Question: I own a hardware franchise and like a lot of small businesses, face a lot of competition from the chains. My business is a good one and I make a decent living, but I really would like to ensure a bigger market niche. What do you suggest?

Answer: Coming up with ways to compete with a national chain is not a new problem for any small retailer. The answer is simple: Customer Intimacy.

I worked with a consultant, Fred Wiersema, who wrote a book with that title. The concept is something I have always practiced myself, both in investment banking and in my communications business, but I never gave it a label.

When you're competing against the big boys, you already know it's impossible to beat them on price or selection. The only way you can win new business is on quality of service. To become a customer-intimate retailer, you must constantly be thinking about your clients assuming responsibility to initiate change to meet their needs and wants.

It calls for an openness and confidence combined with skill. In other words, you may need to go the extra nine yards to service customers so they'll keep coming back to your store even if it costs a little bit more and takes longer to get what they want.

Let's look at one of the largest and most respected companies in your field Home Depot. It hires professionally trained, experienced salespeople in every department plumbing, carpentry, gardening, etc. And it offers patient, comprehensive counsel to do-it-yourselfers eager to get the most out of their purchases.

So when customers come into Home Depot, not only can salepeople help them find the right tool or fixture, they can also give advice on how to use it. In some cases, they even make house calls to help the customer install a fixture. That's what makes them stand out from the rest.

So while you might not be able to afford experts in every home improvement category because you're a smaller retailer, you might want to have your salespeople at least understand the products and services they are offering, so that your customers will get more personalized service.

Question: I am a sole proprietor and could use some business advice. I can't afford a consulting firm; is there any other way to get good advice inexpensively?

Answer: There are a number of ways to get help almost free. Here are a few places to go:

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.