What’s the one thing – the one aspect of your business – that if you got right would most positively affect everything else? In other words, what’s the lynchpin of your business… the one thing that assures success more than anything else?

It just might be customer experience.

That’s what a lot of recent marketing research has pointed to. Companies that deliver great customer experiences enjoy everything from higher retention rates to higher stock prices (http://www.watermarkconsult.net/blog/2015/06/02/the-2015-customer-experience-roi-study/).

It’s not just research companies that are on to this, either. Small business owners have figured it out and have made it their top priority. That’s according to our own 2016 State of Small Business survey (http://www.waspbarcode.com/small-business-report). Of the 1,100 small business owners we surveyed, 43% of them said their strategy to improve revenue growth was to “improve existing customer experience & retention.”

That’s fantastic news (and proof of how savvy small business owners are). But our survey also discovered something a touch distressing; most small businesses are extremely frugal when it comes to marketing. 34% of them spend only 3% or less of their revenue on marketing.

To help you both improve your company’s customer experience and stay within a small budget, here are five affordable ways to really make a difference in how people experience (and think of) your company. None of these require a big budget and many of them can be implemented for free.

  1. Be friendly.

I’m sure you’ve walked into stores, restaurants or offices where people were personable and happy. You’ve probably walked into places where they were clearly unhappy, and it affected your experience with the business.

Even when decorated with posh furniture, an office where people are tense and defensive is not a nice place to be. Alternatively, even a beaten-up gas station brightens when a cheery voice greets you with “Hello!” from behind the counter.

Of course, creating an environment where people are happy does sometimes cost a bit of money. If that makes you want to hold back, consider this: How much business will it cost you not to invest?

  1. Empower your employees.

This one is stolen from the Timothy Ferriss book, The 4-Hour Workweek. In it, Ferriss describes how he got out of the day-to-day management of his vitamin business – and dramatically improved the customer experience – by giving his employees authority to fix certain things on the fly. Employees were allowed to authorize any action that cost the company less than $100, so long as it made the customer happy.

This principle can be applied to other things. For instance, keeping the store open 15 minutes longer so a customer can pick something up, or placing a special order, or even wrapping a gift.

One caveat: For this to work, you’ve got to have good employees: pro-active employees who care about the welfare of your business and your customers.

Finding good employees is, of course, an art unto itself. I’ve always liked Dan Kennedy’s approach of training two people but hiring just one – the better one. It’s tough, definitely, but nothing will improve your company’s customer experience more than good employees.

  1. Keep it clean.

We all know first impressions matter. And yet so many small businesses miss out on easy ways to make their locations look just a bit nicer by providing clean windows, clean counters, and orderly spaces.

Having a clean, orderly business area doesn’t cost very much at all, but goes a long way toward shaping customer perceptions (http://www.adforum.com/agency/5088/creative-work/6707721/change-is/delta).

Caption: Delta’s “Clean Planes and Dirty Martinis” campaign did extremely well – both with customers and for advertising awards.

  1. Make it easy for people to find you

It’s 2016, and yet half of all small businesses still don’t have a website (https://clutch.co/web-designers/resources/small-business-websites-2016-survey). That’s really got to change. Without a website, you’re.

  • Making it harder for people to learn about your business
  • Neglecting the single most effective marketing tactic there is (having a website)
  • Letting your competitors gain – and keep – and

Caption: From BrightLocal’s blog post, “34% of consumers think a Smart Website gives a local business more credibility”.

Your website does not need to be fancy or expensive, just make sure it’s mobile-friendly. Why? Because more than half of your site visitors will visit your website from a mobile device.

Also make sure you’ve got accounts on the major local business sites, like Yelp and Google Places. Get a simple Facebook page, too; it’s free, and customers expect local businesses to have a Facebook page almost as much as they expect them to have a website.

  1. Have a small budget in place for when you screw up (or when you run into an awful customer).

I learned this one from an eBay vendor. Here’s the deal: As you know, most people are reasonable and good to deal with. But every so often, someone is difficult. Sometimes, really difficult.

It’s easy to get burned when you end up doing business with these people – they can drain a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of enthusiasm. They will also, of course, threaten to leave you an awful review.

So step out of the mess; set aside a small amount of money to simply refund their order and wish them well, after apologizing that you can’t do any more for them.

My friend the eBay retailer was lucky to have a business model profitable enough to support this. For what she pays in “God bless them” money, she gets days of freed up time, a spotless reputation, and has far more energy and ideas to put into improving her business. Fighting it out with those rare bad customers simply isn’t worth it.

Conclusion

Customer experience is made up of so many factors, but ultimately it simply boils down to being solely about the customer. The focus is to make their experience a positive one from the moment they first encounter your business to the moment they either move away or place their 100th order. Along the way, you can do a lot for them by simply putting yourself in their shoes.