In 2005, Bryan Delaney co-founded Skookum with his college roommate from UNC Charlotte. More than a decade later, Skookum has become a sought after tech partner for custom software solutions and user-experience design services. Skookum helps organizations such as Coca-Cola, Lowe's, MetLife and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to deliver exceptional customer, partner and employee experiences.?

There's something about growing up in the southern United States, as I have, that makes a person acutely aware of their manners. It probably originates from the term coined "southern hospitality," which has been recognized as early as the mid-nineteenth-century. According to historical accounts, it was the of lack of acceptable taverns or lodging available in the South that prompted farmers and the local community to welcome complete strangers into their homes.

Today, Southerners are still a very polite bunch. We say, "yes ma'am," "yes sir" and "thank you" -- a lot. In fact, being hospitable and gracious remains a central part of the Southern identity, which brings me to an important point: as business owners caught up in the commotion of day-to-day operations, more often than not, we (even us Southerners) forget our manners when it matters most.

As co-founder and head of business development for a fast-growing software development firm, the expression of gratitude has been, and will continue to be, essential to both acquiring and keeping clients for the long term. Sure, technical expertise, capability and innovation are important, but it's simply not enough. Here's how I've been able to increase customer retention through a few simple approaches to creating a culture of gratitude:

Formalize Acts of Gratitude

It may sound contrived, but the reality is everyone's busy and we all get swept up in our daily activities. You need to make time for it. Creating a program or even workflow around what we need to say or do for clients ensures that it doesn't get forgotten or re-prioritized. It becomes part of how the company operates and steers internal behavior. Ideally, it becomes habitual.

Set the Example

As leaders, we are responsible for setting the tone for company culture and the values we expect our employees to inherently have -- or to embrace. If we don't demonstrate this through example and reinforce the importance of it ongoing, then we surely cannot expect our employees to follow suit.

Make Communications Timely and Personalized

Thanking a client is important business. Remember they've committed time, resources and, most importantly, their trust in your organization. Moreover, every client is unique and special. Sending out blanket thank-you notes and computer-generated messages and doing so months after the business has been finished is worse than sending nothing at all. Additionally, it needn't be written. Picking up the phone and personally reaching out has been an effective and valued part of our client care program and a great opportunity to get feedback. Plus, when I've taken the time to reflect on the experience of working with a client, it has provided surprisingly valuable insights and learnings about what we might've done more effectively or what we did well and should continue doing. These are insights that I may not have paid attention to if I hadn't taken the time to stop and reflect.

Make Gratitude a Company-Wide State of Mind

This is probably the toughest piece of advice, perhaps because having gratitude is an emotional act. It's simply not recognized or discussed as something fundamentally important to business, yet this intangible expression of thanks can make or break a relationship. Start by thanking your own employees, even for small tasks. It creates an environment of mutual respect and appreciation. It also provides ancillary benefits such as empowering employees to overcome obstacles. In fact, acts of gratitude produce endorphins, which generate feelings of happiness. A focus on gratitude can, therefore, make the workplace more fulfilling, meaningful and productive.

One small act of gratitude can be a game changer. It can take a relationship from merely transactional to meaningful. It defines the character of a company. And I'm not referring to gratitude in the form of complicated programs or gift-giving. I'm talking about simply saying, writing or emailing (and meaning it) the words, "thank you."

If you have any doubts, consider the following: A study conducted by the University of Richmond shows that 78 percent of respondents in a relationship with a B2B services firm identified gratitude as necessary in relationship formation. Further, the research states that even a single violation--perception of ingratitude--could seriously hinder trust and commitment and erode a client's long-term orientation towards the company.

The real danger, however, is that an environment of ingratitude is highly contagious. It can fuel a culture of negativity, lower productivity and impact the actions of employees--with the potential to alienate clients.

It's certainly easy in today's fast-paced and hyper-competitive environment to forget those two simple words that express so much, but to do so is at the organization's own peril. As the American author, William Arthur Ward, said, "Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."