Customer service is a part of business- for every business. The importance of this component can’t be overstated. You can have the best product, the best delivery system, and the best advertising money can buy, but if your customers don’t feel the love, it’s very difficult to build the kind of brand loyalty that sustains a company, especially a small or independent one.

Great customer service doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of a company’s dedication to a culture of customer appreciation, a dedication that has to be consistently reinforced, built upon, and re-examined. The drive to produce the best and most innovative product can sometimes make us forget this aspect, because the struggle to simply do business is so all-encompassing. We do so at our peril.

To develop your customer service culture, work it into all aspects of the business. Find your own customer service “voice,” one that all employees can speak in and understand. The cost of this effort is one of the most worthwhile investments you can make for the long term, so incorporate the following principles into your management approach:

Hire for culture. When hiring, look beyond qualifications and experience and get a sense of applicants’ personalities, their attitude. It’s important to hire people whose outlook is conducive to customer service. It takes a certain kind of disposition to be able to put the customer first, even when it’s inconvenient or when the customer isn’t exactly pleasant.

While there’s a natural urge to react defensively to complaints or demands, service-minded employees have a special ability to put pride aside and prioritize customer relations. It’s vital to look for this quality when hiring people who interact directly with customers, but it’s also important for other employees whose work will also have an impact on customer satisfaction.

Train for culture. Begin the commitment to customer service with training. The first order of business with new hires should be to make them understand your company’s approach to customer service, and how their role facilitates it.

It’s important that employees understand the overall vision and mission statement of the company, and how it aligns with the needs of customers. From day one, employees should be taught to see themselves as agents of customer satisfaction, regardless of what their specific tasks are.

Align. Reinforce customer service culture throughout the course of business, for all employees. Keep everyone on the same page with practices that keep your team aligned and oriented toward the goal of customer satisfaction.

One of the best ways to maintain this alignment is through language. Use mantras and slogans that encompass and articulate your standing commitment to service. Create a common language of terms and sayings, through which employees can develop their understanding of your service culture. Encourage them to refer to those sayings as guides in their daily work.

Allow experimentation. If the idea of mantras and slogans seems a little Orwellian, understand that it’s not meant to control employees or turn them into customer service drones. Mantras and sayings are guideposts that remind employees of the broader goal as they independently decide how best to serve customers.

With that independence in mind, it’s important to allow employees to experiment with different approaches to customer service. Give your employees the freedom to solve problems creatively. Ask for suggestions. When employees are given the freedom and responsibility that comes with your trust, they may see new avenues to customer satisfaction that you haven’t considered.

Create a learning environment. Consider the mission of customer service a collaborative effort. Encourage employees to share their experiences and compare notes on their triumphs and setbacks. Learn from each other. When the team fails to satisfy a customer, take the time to understand why, and use the opportunity to improve. Propel your business forward with its missteps, and enshrine its successes into your service culture.

For small and independent businesses, customer service can mean the difference between staying in business and falling by the wayside. Think of the worst customer service experience you’ve ever had (likely with an airline or Comcast). Given the option, how easy would the decision be to take your business elsewhere? While airlines and semi-monopolies don’t face much competition, small businesses need to over-perform in customer service to stay viable.

Customers who are made to feel like nothing more than a source of profit walk away at the first opportunity. Customers who feel like valued human beings are customers who not only bring their business back, but bring more business your way.