Small businesses' goal: keep customers extremely happy

How far should you go to keep a client in this economy?

Would you give up your child's birthday party to take a loyal client to the airport? How about cutting your vacation short to intervene in a customer dispute?

With the recession making it tough to stay afloat, small businesses are going to new extremes to coddle clients and keep customers. As owners are rediscovering in this recession, survival is much more about relationships than just business.

``Focusing on customer service is critical,'' says Althea Harris, spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration's South Florida office. ``Very few small businesses are the only game in town. You might cut salaries or staff, but you have to focus on how not to cut customer service.''

Miami real estate broker Lillian Macken missed a close friend's party to pick up a client from the airport, show the couple a home, then dine with them afterward. ``If you don't make yourself available today, people will hang up the phone and call someone else,'' she says. ``In this challenging industry, you have to be out there.''

Facing added pressure on the bottom line, small-business owners are making more personal trade-offs to retain customers.

When Province ``Boo'' Zamek started an online community newsletter, from her home, she hoped it would allow her to better balance work and family. Lately, she's been putting in 10-hour days and weekends, working more closely with advertisers. ``It's like I've become an ad agency in-house and I never expected to have to do that.''

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