The Double Standard Your Customers Have for Small and Large Businesses

Fair or not, customers apply different expectations for the kind of service they’ll receive from a business based solely on its size. No matter what size category you fall into, here’s how you can use those expectations to your advantage.

The Double Standard Your Customers Have for Small and Large Businesses

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Sometimes the day gets off to a rough start even before you arrive to work.

As an example …

6 a.m.: You stub your toe on the way to the bathroom, which proves to be a faster (albeit less pleasant) method of waking yourself up than caffeine.

6:30 a.m.: Someone changed the toaster settings and your Toaster Scrambles come out looking like old, leather wallets. 

6:40 a.m.: As you run out the door without breakfast (thanks cruel toaster gods), your best employee calls to let you know he has a stomach flu and will be out of commission for the day.

By 10:30 a.m., the best thing about your day is that the coffee you spilled when you had to slam on the brakes (is using a blinker really that hard?) somehow missed your shirt, and the burns on your thighs were only minor. 

With a day like that, is it any wonder you went into that last appointment feeling less friendly and chatty than usual? You weren’t downright rude, just maybe a little more rushed and a little less enthusiastic about the 1,700 questions you had to answer. 

So why did your customer get so pissy?

You’re only human and your customers shouldn’t expect you to come to every appointment and every interaction full of smiles and pleasantries, right?

Yes and no. 

Here’s the thing: Bad days happen to all of us. But a study from the University of Toronto Scarborough shows that when a bad day happens for small businesses and in turn affects the way we present ourselves to our customers, the stakes are higher. That’s because, whether it is fair or not, customers have different expectations for small businesses than they do for larger businesses: They expect us to be nicer. 

You probably have this same expectation yourself, if you really think about it. 

When you go to a big box retailer with a question or concern and get a not-so-friendly “Why should I care?” response from an employee, do you vow to never go back? Or do you say to yourself, “They’re just an employee, I’m just a number, and you just can’t get good, old-fashioned, friendly customer service from big companies anymore.”

What about when you go into a small, locally owned and operated shop with a question or concern? What are your expectations? If you were treated the way you were treated at the big box store, would you be harsher on the small company because you expect more from them?

Well, your customers are just like you. 

The research, which was authored by Pankaj Aggarwal and Linyun Yang and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that customers judge small companies much more harshly than large companies when treated rudely or coldly.

Aggarwal says, “It feels very wrong when a small business mistreats us because we expect them to be warmer and friendlier. On the other hand, we don’t expect larger companies to be particularly warm or friendly, so when they fail to be nice, it doesn’t come as a big surprise.”

In other words, your customers expect less from larger companies and are therefore more forgiving of them when they lack friendliness or are rude. But small businesses — well, we should know better, do better and be better. 

What do customers expect and want from small businesses? They want and expect you to be:

  • Friendly
  • Caring
  • Honest
  • Helpful.

All. The. Time. And if you’re not, you probably won’t get their business or be welcomed back into their home. For small businesses, it’s oftentimes one strike and you’re out. 

The Actionable Takeaway

It may seem this research shows that large companies have the luxury of having bad days without it negatively impacting business. But there’s more to be gleaned from the research than that.

Here’s how you can use the findings to give you a leg up on the competition, no matter how big or small your business is:

If you’re a small business, use your size and customer expectations to your advantage. Your customers are used to being treated poorly when they deal with the big guys, and they expect less from your bigger competitors. Highlight that difference in your marketing and on your website. Put a spotlight on the customer experience.

Customers are almost always willing to pay more to work with a company that will treat them well. Make sure they feel that extra level of care and friendliness when they’re greeted on the phone or in their homes, and look for ways to make them feel extra special and cared for. 

You may also want to consider equipping yourself and your team with some de-stressing tools and adding a little extra time between service calls so there’s room for resetting. Mindfulness apps like Headspace offer quick meditations and body scans that can calm the mind and body and provide stress relief in as little as two minutes. It’s one small thing that can make a big difference in a busy day that’s not going exactly as planned. 

Equally important: If you’re a manager or business owner, make sure to keep an eye on your employees. If they’re showing signs of burnout or going through a particularly rough time outside of work, it may be better for your business to give them a little time away, so they’re not face-to-face with your customers when they’re short on patience and friendliness. The same goes for yourself.

If you’re a larger company, shock and delight your customers by treating them in a friendly, caring, honest and helpful way that they just don’t see or expect from big companies. Make it your goal to take care of your customers and to be friendly and caring in every interaction, even though it’s not expected of you. This will set you apart from your competitors and leave a lasting impression with every customer you deal with. 

There’s really nothing better than exceeding your customers’ expectations, and when their expectations for you are low, you don’t have to work any miracles. Just be nice.

About the Authors

Carter Harkins and Taylor Hill are the co-founders of Spark Marketer, a Nashville, Tennessee-based digital marketing company that works primarily with service businesses. They’re also the co-hosts of the "Blue Collar Proud (BCP) Show," a podcast that’s all about having and living the blue-collar dream, and the co-authors of the book, Blue Collar Proud: 10 Principles for Building a Kickass Business You Love. They're also co-creators of the award-winning app Closing Commander, which helps contractors close more estimates effortlessly. Both regularly speak at service industry trade shows and conferences across the nation. Visit, or


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