In a time of economic difficulty, when people are getting laid off and national average salaries are on the decline, SurePayroll is bucking the trend. My company, based in suburban Chicago, is quickly becoming one of the most successful Software-as-a-Service companies in the United States, and we're rapidly expanding our workforce and customer base. So how do we do it?

I rely on my own "golden rule" for business: treat your employees how you want them to treat your customers. The idea of reciprocity should be as much a standard in the business world as it is an ethical rule within personal relationships. Its application should be universal. You need to have the mindset that how you take care of your employees will have a direct impact on their interactions with customers and prospects. Overwork your employees with little-to-no extra compensation? Expect their frustration and stress to come out in their customer service performance. This doesn't only extend outside of the office, though. One negative attitude can influence the entire office and limit productivity.

It is critical to build customer loyalty over the long term, even more so during tough economic times that encourage the consumer to find the cheapest alternative. While price is certainly on the minds of everyone today, solid loyal customer relationships are becoming perhaps the most important factor. In a July MarketingSherpa survey, customers indicated price was not the determining factor that contributed to their loyalty to a business. Forty percent said it was customer service, followed by price at 29 percent. MarketingSherpa had this to say about what they claim are surprising results (I don't think so!):

"First, customers are less likely to leave for a competitor over price and will give you the opportunity to keep the business. Second, they are more willing to pay a premium to continue their relationship. Third, they are strong external advocates of the brand."
Treat your employees well, they'll treat customers well and customers will continue to purchase your product or services. It's a mutually beneficial cycle. Here are some tips for maximizing such communication to make everyone happy.

Communicate on Multiple Levels

It is essential to focus on communication at multiple levels within the organization. This includes communication at company-wide, departmental, team, and individual stages. Goals are better set and bonds formed first on a smaller level, then a deeper company-wide initiative.

To test the effectiveness of group and more personal communication, it's a good idea to survey your employees. Ask them how things are going. Individuals are much more likely to share their true feelings if they can do it in an anonymous forum. Surveys help reduce absenteeism, build manager-worker trust and create a feeling of togetherness.

A poorly planned and executed survey can, however, have the opposite effects. This includes resistance to management and change.

Focal ES is a good resource to help you identify effective survey strategies and questions. It was one of the first online employee surveys, developed in 1999. Their website has a nice overview of what to include in a survey, a chance to view some sample questions and articles about survey effectiveness. While Focus ES can supply the actual survey (priced by number of employees), there are many free resources as well.

Direct feedback from customers is never a bad thing either. I personally like SurveyGizmo. They have a basic/free survey tool, as well as personal, pro and enterprise versions that require a monthly fee.

Surveys are easy to put together when compared to the amount of valuable information you'll receive about customer and employee satisfaction.

Set the Tone

Employees will feed off the example you set. They will pick up on the attitude you exude, and in turn project that to customers. So, set the tone! Ensure you are positive and your employees are happy. By the way, this idea can be carried through to other business objectives, like keeping the budget in line. I recently had to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, with some colleagues. Rather than fly direct, we flew to Columbus and drove to Cincinnati. This saved us approximately $1,500, and set the tone that as a company, we were trying to be more budget-conscious.

Fight the War, Not the Battle

It is important to empower employees to fight the war, not the battle. Encourage them to think about goals and milestones that will serve the business in the long term. Don't nitpick over small disappointments, but instead encourage better performance next time. Of course, you must look at consistency to some extent, but employees should not feel discouraged if they miss a smaller "battle" and are extensively reprimanded for it. This will definitely not foster more constructive customer interaction. Positive employee reinforcement will encourage them to be more lenient with customers themselves. Even if the customer is wrong, employees will be more likely to satisfy their needs now, in order to keep their business years down the road.

Offer Unique Benefits

Offering unique benefits doesn't have to be expensive. Just let your employees know that you're doing what you can to help them out during this tough economy. For example, our employees are extremely busy from December through February, and we do our best to encourage and reward hard work appropriately. We have small monetary, on-the-spot awards where managers give gift cards to employees who have gone above and beyond their work requirements. The Customer Care Department rewards weekly shining stars for outstanding customer service employees. And, in our biggest awards effort, we have a themed campaign that rewards employees at a year-end ceremony for numerous efforts in categories such as "best multi-tasker," "best internal customer service," and even "biggest new mistake."

Throughout the entire year, the payroll industry has busy times of the month when payroll is processed for businesses. At SurePayroll, we call them "money days," when the company is cognizant not to schedule meetings or other events because it is very busy in Operations and Customer Care. We have a big bowl of candy that we disperse to employees as a reminder and easy thank-you. It's something simple, and puts employees in a good mood.

And finally, to reward longevity, at SurePayroll we have offered financial education for our employees, as well as a company all-expense paid trip as a five-year service award.