Customers are the life-blood of businesses. And given today's darkening economic picture, customer service is one area experts say small businesses should excel in since loyal clients can mean the difference between remaining your own boss and closing up shop. Here are five steps you can take that won't leave you in the red:

Hire People People

Sounds easy enough: Staff your front line with employees who are personable and like dealing with customers. Sure, you can train them on company customer procedures, but if that employee can't or won't relate to a client's plight, you may have a relations problem. So during the interviewing process, be sure to throw in some nasty scenarios to see how a potential employee would deal with a complaint, says Jerry Acuff, author of The Relationship Edge (Wiley).

"We are not disciplined to get great people," says Acuff, who is also CEO of Delta Point, a sales consulting firm. "If you want stars on your team, you have to be disciplined, do the reference check and be prepared to turn away a lot of people."

If you must outsource your customer service, institute good quality control. That way, says Acuff, "there are no language or cultural barriers that will prevent customers from receiving the service they deserve."

Empower Your Employees

As part of your customer service procedure, consider guidelines that will give front-line employees the ability to address, if not solve, a client's problem. Every unhappy episode should be viewed as an opportunity to strengthen that customer relationship. More importantly, empowered employees are less likely to leave, says John DiJulius III, president of customer service consulting firm The DiJuluis Group and author of What's the Secret? To Providing World-Class Customer Service (Wiley). "Give associates the ability to make someone's day and they go home jazzed about their jobs."

In some cases, one employee may be the reason customers come back. Acuff says he always stays at the Marriott Courtyard ( MAR) when in Philadelphia instead of a ritzier hotel because of one reason: the night clerk, Donna. "Every time I go there, she makes me feel like I'm the only person staying there. Once, I lost my keys to my car rental. She was going off her shift and offered to drive me to my client. As long as Donna is there, I am going to stay at the Marriott Courtyard."

Live, Breathe Customer Service

While it's important that frontline employees make customer service a priority, it's just as important for management to share the same mindset. Otherwise, these employees will feel like it's just another directive from corporate that will likely change in a few months.

Borrow From the Competition

Study the competition and don't be afraid to adopt their tactics to better your interaction with clients. Before Joe Pritchard started his own business representing photographers, he worked with one lensman who made a habit of preparing meals for clients. While all were busy with the photo shoot, the meal would be cooking, filling the studio with delicious smells. Today, when a client works with Joseph Reps Inc., Joe has a chef whipping up a meal onsite or at his offices.

Adds Pritchard, "In this business, you're only as good as your last shoot. At this level, when dealing with national and international clients like OfficeMax ( OMX), you're expected to take care of them during the shoot, prior to the shoot, even after the shoot. If there wasn't a vegetarian meal during the shoot, for example, that client may not come back."

Learn to Let Go

Sometimes, there's a customer you just can't satisfy. Rather than continue to bend over backward, and perhaps alienate your employees, be strong enough to end that relationship. Jordan Adler, CEO of Scriblink, had to tell a client "no" when he wanted to be able to customize the online whiteboard with mathematical symbols.

First, says Adler, this ability would have appealed only to that client, who was a math tutor. Secondly, as a start-up with a certain amount of funds, he had to invest in requests that other clients would find useful, such as a phone conferencing feature, VoIP. That way, people collaborating on a project can speak to each directly from their computers. Adds Adler, who is also the cofounder of a guide to Manhattan parking lots, "The customer isn't always right."

If you have a story idea, email lan.thestreet@hotmail.com.

Lan Nguyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine and Star magazine.

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