The other day at Walmart my wife arrived at the checkout and the cashier didn’t say a single word. There was no greeting, no acknowledgment, nothing – he just silently started bagging her groceries and ringing up the total. He didn’t say a word until she prompted him to do so, after she had paid. This was a really unusual thing – usually when you go to Walmart or a grocery store or any retail location, you can expect to at least have the cashier say “Hi” to you.

Now, I don’t mean to be overly critical of this cashier. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was a non-native English speaker and didn’t feel confident to make a lot of conversation. Maybe he was tired from being on his feet for a full 8-hour shift. I know that working in retail can be a tough job, and not everyone feels outgoing and energized at every moment of the day.

But when my wife told me this story, my first thought was: “Is this guy trying to get replaced by a machine?” After all, most Walmarts already have “self-checkouts” where shoppers can bag their own groceries. If a checkout person isn’t even going to say “hello,” why not replace them all with machines?

Here’s the point: none of us can afford to rest easy. No job (or business) is totally safe from the forces of automation, digitization, and globalization. If you don’t like your job (and it shows), if you don’t add value to your company’s customer interactions by creating real human connections with customers, chances are you’re going to be replaced by a machine and/or a lower-paid worker overseas – sooner rather than later.

Seth Godin talks in his book Linchpin about how each of us needs to become “indispensable” at our jobs – or, for those of us who are running small businesses, we need to become indispensable to our customers. The way to make sure your business succeeds in a competitive global economy where someone else is constantly trying to undercut your prices is to add so much value that you cannot be replaced.

The way to add this value is not to work faster or cheaper or do “more of the same” mediocre work. Instead, we need to be creative, passionate, engaged, and ingenious. We need to be the kind of person that customers (and companies, and teammates) cannot imagine living without. Every time you go to work, every time you interact with a customer, try to find ways to add value to the interaction. What experience can you give your customers that no machine could replicate?

For example:

  • A restaurant waiter who not only knows the name of today’s special, but can tell the customers a fun, energetic story about where they got the ingredients, how it’s prepared, and why it’s so delicious – “this is one of our most popular items; people love it!”
  • A consultant who not only delivers the promised results on time, but shows genuine concern for the client’s overall business and recommends some additional ideas free of charge.
  • A retail boutique where the employees not only can help customers find the right sizes of clothing, but can talk passionately about fashion and give the customers other ideas for how to improve their look (even if those items aren’t sold in the store).

Perhaps it all comes down to showing that you care. People don’t buy from your business just because of price, convenience or habit (hopefully). People buy from you because you give them something extra – some added value that makes it worth the price.

Caring takes time and energy. It’s not always easy. Sometimes we all feel like that tired Walmart cashier. But as a small business owner, you need to dig deep and find ways to continue connecting with customers, even when you’re tired, even when it’s hard. This is how you become someone that no machine could ever replace.