“It is far easier, and much more cost-effective, to keep the customers you have rather than trying to attract new ones. It’s also much more profitable,” wrote Jim Palmer, author of Stick Like Glue: How to Create an Everlasting Bond with Your Customers So They Spend More, Stay Longer, and Refer More!

Preach it, Jim.

Nothing says “Thank You!” like a plaque on the wall, as this story shows via FoxBusiness.com:

Here’s an example of a loyalty gesture that made patrons feel over-the-top special: A group of male colleagues were regulars at a restaurant near their office in midtown New York City. After years of patronage, the maître d’ stopped them as they entered one day and expressed how much the owners and the staff appreciated their many years of loyalty. They were each handed a plaque with their names already engraved, and were able to select where, on the restaurant’s wall of fame, their plaques would hang. The thrill was in seeing their names next to others that were far more famous and recognizable. The men were so enchanted by the gesture that they spread the story to everyone they knew, and the story made its way online. The plaques probably didn’t cost that much, but the return on this investment for the restaurant is priceless.

Customer appreciation is often as simple as saying, “Thank you for your business,” yet few businesses go out of their way to express this sentiment to their loyal customers. How many times have you heard it? The plaque on the wall story contains all the key elements to show appreciation for your customers:

  • Unexpected surprise to customers
  • Visible recognition for loyalty
  • Appreciation in a form that customers value

Moreover, the actions you take to show customer appreciation should aim to offer a high return in terms of increased loyalty, business visibility, and/or word-of-mouth marketing.

Using the plaque on the wall for inspiration, here are some other innovative ideas that incorporate these key elements:

The “Best Customer” Award

According to the 80–20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, approximately 80% of your small business revenues come from 20% of your customers. Spend your creative energy on these customers to see the biggest return-on-investment of your time and money.

Once you know who they are, give them something unexpected, a surprise. Offer them a free meal or special discount on a product. If you can personalize it in a meaningful way, that gesture or token of your appreciation will be better received.

“Thank You” From the Top

If you define innovative  like Dictionary.com does, as “…using or showing new methods, ideas, etc.,” then a thank you from the top is new, since most small business never extend a thank you from executives or owners. Hearing “Thank you” from an actual person, not a department, is a big surprise. Yet hearing these powerful words from someone who actually runs the business — an actual owner — is amazing.

Usually the people at the top are invisible. If you own or run a small business, make yourself visible. Telling your best customers “Thank you!” in person, on the phone, or even in a special customer appreciation email, will prove to be a surprisingly effective way of showing customer appreciation. Offering thanks offline is particularly potent. Handwritten cards or other items delivered by mail are both cost-effective ways of showing appreciation for your best customers.

Make It Social 

Almost everyone likes to get recognition in a public forum. Unless your business’ product or service is highly personal you can reap rewards by loudly applauding your biggest customers. There is no forum more public than your business Facebook page or Twitter account. Create a simple “Thank You” page on your business website listing your best supporters and promote it heavily through social media.

In some circumstances, you can even present somewhat competitive “tiers” of customer support (bronze, silver, and gold) with differing, and increasing, levels of public acknowledgment. University alumni associations, public TV, and nonprofit radio stations are masters of multi-tiered, public acknowledgements. Watch what they do and apply it to your business.

An added bonus: Public proclamations of support create social proof. Hearing or seeing other names in addition to their own makes customers feel they are part of a select group. Emphasize this feeling of membership and let people know how much they — as part of this group — have helped your business succeed. Add their names, and your gesture of appreciation becomes even more powerful.

“Tell Your Friends” Gift

Everyone likes to be able to do something special for their friends. You can use this natural reciprocity desire of your customers to help build your business. Here’s how. Give a generous special offer to your best customers that has the desirable option to redeem when they share the gift with friends.

For instance, if you operate a restaurant, give your top 1% of regular patrons a multi-course meal for two for free — with the option of adding two more people as their guests, also for free. Your cost goes up nominally if the gift is shared, but, you get the opportunity to build your business by two extra people. If your customers elect not to share their gift you still make a generous statement of thanks.

The advantage here is that you already know that your best supporters like your business, and have probably told their friends about you. Your customers will enjoy showcasing their extra special merit to others and will simultaneously gain pleasure from sharing their earned bounty of privilege. Again, this benefits your business because your best customers’ friends are more likely to also be your ideal customer since people with similar interests and habits tend to spend time together.

Regardless of the specific reward you offer, be sure it emphasizes that you consider the customer to be very special. Give generously but include options to share or pass along an experience or significant discount. Put a redemption time limit on the offer and it will cover several of the key elements listed above.

These are just a few examples. Use your creativity to demonstrate your appreciation in a way that is personally meaningful to the recipient, and you’ll be rewarded with strong customer relationships built on trust and loyalty.