Caring for customers is a critical element in every business. Most small business owners "get this" but struggle to deliver a consistent, flawless experience to their customers as they grow. In fact, the challenge of caring for customers--through your employees--can be a big part of what accelerates your business's growth or holds you back.

Why? Your employees' contact with your customers is a big part of what shapes their experience. It is often the single factor in whether those customers will be one-time sales or loyal, repeat clients.

My husband and I recently visited the Ranch at Rock Creek, which is both a luxury vacation destination and a small business startup. To complement its sprawling, picturesque Montana setting and innovative concept, the ranch embraces its vast customer surface area as an opportunity for more than 100 employees to impress and delight visitors. Its staff (with perfect Montana-y sounding names like Jade, Raven, and Bridger--no kidding) interact with visitors every day, all day--often for hours at a time during horseback rides, multicourse dinners, and transport to and from the airport.

Because of its "make or break nature," the employee/customer touchpoint gives many small business owners heart palpitations. It can be downright scary to trust someone else to deliver the service or product that you so carefully designed and crafted. How could anyone possibly care as much as you do?

To allay some of these fears, companies often invest time in coaching and training their "front line" staff--those with the most direct contact with customers. They do this because they know it's important, but also because they know no other way to get the message across.

The result? A well-trained employee can recite a script laced with pleasantries, spot potential hazards and steer a conversation to safer ground, and emphasize the importance of feedback during a closeout survey. Hospitality and online shoe businesses have these basics nailed.

But when the nature of your business creates hundreds of potential interactions, do the same training and technique stand up? How can you ditch the script and get your employees to be themselves AND ensure flawless customer care?

Here are 4 lessons for delivering flawless customer service when you increase your customer surface area:

  1. Recruit and hire right from the start. Finding candidates who share your values and have a passion for what they do is more likely to occur when you can articulate those requirements in a job announcement.
  2. Encourage creative, independent thinking and problem solving. Giving employees reasonable latitude to expend both time and money enables them to take a great experience "over the top" or to fix a bad one quickly. Interested in more on how to set standards and empower staff? Here's one approach that might work for you.
  3. Even in the happiest workplaces, conflict happens. Every business should provide a simple process to resolve or elevate disputes among employees and their supervisors. It is important to be fast and fair when addressing problems. Upon hearing about an issue, managers need a reliable method for gathering information and quickly (within 24 hours) making a decision on how to address a noted problem.
  4. Make managers visible and accessible. Managers should be actively participating in delivering your product or service alongside employees. This visibility gives customers ample time to speak up and for managers to see operations firsthand.

New thinking on retaining repeat business as your business grows is focused on creating customer/employee connections. Employees--every last one--are intensely aware of the company's principles, values, and core processes. The best, most forward-leaning companies don't just train customer service but seek to inspire employees to think and act independently and personally in the best interest of the customer. Adopters believe employees will do amazing things for customers in the exact right moment when they're empowered to do so. They also believe that what is best for the customer is, in fact, best for the business.