RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C.(TheStreet) -- I stopped by the printer to order several bound copies of my latest book to use until I get finished copies from my publisher. There were a couple people already in line and I took my place behind them and browsed through printing options while I waited. As the clerk waited on each customer in turn, other customers joined the line behind me; one customer went to the self-copy area to use the copy machine. The clerk paged for additional staff to come and provide services.

When the help didn't arrive, things got complicated. And, for people aiming to do things better at a small business, interesting.

The customers are stacking up, and help is nowhere in sight. How do you get here, and how do you fix it?

As the clerk took care of the two people in front of me, the self-serve customer asked her a question that would have required more than a minute to answer. She politely indicated that she would be with him as soon as she could be -- in the order that the customers arrived. (Based on the order we entered, the self-serve customer was three behind me.)

As I stepped up to begin placing my order and get the options priced, I told the clerk to go ahead and deal with the other customers while I reviewed additional options. She took care of the other customers quickly and came back and took my order. As she was writing up my choices, another clerk finally arrived. As the original clerk began ringing up my order for payment, the self-serve customer came over to berate her for not immediately serving him for a question that would take "10 seconds." His tirade included how he had 700 customers a day going through his gas station and that his customers would never have waited for a 10-second issue.

I had to differ. I've never been to a gas station where everyone in line is not waiting to be served in the order they arrive. I've been the customer waiting to get gas and pay while someone takes "10 seconds" to do some small thing, and I've seen two clerks taking time to chat between transactions.

As a customer, waiting in line is not my favorite thing, but I recognize that we live in a "first-come, first-served" world. I am not any more entitled to circumvent someone else's turn because I have a "10 second" question than this gentleman was to jump ahead and be serviced ahead of me or other customers in line ahead of him.

In this case, the gentleman said he needed "help." He didn't say "I don't know where to align the original to make a copy" (by the way, the illustration and directions were on the copier, and on the wall above the copier). When the obvious "how-to" questions are answered by illustrations and directions at the self-serve copiers, it's fair to presume that the question will take time to answer.

Part of the problem was the expectation that having a "simple question" meant the customer should jump to the front of the line. The second problem was the store's staffing. Too few staff members were available to handle a sudden spike in customers, something almost all businesses have to deal with at one time or another.

Waiting for our turn is part of what we as customers have to accept. As business owners, managers and staff, we also have to do our best to minimize wait times. A reasonable wait time differs based on:

  • what service or product we provide
  • the volume of business we do
  • the means and mechanisms we have to support customers
  • the variation demand patterns: lunch crowds, seasonal fluctuations, etc.
  • customer expectations
  • competitors' offerings

An angry customer may not buy from you again if they don't understand why they have to wait for service, so be sure to communicate with them as they wait. As we all probably know, if you consistently anger your customers you will be out of business.

If you have a customer with unrealistic expectations they may cost you more than they spend, especially if they post about it on their social media sites.

It's important to make all of your customers feel valued, but it's not realistic to expect to spend the same amount of time on a customer making a 35-cent copy as you do a customer placing a $3,500 order, especially when they are in your store at the same time in the same line. You should have a plan in place for customers that will take longer than usual to service.

The core tenet of dealing with all customers is respect. The customer that is your smallest today could very well be your largest tomorrow. Keep three simple things in mind when serving the customer regardless of their immediate dollar value or order size:

1. Integrity of service.

When you work with a "small" customer, realize that a $100 order may be a big budget outlay for them. So not belittle that order or the customer by being careless or dismissive.

2. Timeliness of service.

Meet the deadlines for the small order just as you would for a large order. Too often the small order gets pushed aside to do the bigger jobs and cause significant impact on the small client's ability to serve their customers.

3. Quality of product and service.

Do not cut corners on the product you deliver when serving the customer. Take pride in producing a first-quality product for every customer.

As a business, be sure you have sufficient staff to deal with your normal volume and peak times and have a plan for cross-training employees that will be able to back up your front line staff if the need arises. Be willing to hear the occasional complaint from the demanding customer who wants to jump to the head of the line. And when you are the customer, remember that most businesses value you and your patronage. So be patient and wait your turn.

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Lea Strickland, M.B.A., is the founder of

Technovation Entrepreneur

, a program that helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses. Strickland is the author of "Out of the Cubicle and Into Business" and "One Great Idea!" She has more than 20 years of experience in operational leadership in Fortune 500 and Global 100 companies, including Ford, Solectron and Newell.