Last month, I took my two-year-old son to his first dental appointment and I got to see first-hand how this dentist leverages quality in his practice.

When we arrived at the dentist’s waiting area, my son and I were greeted by name before we reached the counter. The receptionist was kind, the waiting area was sunny, and they had high-quality toys and a cool fish tank that kept my busy-body son mesmerized until his appointment.

When it was our turn, we went back to the examining room where my son and I sat on the floor with the dental assistant. She took each of the dental instruments and showed them to my son. She explained how each instrument worked and how she was going to use each one on his teeth. I don’t know how much he understood, but he had a fun time watching and playing with those instruments that I found frightening as a kid.

As they worked on his teeth, they were cheerful and helpful each step of the way. To my amazement, my squirmy two-year-old son sat there uneventfully and happily. The dentist had an easier time examining and polishing his teeth than I have changing his diaper! I expected to leave the office exhausted and with a cranky kid, but just the opposite happened. What a pleasant surprise.

My joy over the way things went was somewhat tempered by the bill, which was higher than other dentists. In addition, this office does not take any type of dental insurance. That didn’t seem to be a deterrent to all the people in the packed waiting room who had driven a long way, like us, to see this dentist.

On the drive home, we passed one of those low-cost dental “chain stores” that offer better prices, and presumably less service. Even dentists are experiencing the stratification that currently is happening in most markets. As huge chains dominate the market that appeals to cost-conscious customers, smaller businesses must excel at appealing to the higher end of the market by offering a much higher quality product to survive. For small business people, quality becomes the key success factor.

Large corporations have tremendous buying power and they are usually effective at translating this into lower prices for the end consumer. In today’s markets, it is usually difficult for small businesses to compete based on price. Small businesses can thrive, though, if they focus on offering a higher quality product to consumers who are willing to pay a little more to get a higher quality product.

For smaller businesses, this means offering better customer service-which is usually not that difficult when the small business owner, instead of a high school student making minimum wage, is often the one working with the customers.

Smaller businesses need to leverage basic quality assurance concepts such as continual improvement. I’ve won over many new customers to my higher-priced product by making product changes that they request within a week of their suggestion. Higher-end customers love this sort of responsiveness that mega-stores with lower prices could never offer.

I think that smaller businesses that don’t target the penny-pinching customer also can offer higher quality materials in the product. Value-focused customers will be repeat customers when they see, over time, how products that last longer are really a better value.

When was the last time you read a case study on deploying quality improvement methods in very small, resource-strapped businesses? Aren’t small businesses the ones that are fueling innovation and job growth in our economy?

As my business gets going, my hope is that with my background in quality improvement to guide the process, our products become as valued as the high quality service that our dentist provides. That’s a good way to make a living.