I am going to let you in on a surprisingly well-kept secret. Something that has been the most successful way to differentiate your company-no matter the industry, no matter the economy, no matter the country-from all of your competition.

First, let me tell you that my second grandchild was born in July. When I was meeting my family and friends at the hospital, I had a little trouble finding the place where I was supposed to be. On my journey to find the right waiting area, I had to ask at least seven different people for directions. In every case, these individuals greeted me with a smile, were extremely pleasant and very happy to assist.

This is just one example of the level of customer service we received during our visit. But it was obvious that the hospital had adopted service as an important aspect of its business. That it was not just the people, but the entire hospital's philosophy.

While I am sure we had to pay $5 for a Tylenol and $25 for a bed pan my daughter never used, the experience seemed worth it, and they won't hear me complain. And, of course, if I ever need a hospital again, this will be the place I go. The hospital was no better than any other I've seen, but I will return because of the service-the way I was treated and, most importantly, the way my daughter and granddaughter were treated.

Here's another story. There is a convenience store that is about 10 miles from my house. When I am in town and on my way to the office, most of the time I will stop there to get a cup of decaf coffee. I pay $1.07 for a 16-ounce cup. The reason this is important is that I pass three other stores on the way to get to this one, which is where Pat works.

The first store I pass has decaf coffee and, as a matter of fact, the price is 55 cents a cup for 16 ounces. The second place I could stop charges 75 cents for the same cup. The third place is 95 cents for a 20-ounce cup. But when I get to the fourth store, Pat greets me by my first name, asks me about my family, and never fails to tell me to have a great day.

I don't even remember telling her my name. But now, I am drawn to Pat's store: Pat makes me feel like she truly appreciates me and my business. Pat is about 65 years old and knows what it takes to serve. It's not the coffee or the price, it's the feeling I get every time I go there.

I'm from Houston and have traveled to Southern Louisiana a number of times throughout my lifetime. One thing I learned from the locals down there is a thing they call lagniappe.

This is how it was explained to me: A long time ago, when you had to go to the market and buy a dozen eggs, the owner of the store might put a 13th egg in your bag that you discovered when you got home. That 13th egg is lagniappe. Or, if you would order five pounds of sugar, the store owner would weigh up the five pounds, and then take the bag off the scale and add one more scoop. That's lagniappe. It means "a little bit extra."

The subject of this column is related to all of these stories; and it will not cost you a dime, but can provide huge dividends to your company. It's the lagniappe, the little bit extra-good customer service. Not just the standard type of service that even today in most industries seems like a thing of the past, but the WOW!!!! The thing that makes them want to come back.

People pay for the WOW! I have seen more companies with good products go bankrupt simply because they did not know how to treat their customers. And by the same token, I have seen competing companies with similar products, where some excel and some fail. The only difference was customer service, the lagniappe they provided-the WOW!

Statistically, when a customer changes vendors, 68% of the time it's due to poor customer service. Here's the real kicker: Not only will exceptional customer service improve your company's bottom line, it's a lot more fun!

Try it; you might like it. I know your customers will!

Editor's note:

In the Industry Forum in the June issue, there were several instances where the Greek mu symbol (µ) was inadvertently replaced with an m when the word file was converted to a pdf. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.