This past weekend my family and friends celebrated our daughter Pilar’s 3rd birthday.  Her grand event was held at the Bronzeville Children’s Museum  which meant that I would have the designated job of “goffer” until it was done.  One of the things on my list was getting two Yo Gabba Gabba character balloons filled with helium so that I could bring them to the party.

Well, in case you didn’t know there is apparently a shortage of helium going on currently.  Seems like it happens on an annual basis, but this year party store retailers appear to be limited in their ability to obtain it.  Unless you are in the medical, brewing or welding industries, you are not considered top priority.  Thus, many of the retailers who are selling it have their own restrictions on how they dole it out.  Unfortunately, one of the restrictions that I came across from the “big boys” was that they weren’t filling outside balloons with helium, only ones that were purchased from them.

If you’ve ever hosted a kid’s party, you can relate to the stress of trying to make it all come together.  Needless to say, after going to a couple of the big stores I was getting pretty fed up with the inability to get these balloons filled.  So I decided that I would take a different approach, I’d find a “small business” that specialized in party decorations and the like.

This is where my friend Jo Jo The Balloon Lady enters.  You see, this is a shop that I have seen on my way to our office quite a few times.  I’ve never had a reason to frequent their establishment before this, but as I knew where it was I figured I would see if they would fill my balloons.  I was greeted by a young woman who promptly took my order and told me that it wouldn’t be a problem to get them filled.  It would cost me a little more than normal due to the helium shortage, but as a parent you know there is no price too great when it comes to your child’s happiness.

During this time I also got to speak with the proprietor and learn a little more about their business and just how long they had been there (15 years).  I learned about the passion they had for the business, their commitment to it and just how much their customers meant to them.  I vowed that they would have my business in the future and that I would spread the word about what a gem this little place was.  Which brings me to the subject of this post.

When you’re small business, you have a set of competitive advantages that larger competitors may not.  Thus, always make sure that you leverage the following as they are true tools that can bring you business:

Genuine Customer Service.  The customer service experience is one that can make or break your opportunity to turn a first time customer into a repeat one.  To this end, make sure that your staff is fully vested in just how important it is to make each customer happy.  Whether it’s engaging in conversation, listing to their stories or just greeting them with a smile, make it a part of your operating procedures.

Opportunistic Thinking.  Small businesses are started and run by entrepreneurs.  These are the type of people that see a problem and try to build a better mouse trap to solve it.  Likewise, they are also the ones most likely to “think outside the box” so to speak.  So when the big boys set a certain status quo in the market, but you can figure out a way to capitalize on it, by all means go for it.  “So you don’t want to fill outside balloons because you want the increased margin that comes with people buying balloons from you?  That’s okay, we’ll fill all the balloons you won’t and make a nice little penny off it too!”

Build Relationships.  I’ve said it before but I’ll mention it again; people do business with people they like.  Better yet, people will go out of their way to rant, rave and refer business to people they like.  So treat every customer as a friend and invite them to get to know you.  Likewise, just like Sal the butcher learned that you would want your “special cut” of meat every Friday, make it a point to learn what makes your customers happy.  You’ll soon find that by building these relationships you’ll have the opportunity to service a customer for a lifetime versus just a single transaction.