In a massive company, employees’ roles are precise: accountant, marketing manager, IT support specialist, and so on. In a corporation, an IT support specialist isn’t likely to be called upon to do the books. In a small business, however, the manager might find herself cleaning up after the popular shop cat, because every employee of a small business has to wear multiple hats.

The most important hat your employees wear is the customer hat — now available in “extremely satisfied.” That’s right — your employees are also your customers, and they should be treated as VIPs.

Understand Who Your Customers Are

Even though you’re not running a large corporation, you can still split your customer base into “internal” and “external.” Your external customers are the obvious, visible ones. They pay you money for products or services.

Your internal customers are your employees; they’re the ones who keep the external customers coming in the door. It’s a direct link: If your employees aren’t enthusiastic about where they work, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to create a pleasant experience that external customers will want to come back to.

Keep All Your Customers Happy

You need to strive to keep your employees as happy as you want your customers to be. Remember that even during tough economic times, employees, like customers, still have options. If they are choosing to work for you, make it worth their while.

Scott Thompson, CFO of independent contemporary Christian radio station The River, has a simple leadership strategy for keeping everyone happy. According to Thompson, “The leader’s role is simply to create an environment where his employees can do their best work, evaluate that work, and reward the results of that work.” That’s it: create, evaluate, reward.

A Culture of Ownership

One of the best ways to create a staff-friendly environment is to make your employees a true, indispensable part of your business. This creates a culture of ownership where everyone feels engaged. Here are some things worth trying:

  • Share everything: financials, goals, failures, and achievements.
  • Ask for input, and then follow through.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Reward employees, and also hold them accountable.
  • Get your hands dirty. You won’t win the respect of your staff without doing what they do every now and then.

Far beyond simply making Friday “Hawaiian Shirt Day,” a culture of ownership means that when your business hurts, the whole staff hurts, and when it wins, everyone wins. If employees feel involved, they will be enthusiastic and successful when dealing with your client base.

The Cost of Unhappiness

So, it all sounds very well and good to keep people happy. But is it really worth it? Yes. Hold on to your pants, because according to research by The Gallup Organization, disengaged workers cost the U.S. economy an annual $350 billion in productivity loss. That is not a typo; that is a “b” as in billion.

Hollywood has cashed in on employee unhappiness via the likes of “Office Space” and “The Office,” and the popularity of these movies and shows proves just how unhappy the American workforce is. You see living proof of it on a daily basis when you read your friends’ Facebook statuses. People complain so much about their jobs that the act of whining becomes a full-time job in itself.

Reach for the Top

Still not convinced it’s worth it to cater to your employees? Research shows that the 100 best companies to work for are also among the most profitable. No one’s going to deny the success of Google and Edward Jones, and they both rank in the top 10.

There’s no reason you can’t mimic this success on a smaller scale. Offer to pay for flu shots. Give exceptional employee discounts. Keep a small pantry stocked with healthy, tasty snacks for anyone to graze on. If you know your business well, it won’t be hard to find easy and affordable perks.

If your internal customers feel engaged and taken care of, this positive energy will transfer to your external customers. Your employees are your clients’ first point of human contact. Make them a successful part of what you do, and they won’t be able to help serving your customers with a smile worth a million bucks.

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