ask about the Hummus and horseradish before i ever saw your suggested questions? I love hummus and I love horseradish (honest) but together – you’ve got me I will try it? Also, I need the rest of the story – where is your bagel store? What happened and what could we have done to help them be there today for you and the others? I am sure you are not the only one who misses their community involvement. M2
It’s a great combination (I think). A little spark to the blandness!
The entire story is that the owner is well into his seventies and had been having some health problems, so after 18 years I heard he was ready to call it quits. On to the next venue!
And you mean that he did a “stealth” retirement with no notice to you and the rest of the regulars?
Certainly, he was entitled to take his well earned “golden years” when he felt the time had come — but your tale suggesting that he closed as usual on one day and simply failed to open the next, sounds out of character for the kind of community and relationships that you attributed to him and his bagel shoppe.
The horseradish alone should wake you up in the morning.
I frequent Panera for their great soup at lunch, but you are
right about the impersonal interaction with the people that
And the Wi-Fi users sitting at all the tables are in a world of
their own, with not even a nod of recognition to people
Too bad about your hometown bagel institution, but we have
found that Einstein Bagels started letting their coffee get old
and cold, too. So we moved to Corner Bakery and now they
are getting cheap about keeping coffee hot in the canisters.
What’s the world coming to?
Those great local spots – “where everybody knows your name” – are hard to find.
Hi Michael, Most of the time your stories and the morals thereto (see, I can talk like a lawyer!) mesh pretty well… but not this time. The logical conclusion to draw from your experience is that at least in today’s retail world, the soft stuff is NOT going to keep most of your customers coming back… or perhaps not going to bring new customers into your store. [Actually it is more likely the latter]. If it were your bagel store would still be there. (Actually we don’t know if the owner had non-business reasons for closing)
It always amazes me how often a new, one-off store opens around here and doesn’t reach out to the community with a reason to come in and try it. To me, it’s a recipe for disaster unless the goods or services they offer are unique.
I mentioned to Mary above that it appears to have been for nonbusiness reasons. But either way, the nonbusiness stuff (for all of us) is the price of admission. I continue to be happily amazed by how effective taking care of the relationship side of things seems to be in helping a busines thrive.
P.S. And hat tip to you on the “thereto.” I think that was the first time in my life I ever typed that word!
I would agree with Bruce that this story isn’t an example of how the “soft stuff” can help contribute as a competitive advantage to the “big guys” like Panera. The fact that even without a cup of coffee you would head immediately out to Panera is perhaps indicative of how fickle consumer’s preferences are and how a small business owner needs to monitor the market and adapt in order to satisfy those changing customer preferences.
Doing the same thing for 10 years, even though warm and inviting to you, may not be what the consumer is looking for, especially hummus and horseradish combinations!
Hello Bob Katz!*
I agree, we are a fickle species. Lucky for me, since based on facts alone my wife would have clearly looked elsewhere.
Thanks for commenting; great to hear from you!
*Clearly not a blood relative or else he would share my love of horseradish and hummus.
Thanks for the reply, cuz.
I do share your love of horseraddish and hummus – just not together!
Such wonderful advice, Michael.
I noticed that your LinkedIn share button (on Shareaholic) doesn’t allow me to select groups. I am in the habit of sharing with one group of small businesses with over a thousand members, and would have done so. I consistently get 60 to 80 clicks from them.
You might want to look into it.
All the best,
Thanks Graeme! I was not aware of the group select option. But yes, something I’ll ask one of the little penguins to check into!
I bothered to click through and come to the website because I knew where you were going with this and wanted to see if you’d get it right. For the most part, you did. However, there’s a related point I think your readership should be aware of about competing with the big guys.
As a solo professional marketing consultant competing against international agencies for major account work, my sales pitch was pretty much as you’ve explained. If a client wanted to pay for a huge office building full of people, a well-known and respected firm and a great many ancillary services; then there wasn’t much I could do about it. However, if they just wanted that unforgettable, brilliant marketing concept that would make every media and production dollar work harder for them–then I could do it as well or better than the big guys and at a fraction of the cost. The sales pitch worked on quite a few individuals within large corporations, however, which individuals is the part you left out. My clients were the risk takers…the mavericks…the decision makers who wanted to work hand-in-hand on a personal basis. Most of my clients became friends, as well. Together we created some great advertising and had a lot of fun.
The clients I could never get were the ones who wanted to play it safe. The idea of hiring a solo professional terrified them. What if the campaign failed? They’d have to take ownership of the failure because they hired an unproven commodity. Whereas, if they hired the big, well-known firm they could simply say, “Well I used (name of firm). They’re the biggest in the country and the one everybody else uses. It’s not my fault they didn’t get it right.”
So, to your sage advice on competing against the big guys, I would merely add this. Look for that maverick client…the risk taker and have him or her be your champion within the account. Don’t waste your time trying to convince the other guys. And one more thing, stick with that risk taker and do everything you can to make them successful. As you help them save money and increase results they’ll move up in the company, have bigger budgets and, they’ll take you with them.
Worked for me.
Thus it has always been. In the early days of PC’s you could never get a buyer to buy anything except IBM – their decision to pick that supplier could never be questioned, even though the non-IBMs were a better value (lower cost and/or higher performance)
I agree Don. The nice thing about a particular approach, whether that’s via a niche or something else, is that we, as solos, can afford to have the vast majority of people and companies *not* want to work with us.
The number of potential clients is so much larger than the number any of us could ever work with that they key, as you point out, is to connect with the ones who do.
Thanks for keeping in touch!
Horseradish and hummus IS a weird combination, especially in the morning. I can try it and even *like* it, and still think it’s weird. I have chocolate at all hours of the day, but not sure if that makes me weird so much as an addict.
Regarding the personal touch in small business, I happened to go to a little coffee shop recently to work while I waited for my car to be serviced. It was full of personality and charm, the food and beverages were delicious, but the people were what made it. They cared so much about their product and their store, that I couldn’t help but join in! They were certainly friendly to me, too, but not to the point that I was turned off (that’s easy to do — I sound super unfriendly, I know). It was their passion for their business that came through as they recommended pastries and made my drink. While I was there, several patrons came in who were obviously regulars, and it felt like I was watching a family reunion.
They did not have Wi-Fi, and they aren’t close to my house, but I will likely return there the next time I want to “work from home” away from home.
As a side note, does Panera sell hummus OR horseradish??
I love the sound of the place you’ve found. Driving to the west coast each morning may delay the start of my day a bit, but it could be worth it.
Not sure on the hummus or horseradish at Panera. I found the special orders over there cause a bit of confusion, so I try to keep to the menu offerings!
Excellent comments from everyone! Bruce and Bob may well be right in saying that it takes more than “soft stuff” to succeed, and that your beloved bagel shop may have closed for any number of reasons. I would defend your “few ideas,” to the very death, however. So often, in businesses people think that they should use depersonalizing automation whether it is needed or not, and that they should talk like they have a broomstick inserted per rectum, instead of like people.
Don’t get us wrong… Michael’s advice is spot on but I like to tweak him since I’ve known him ever since he was a penguin chick.
You guys are feisty today – I go home for 90 minutes to eat lunch and rake some leaves and I’ve come back to a free for all!
I’m kidding though, I love the comments after publishing something. It’s the community part of publishing that we never had prior to blogs and the ability to comment that they gave us. People get to know each other. Very cool!
I miss your bagel place too…and I’ve never been there! Great article. And yes, horseradish with hummus sounds weird, but I will take your word for it. 🙂
Come to my house Laura and I’ll make one up for you.
Actually, and very coincidentally, I was thinking about stopping the bagel eating anyway after hearing a doctor on NPR say that “eating a bagel was about the same as eating a bowl of Skittles.”
It appears my low carb decision has been made for me!
1. I create video newsletters for CPA’s. I offer the opportunity for my clients help create and edit the content for their newsletters, instead of it being a one-size-fits-all mentality.
2. No more so, than bologna and whip cream.
3. You try mine first.
4. Yes. Yes it was.
I like your #1 Charles!
And 2- 4 as well (I like a man who answers numbered questions in order!).
Great post. I love how you brought all that together. Thank you for all your shared thoughts. I appreciate you.
Thank you Terry. I very much appreciate your appreciation too!
Michael, in concept I agree with what you are saying. However, I see a different perspective on your particular situation. Do you know why specifically your old bagel shop closed? If it was for lack of sufficient sales, then that leads me to believe that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult, if not outright impossible, to open a retail store that competes with a chain. It’s exactly what you are saying is an advantage that puts them at a POSSIBLE financial disadvantage. The retail store spends so much time on the personalized service that they aren’t generating the sales volume necessary to be profitable.
This reminds me of the owner of the café in Referral of a Lifetime. On the surface, it appears that he’s running a coffee shop in a similar manner to how you remember your bagel shop. However, what happens when the word gets out, business booms, and now it’s so busy that the new owner simply can’t keep up with remembering the names and preferences of each customer. He certainly won’t be able to have a prime table available for each special customer that comes in. At this point, he becomes very similar to the Panera’s or Starbucks out there. (Note, I frequent a particular Starbucks near my office. Just when I thought the staff was getting to know me, they rotated in a whole new crew. I had to educate them, again, on my preference for the custom “1%” milk drink.)
On the other hand, if you apply this to a service/consulting type of business, then I could see how it’s nothing but advantageous. For this I refer to the last example in Referral of a Lifetime. Again, I can’t remember her name but it was the woman that took over the business from her father and now had a booming computer business with numerous marketing staff.
I confess to knowing next to nothing about how to be successful in retail. But I agree that for people like us – selling a professional service – the soft stuff plays an important role. Good Referral of a Lifetime points as well (a recommended book for those who are not familiar).
What’s maybe most interesting to me about today’s discussion is the importance of tying a story into whatever we write or present. The bagel store makes the business “lesson” of the day real, and helps people connect with it in a way that the facts or recommendations alone wouldn’t. The challenge, of course, is thinking up how to tie a particular story + lesson together!
I meant to add…..if the bagel shop closed because it lost its lease or something else completely out of its control, then that blows my whole argument out of the water.
Your thoughts often make me smile, Michael (thank you)… and this particular thought also makes me wonder if perhaps the common denominator in this sort of “soft stuff” marketing is that we’re “touched” in a way that causes an oxytocin release in our human brain-bodies? That seems at least plausible to me. If you dig the hummus-and-horseradish combo, though, I feel absolutely confident recommending that you give kimchi mashed potatoes a try (you’re welcome).
My wife is into food that most other humans have never heard of so I will pass along the kimchi mashed potato suggestion. Do you recommend mixing in the Oxytocin with it?
Thanks for joining the conversation (come back soon!).
One more comment….I started typing my response before anyone else had responded. I didn’t see all of these responses until after I hit submit. It’s interesting to note that quite a few agreed with my premise……
Great minds, my friend!
Hummus and horseradish arefair play. What I don’t get is peanut butter on a cinnamon raisin bagel. That is un-bagel-like.
You may have a point there, Bob!
Whoa! Just read the post – what a great one! I’m going to read through it again later today.
P.S. Exchange the hummus with lox and I’m good. 🙂
350 newsletters! Maybe you could celebrate by dressing up like a clown and going door to door asking for candy tonight.
Oh, and that was a great newsletter, too!
I’ll disguised in my usual terrifying costume: bald middle-aged man. Boo!
Panera has horseradish??
I realize Quincy is a long way from Hopkinton. But if you ever venture here, say to do the marvelous Adams Presidential tour, I’ll take you to my favorite breakfast place (also lunch), just a stone’s throw from my office.
You’re on, Michelle! Looking forward to it.
I gotta say, horseradish and hummus sounds like a fabulous combination (then again, I like horseradish on cottage cheese, too, so I may be an outlier). My condolences on the loss of your local bagel shop…just a bummer.
Give it a try, Jen. And thanks, on to the next spot for me!
Three things…. First, even here on the other side of the world this idea is totally applicable. I see it everywhere. It’s not rocket surgery.
Second, why is it so easy to see this in a business I know nothing about (bagels aren’t anything like “big” here and I don’t drink coffee) and so difficult to see in my own business?
Three, a friend of mine from Dallas introduced me to a plain bagel sliced into 3 or 4, with onion slices (home-grown) and topped by a dollop of peanut butter (store-bought). Yummo.
Some snow flurries outside my window this morning so as usual this time of year, I’m envious of you and your warming hemisphere.
And I know what you mean about how hard it is to see simple changes in our own respective businesses. I think that’s just the nature of the beast – we have trouble seeing it because so much of it quickly becomes habit.
I’m not a solo professional. I run a small software company that provides ‘waste matching services between companies and organizations that have surplus materials, with those who can use them. We also help companies and organizations reuse things internally instead of wasting them, or buying new.
But the same approach you advocate has helped us with our small business. We stress that we’re NOT a big business. When you work with us, you talk to the President of the company. When you ask us to be flexible, we can be. When we price our services, we don’t pay high rise rent…and pass the cost on to you.
And ..we’re human too. We’re not ‘the man in the grey flannel suit’. We wear Khaki pants and blue jeans. I do volunteer driving for people who need to go to medical appointments. One of us is a ‘bike zealot’ and does 20 Km daily.
The best response I ever had to one of our newsletters was when I mentioned that I helped with a volunteer ecological group, and wrote about my trip to China for a twinning exercise.
So I think the local bagel shop has an advantage and a disadvantage compared to Panera. The disadvantage is ‘it’s not a formula’. The advantage is ‘it’s not a formula’.
Thank you for bringing humanity back into business, and for encouraging us to use it as an advantage.
So well put, Norm, thank you. I think your point about each business having advantages and disadvantages is terrific. The key, it seems, is recognizing our individual strengths and weaknesses and using those as a guide in how we do business.
So true, Michael. Many of us want to feel important, so we resort to “acting big.” All the chest puffery hardly puffs up our wallets.
I think I’ve embraced being small, yet every now and then I’ll catch myself puffing (and huffing) again.
And congrats on your 350th issue! You’re a gem.
P.S. Wouldn’t The Puffery make a decent name for a bagel shop? 😉
Thanks for writing, I’m glad the post today was helpful. And I would definitely frequent The Puffery.
Excellent piece. So helpful.
It’s true that when we feel outmatched we really are not seeing the advantages we actually hold. Be more personal, engaged, responsive and service oriented. Find a way to be memorably unique and satisfying.
Then watch as price becomes less of an issue and relationships become strong and you are seen in the way Michael saw his bagel store.
Great to hear from you. And thank you for your concise summary – well put!
Yes, it is a very weird combination! These concepts apply to small companies, too, who can’t price as competitively as the big guys. I spend half my time writing personal notes and thinking of creative gifts for prospects…
Great tips, as always, Michael!
Thank you for posting, Brenda! Feel free to share some of your best client/prospect gift ideas. Always helpful to learn what’s working for others.
The wife and I were deciding on a Chinese restaurant to visit last night, and decided to eat at the one we’ve visited many times before. It’s one we’ve been to with our family and with large groups of friends.
It’s closed. And I’m sad! It (the great memories from there) was that important to me.
Michael, don’t give up looking for a ‘local’ breakfast community.
Sorry to hear about your local spot, Bryan! And I’ll keep trying on breakfast, don’t you worry.
Fortunately, I also have a local bar that I visit every Tuesday night with a few friends and that offers a similar “hometown” experience!
Another great post packed with useful advice, Michael. Especially the “write like a human” bit – WHY can’t more people get this?!
Even if you are in a service business and up against the big boys, like this bagel store was, I know it is possible to get the best of both worlds – traditional service values, combined with tricks the large outlets use to whip up sales.
For example, no matter how small your coffee shop, you can still collect email addresses in return for small incentives. Then, you can run small-scale promotions and raise awareness via email.
Or, for fun, you can let people know when the scary looking guy in the bald middle-aged outfit is likely to be dining, so they can all come in to enjoy being terrified, sort of like visiting the fairground and the coffee shop at once, all for the price of breakfast.
Combine things that ONLY the small business can do well with things the big businesses already do, like email marketing, and you’re onto a winner.
Often small businesses think that this sort of stuff is beyond them. But now, with platforms like MailChimp et al, it’s easy.
Best Wishes – Rick Siderfin.
Thanks for posting. And, in particular, for sharing specific examples. I’m sure those are helpful to people (and me too)!
I feel for you losing your bagel spot. That’s hard to replace.
But you got a good post from it – even though you’d trade back in a heartbeat.
Thanks for including the link to Ramon’s post – it adds a dimension to yours and also validates
that what you are telling us really works.
My answer to 2. — Anything on a bagel is good.
I’m glad you liked Ramon’s post. I was talking to him the other day and saying how much I liked the fact that he had half a dozen photos in his post, as opposed to the one (often stock photo) that we all tend to rely on.
It made me wonder if this is something that will catch on. After all, nobody would leave just one photo up on the screen during an entire spoken presentation, so why not use several in a given newsletter or blog post too? I may try it!
Thanks for keeping in touch,
Hi Everybody! Here’s a question for the group of you who’ve commented on this post – why were there so many comments this time (58 as of this writing)? That’s about twice the number I typically get.
I ask because people often ask me, “How can I get more comments and reader interaction on my blog?” I’ve never been able to offer a particularly clear answer, and yet, on occasion, there’s a post like today’s that stands out from the rest.
Is it just chance? Is it because telling a story about a bagel store is something we can all have an opinion on?
Why do you think today’s post had so many comments and, more important, are there any rules of thumb that we can all use going forward to make this happen more often?
I confess to an ulterior motive, albeit a benign one. Now that I have a site to promote, I am keen to provide value to success hunters the world over by contributing to communities like this.
That way, I hope to generate more traffic and ultimately more subscribers to The Lift Letter from WingsToSuccess.com – I hope you don’t mind?
On a more specific note, I think that this post was easy to relate to. Judging by the wide variety of interesting and valuable comments it generated, many of us felt we had a observation to make in relation to it….and then there is your [somewhat unusual] choice of breakfast, which also provoked interesting feedback!
Keep up the excellent work.
Best Wishes – Rick Siderfin
PS how does one customise one’s avatar on here?
Thanks for your thoughts re comments.
To include your photo with your posts (called a Gravatar), watch this simple, short video:
Set it up once and you’re set for evermore (or so).
That worked! Thanks Michael!
Great post. I am going to send to my coffee shop manager to use as inspiration. (We offer fresh bagels as well but alas we don’t have horseradish to serve on the side – yet)
Of course the shop in this story did go out of business. Which is sad. I worry that could happen to our coffee shop as our town (Portsmouth, NH) is gentrifying at an amazing pace. Most of the customers we had a few years ago are no longer living in the area and there is no longer much parking.
We will work on the personalized stuff. And I’m going to see if I can incorporate your thoughts in our next version of web site.
If you are in Portsmouth stop by our coffee shop/ coffee roasting company.
Port City Coffee Roasters. We have been roasting coffee in small batches in Portsmouth since 1992.
Thanks for your post, Derek! We usually get up your way at least once in the summer; I will drop in.