Any entrepreneur willing to endure the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” it takes to start a business knows how important clients are. They write the checks that pay the bills. So keeping them satisfied is rarely just lip service. In fact, most business owners believe they are putting their clients first. But what they don’t realize is they’ve developed an array of bad habits that accomplish just the opposite.

 Most businesspeople would be shocked to hear they’re putting clients last. But in reality they’re putting so many other things first — their own bank accounts, comfort, convenience, even their own pride — that the customer really does come last…or close to it, anyway.

I’m not talking about business owners who knowingly do shoddy work or try to shortchange customers — odds are, their companies will die a quick and early death. I’m talking about those who do have good intentions — who try to be polite, fair, and offer a good value — but who allow deceptively small aspects of their day-to-day decisions and habits to take precedence over the customer’s wellbeing.

Closing each customer interaction with “Thank you for your business,” offering discounts for continued loyalty, or working the occasional few hours past close-of-business to resolve a client’s problem is nice, even commendable. But by my standards, these practices don’t mean you’re always putting clients first.

Here, I share five ways in which you may be inadvertently failing your customers.

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1. You believe your No. 1 business goal is to make money.

Ummm…isn’t that the point of running a company? you might be asking. Well, it is a point, but it’s not the point. A too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes your attention off of the people who are going to enable you to raise it: your customers. Your clients can always tell when they’re not your first priority. (If you’re skeptical, just consider the backlash that often occurs when small businesses are bought out and transformed by larger, more impersonal corporations.)

The difference between paying attention to service so that your clients will give you more business and doing so because serving the customer is your first priority may feel slight, but it’s significant. Taking your focus off the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. But you’ll soon find that when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t — even if you make less money. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life. And it can have a miracle effect on your growth and success.

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2. You let the little things slide.

As a business owner, there are a lot of “big” things you’d never neglect. For example, you wouldn’t allow your accountancy office’s college intern prepare a client’s taxes. However, you might not be such a stickler for what you believe are smaller things. Rushing through paperwork so you can get home early, failing to spellcheck an email or two, and running late to a meeting probably won’t matter that much six months from now, you think. But that’s not necessarily the case.

So often in life, it’s the small details that differentiate “good” from “great.” And make no mistake: If it impacts a customer’s happiness, best interests, comfort level or anything else even the slightest bit, it’s not a “little” thing. When you fail to get the small details right, you fail to truly put customers first. On the other hand, promises kept, deadlines met, little extra flourishes and small acts of kindness add up to happy clients.

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3. If it’s not “broke,” you don’t fix it.

Many business owners subscribe to the theory that if something’s not broken, they don’t need to fix it. If the check-in paperwork your receptionist uses has been in place for years and you’re not getting many complaints, why tinker with it? If your knowledge is sufficient to handle most of your clients’ problems, why spend valuable time learning more? The answer is simple: If you don’t consistently strive to improve, you’re not putting your clients first.

I’m not saying you need to spend every minute of your spare time attending conferences, taking classes and webinars and reading industry journals. However, you should make it a priority to stay familiar with the way your industry is growing and changing. You should also do everything possible to offer your customers the quality and value they deserve. Always question the status quo, and ask yourself how you can make it better. You don’t just want your customers to be satisfied; you want them to be pleasantly surprised every time they do business with you.

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4. You downplay your mistakes.

Nobody likes the mishmash of negative feelings that accompanies making a mistake. That’s why many business owners (and their employees) resolve matters with clients as quickly as possible when a ball is dropped, and then try to never speak of the matter again. After all, there’s no sense wallowing in your slip-up — you need to move forward. Right?

Wrong. When your company makes a mistake, no matter how big or small, it’s your responsibility to stare that mistake in the face and get to the very bottom of what went wrong. That’s not just so you can fix one particular error; it’s so you can figure out why it happened and make sure it doesn’t occur again.

Every mistake is a good learning opportunity. Maybe you’ll figure out that you need to improve a quality-control procedure, for example, or perhaps a client’s complaint about mail being sent to her former address will spur you to update your record-keeping systems. My point is, when you sweep a mistake under the rug instead of allowing it to make you better, you aren’t putting your clients’ future interests first.  

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5. You subscribe to the idea that the customer is always right.

I’m not saying that you should disregard a client’s preferences and desires — of course you should try to get to the bottom of what each customer wants, and then do whatever is in your power to deliver that product or service. However, when customers are simply wrong and their best interests are at stake, it’s your responsibility to say so.

Allowing a customer to be “right” when you know he isn’t may pacify him temporarily, but in the end, it won’t be good for either of you. Putting clients first sometimes means politely but honestly disagreeing with or disappointing them. If a financial advisor allows a client to make an overly risky investment he’s determined to make, it doesn’t make the client right; it just makes the advisor irresponsible.

Next week: 5 more ways you may be failing your clients

For more from Joseph Calloway, see:

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