When Big Business Fails, Small Shops Prevail

Small businesses are often much more attuned to people’s specific needs than giant corporations.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally dropped my phone, and the screen shattered. The phone itself still worked—I could hear notifications, and calls could come in—but without the function of the touch screen, it was completely unusable. What made matters worse was that I had recently embarked on a month-long commitment for teaching a study abroad course in the Netherlands. As such, I desperately needed my phone. I needed it for maps for getting around. I needed it for connecting with and checking in with my students. I needed it for accessing my saved tickets and passes on various apps. I needed it for logging on to my institution’s LMS (learning management system), given that a verification step is required for access and this step involved a text being sent to my phone. But, most of all, I wanted my phone for taking pictures of my travels.

I was determined (and desperate) to get my phone fixed. So, I did what I thought was best, I contacted my service provider—Verizon. I felt confident that I would be able to secure a new phone since I paid towards an insurance plan each month. To my delight, I was told that my insurance would cover a replacement. To my dismay, it would still cost me about $100 in fees. I didn’t care, though; it was well worth it for a working phone.

After going through the whole phone replacement claim process, I gave the address of the apartment I was staying at, and, for reasons that are still unclear to me, the representative helping me said, “I’m sorry, we can’t ship it to that address.” I asked why not, and she said that the system wouldn’t allow for a non-U.S. address to be inserted. I was shocked that an international company, which surely has access to global delivery networks, could not ship a phone from the US to the EU.

After a bit of back-and-forth, and growing frustration, I realized this was a waste of time, energy, and months of payments to an insurance plan that failed to deliver when I needed it most.

Back to the drawing board.

When I realized my service provider couldn’t help, I thought surely the manufacturer of the phone could. My phone was an iPhone, and I was in luck, since there was an Apple store in the area.

As I entered the sleek and sophisticated-looking shop, I was confident that someone here could help me. But, when I showed the Apple employee my phone, he was at first taken aback by the version (I had an old-looking iPhone 8), and he seemed perplexed as to what to do. It was like he didn’t know that screens could break.

He went over to his computer, and after a few minutes he said, “Okay, I’ve got it.” My face lit up—until he said, “I can get you another comparable phone that will arrive in a few weeks and will be around 600 euros.” My heart sank. Not only was the price too high, but the wait was too long.

I left the shop defeated.

The next day, I met up with my students for a city tour and lunch, and while chomping on some baguette sandwiches, I shared my plight. One of the students said, “Why don’t you just get it fixed?” I wondered if the student had been listening to me at all, since I had just vented about my attempts with both Verizon and Apple. The student went on to say they had broken their screen before, and it was an easy repair. Then another student chimed in that the same thing happened to them and, before I knew it, a quick search on their fully functioning phones showed that there were at least two repair shops within a short walking distance.

I wondered whether it was really that easy, and although I was a bit uncertain about taking my phone to a store I had never heard of before, I thought it was worth a shot.

Upon entering the small shop in the center of the city, I noticed another customer leaving who had a smile on their face. That’s a good sign, I thought. The store attendant greeted me right away, and I pulled out my phone. She took it, looked at it for a quick second and said, “Come back in a few hours.” I was gobsmacked and I asked if it could really be fixed. She looked at me and smiled. I was ecstatic until my mind raced wondering what the cost would be and how the desperation on my face screamed that I would pay anything to have my phone back. But, before I could ask, she said, “It will be 60 euros.”

I couldn’t believe it. Could my phone actually get fixed? Could it really be done that day and at that price? And, sure enough, it was.

A few hours later, I had a fully functioning phone and an embarrassing realization. One of the top providers for cell phone services and one of the best makers of smartphones couldn’t point me in the right (and rational) direction as to what to do—go to a repair shop to fix the screen. I also realized my own stupidity, in having completely overlooked the fact that repair shops wouldn’t exist if phones and other tech gear couldn’t be fixed.

And, as luck would have it, about a week later my husband dropped his phone on a cobblestone street, shattering the screen, and a few days after that one of my students broke his phone. Fortunately, both my husband and student knew what to do and where to go.

That Maastricht city-based cell phone store benefited from the clumsy nature of some Pennsylvania residents that month, and we benefited greatly from the fast and honest service provided. So, here’s a special shout-out to Star Mobile on Spilstraat.

The moral of the story is that big businesses sometimes grow so big that they lose the ability to understand and serve customer needs. They can become detached from the daily occurrences (and mishaps) of their customers, and the Peter Principle can set in—where individuals within an organization can get promoted to a position for which they may be incompetent. This seemed true for my Apple employee interaction.

Moreover, large firms tend to have entrenched processes and pre-programmed systems that leave little wiggle room for exploring other options. And this was the case with my Verizon-affiliated insurance provider. Looking back, I am still perplexed as to why a replacement phone couldn’t be shipped to me by the insurance company or why the Verizon representative didn’t recommend a screen replacement.

Big business is great when it comes to scale, but sometimes small business can’t be beat when it comes to individual care. So, I implore you, please, to rate, review, like, share, and give shout-outs to the small stores that can, at times, do a better job than the biggest and supposed best.

This Piece first appeared online on FEE.org, you can find it here.