Every entrepreneur knows that happy customers are the very definition of success, and most will talk a good game about just how much they care about their customers. But new research shows that businesses are failing to put their money where their mouth is. In one recent study, only one-third of consumers said that businesses provide good customer service. In another, only 7 percent of consumers said that their customer service experiences exceed their expectations.

Clearly there is a LOT of room for improvement! According to customer loyalty consultant and bestselling author Chip R. Bell, who wrote the book The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service, the secret to delivering great customer service is to give your customers a surprise--something they didn't expect. It's those unexpected experiences that leave customers with a story they are eager to tell. To get them talking, give these ideas a try.

Put a Surprise Inside

Everyone remembers the simple joy of opening up a box of Cracker Jack and finding a prize buried deep inside. You may not be delighted by a rub-on tattoo, but how would you feel if the dealer you just bought a new car from took the trouble to program the radio by copying the stations you had programmed in your trade-in? It only takes a minute, but the effect is huge.

Provide Service Before The Sale

Years ago, when the circus came to town, front men were deployed ahead of time to put signs on telephone poles, place articles in local newspapers, and schedule parades down Main Street before the big top even opened. You can do the same thing by thinking about the entire customer experience, from the initial need to the satisfaction of that need, and not just the main event. Anticipation and afterglow are important parts of any positive experience.

Slash Wait Times

No one wants to wait for service, or be bounced endlessly around voicemail systems. Everyone is busy, and if your company can't provide the highest levels of service your customers won't hesitate to find someone who can. Customer wait time needs to be eliminated or managed. Bureaucracy needs to be replaced with customer-friendly processes. Be easy to do business with, and your customers will reward you over and over again.

Turn an "Oops!" Into an Opportunity

Customers don't expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to care, especially in the face of a poor service experience. Research shows that customers who have their problem resolved quickly and effectively often end up being more loyal to your business than customers who never had a problem. A great recovery often does more than simply salvage a situation: it can build business.

Happy Birthday To Them

For many of us, the one day a year when we feel truly special is our birthday. People make a big deal about us, they give us presents, send us cards, bake (or buy) us a cake. Your customers want to feel special too, but not just one day a year. If you treat your customers like every day is their birthday you will find creative ways to consistently amaze and delight them. And if you do that, why would they ever go anyplace else?