Last week, I began a special series of columns looking at the future as we take our first steps into the new decade. As I laid it out, we must expand our vision past just 2020. We can’t look at only what’s facing us in the next three months, three weeks or three days. We need to look at the decade as a whole because there are signals and signs of looming issues. There are certain paths we are headed down as a society and if we don’t like where the path is heading, then we need to begin to change course now before it’s too late.

These issues have to do with the future of our culture and our businesses. These are a mix of lessons learned over 13 years as a chamber of commerce leader in two very different regions of the state, and from talking to various leaders. We will continue this series weekly all month long. Last week we looked at the aging workforce, leadership voids and the need to train tomorrow’s leaders immediately. Here are a few other topics I think all businesses need to keep an eye on.

Ease of Service
Here is a story about an exercise machine that tells a much bigger story.

A relative wanted to buy an exercise machine for a loved one who lives out of state one week before Christmas. The idea was that she would go online and buy the machine from a national retailer and have the machine ready for pickup at the closest store to the loved one. When the relative went online to buy the $800.00 machine the website was a little tricky to use because she couldn’t just log in and shop. So she called the customer service number and was told to sign in as a guest with a one-time password. She said “thank you,” hung up and did just that. Once she found the item for purchase she put in her credit card number and billing address but there was nowhere to put shipping address that would make it an ins-store pickup for the out-of-state loved one. The relative called customer service again and explained the problem.

The customer service rep was extremely helpful and tried to help as best he could. He suggested setting up a unique username and password and see if it works then. She hung up and did just that and ran into the same problem. On her third call back, the relative got the same helpful customer service rep who put her on hold to find a solution while on the phone. Once he returned to the line apologetically, he told her their system didn’t allow for out of state purchases and explained how the store closest to the relative couldn’t be the shipping address because if it didn’t originate from that store it’d be sent back on the truck, so on and so forth.

The solution was to go buy two gift cards from her local store that they only sell in-store, mail those to the relative and have the relative buy the item at their local store. The relative was thrilled with how hard the customer service rep worked and even asked to speak to the manager to give the representative a positive review.

When it was all said and done, the relative logged on to Amazon.com, found the product in three minutes and had it shipped directly to the loved one arriving two days before Christmas.

The lesson here is very important and may not be as obvious as it seems. Technology has provided numerous options for buyers, especially in the retail market. Customer service is vitally important, but equally important is ease of service. The customer service rep was extremely helpful, but that company didn’t get the sale because it was easier to do business another way.

What does that mean for our hours of operation? Are you open when your customers feel like shopping or does your store stay open the exact same hours as other businesses? Are you available for online shopping or services? Is there a convenient way to get your product quickly? Are you giving a unique customer experience? What makes your customer service experience better than the efficiency of ordering items in your pajamas and having them delivered in 48 hours to your doorstep?

Bottom line: Ask yourself if you are making it easy for customers to do business with you. Flexible businesses- those willing to change and meet these consumer needs- will be the ones who thrive. Ease of service will be as important as customer service over the next ten years.

Dental Care
This one is short and sweet: How many people don’t have dental care as part of their health insurance? Depending on which study you read it’s between 23%-33% of Americans don’t have dental care. This affects low-income Mainers and even some middle class families who choose other expenses over their own dental care. Low-income job seekers say having poor dental health is a barrier to finding a job.

What about finding a dentist in some rural communities? According to a 2014 MaineBiz article, one-third of dentists in Maine were over 60 years old and another one-third are over 50. Those same people are now over 55 and 65, respectively. UNE has started doing much more with their dental school, but still the vast majority of dentists are in Southern Maine. What about rural dentists? Dental care is a huge indicator for overall health.

Bottom line: We need to make dental care affordable for everyone and we need to promote the offices and clinics who are accepting new patients, with and without insurance coverage. Also we need to make sure our rural communities have the same services to make their communities thrive.

Keep an eye on this weekly column for more Over the Next Decade topics all month.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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