People often tell you that you shouldn't let pride get in your way, but that's exactly what you need to do if you want to harness the most powerful force in business

I've always believed that the service my company provides is the best around, the best it could possibly be -- and, as owners go, I don't think I'm alone. My guess is that most entrepreneurs feel the same way about their company's service and products.

Why? Because as an entrepreneur you have to believe in your company, or it won't succeed. You have to feel confident that, by being in business, you're helping your customers in some way. Maybe you're allowing them to save money or making their lives better or giving them something they couldn't get anywhere else. Whatever you're offering, you want it to be not just good but the best possible. And so you naturally tend to believe it is the best possible.

Well, if you think your service is the best it can be, there's a lesson you can learn from my brother-in-law, Michael, and his wife, Marianne -- one they taught me.

Michael and Marianne own an inn in upstate New York and have always prided themselves on providing an exceptional level of service, hospitality, and cleanliness. Their customers seemed to agree that they did: approximately 96% of them gave the highest service ratings to the inn on guest-response cards.

So when Michael and Marianne were invited, in May 1998, to apply for membership in an exclusive innkeepers' association, they thought they had a decent chance of being accepted. Membership, in this case, is a big deal. For one thing, it's an honor to be part of the association; there are only about 300 members nationwide. Honor aside, membership gets you a listing in the association's guidebook and referrals from other member inns, which tend to attract an affluent clientele. So you enlarge your customer base, and you can probably charge a little more as well.

The catch is that it's hard to get into the association, even with an invitation. First you have to be accepted by the other members in your region, and then you have to be approved at the national level. That means passing an incredibly rigorous test conducted anonymously by an inspector from the association who comes and stays at your inn as one of your guests. An inn can "flunk" the test for tiny, tiny things, and you have no idea which guest is conducting it or when. You find out who the inspector is only at the moment when he or she checks out.

Michael and Marianne submitted their application, and it sailed through the first stage of the process. They also had a meeting with their staff of 12 people and told them what was going on.

Michael explained to them what a great opportunity membership in the association would be and the importance of the inspection, which he'd been told would occur sometime before September 1. He then went over a kind of score sheet that he'd received from the association. In addition, there was a list of the 39 most common oversights -- such as "slow greeting on arrival" and "hairs on bathroom floor."

"This guy is going to be real persnickety," Michael said, "and we'll be rated on everything that happens from the moment the inspector picks up the phone to call us for a reservation."

To make sure the place was up to snuff, Michael and Marianne put together a schedule of additional housekeeping duties to be done on certain days of the week. On Mondays, for example, the staff examined shower curtains. On Tuesdays they looked for spiders. And each day, the staff tackled one "room du jour," scrubbing down everything in it and checking it with a fine-tooth comb.

Michael and Marianne pitched right in. They went looking for dust along with everyone else. They gave the housekeepers new ideas for cleaning. They showed everybody how to greet a guest, suggested what to say, and talked about how to deal with special requests.

June came and went with no inspection, but by then the employees were getting into it. There was an air of excitement, expectation. They decided that they had to treat every guest as if he or she were the inspector. At the same time they tried to pick out the real inspector among the people who'd made reservations or who'd arrived the night before. When employees came in after a day off, the first thing they'd ask was, "What's happened? Where do we stand?"

By the end of July, Michael and Marianne knew that something amazing was happening. They were seeing clear signs of improvement in areas of service that they hadn't believed could get any better. Housekeepers were finding places to clean that Michael had never even thought to look in: behind the toilet paper in the bathrooms, around the brackets of the shelves in the closets. Tips for the housekeepers doubled and, in some cases, tripled, and service ratings on the guest-response cards went up in every category.

Meanwhile, no inspector.

Not that anyone was complaining. Customers were thrilled with the service, employees were turned on, and Michael and Marianne realized that the inn was operating on a whole new level. What had started out at the beginning of the summer as innovations had evolved into routine operating procedures by the end of August, and staffers continued to find ways to improve on them.

Still, everybody was beginning to wonder where the inspector was. A couple of employees even asked Michael and Marianne, only half jokingly, whether they'd made the whole association thing up.

As it turned out, the inspector arrived in the beginning of September, and he got royal treatment -- just like everyone else. At the end of his stay, he walked into the front office and said to Marianne, "I guess you spotted me."

"We had our suspicions," she said, "but the truth is, we've suspected 500 other people of being the inspector in the past three months."

"Well, you got the right idea," he said. "I could see that all of your guests were being treated like the inspector."

The inn passed with flying colors.

So what's the moral of the story? It's a very simple one: no matter how good you think your service is, it's never the best it can be. Your employees can always find ways to make it better.

Of course, we'd all like to create incentives for people to do that. The question is: how? I'm not sure. Michael and Marianne more or less stumbled across theirs. They didn't set out to improve their service, after all. They didn't know they could. The improvements just happened in the course of going after another goal.

And I have to wonder whether or not Michael and Marianne would have been as successful if they'd used the standard motivational tools: setting performance objectives, offering rewards, paying bonuses, even organizing games around hitting certain targets. Not that there's anything wrong with those tools. I use all of them in my business, and they do work -- up to a point.

But Michael and Marianne's approach worked better -- in part, I think, because they didn't invent the challenge that their business faced. It was a real challenge in the real world, and the employees knew they could each make a real difference in whether or not the group succeeded as a team in meeting it. So their pride came into play, their inner pride, which is the most powerful force in business.

You can't instill pride in people. It's there already. All you can do is awaken it -- or smother it. In fact, as company leaders we often do smother it unintentionally and pay the price in lackluster employee performance. But even if you want to awaken the pride in your employees, you can go crazy trying to coax it out into the open. People decide for themselves whether or not they're going to be motivated by pride. No one else has much of a say in the matter.

On the other hand, once it is out in the open, pride can be contagious, and its effects can last a long time. It's been more than a year since the inspector visited the inn. But Michael and Marianne tell me that the employees are as charged up as ever, and the customers seem to feel the same way. The guest-response-card ratings continue to improve.

"It's embarrassing sometimes," Michael says. "We ask what we can do better, and a lot of people say, 'Don't change a thing. It's perfect.' That's not true, of course. You can always get better. We know that now. The great thing is that everyone on our staff knows it now as well."

Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include an Inc. 100 company and an Inc. 500 company. This column was coauthored by Bo Burlingham.