starting a small businessStarting a small business can be difficult—it takes courage, determination, and a substantial amount of cash. But the labor doesn’t end when you open your doors for the first time; sustaining your company takes hard work.

Customers are the key ingredient to a successful business, and devoted, repeat customers—those who would choose you over your competitors any day—are the best kind. Jeanne Bliss, business consultant and author of Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action, shares her tips on building and sustaining a loyal customer base.

1. Have a clear vision

If you don’t know what you want to be to your customers, you won’t know how to best serve them. Take the time to really think about what it is you’re doing: Are you serving pizza or are you offering customers comfort food that brings back happy memories? Give meaning to the seemingly simple things your business does.

“For example,” Bliss says, “one emerging home builder changed his mission from ‘building contractor’ to ‘delivering on the American Dream.’” Much more than a marketing pitch, this mission statement gave his entire team a sense of purpose.

Bliss suggests asking your employees simple questions, like “What’s your job?” and “What’s our collective job?” to get a feel for how they see the company. It’s likely you’ll get very different answers from each person.

“If you haven’t been the beacon for telling [your team] where you’re headed, they’ll chart their own course. They’ll decide on their own where they’re taking your company—and your customers,” says Bliss. Developing a clear sense of vision will help your customers understand how they should be thinking about you and will help your team execute that vision.

2. Know—and show—how to treat your customers

Great customer service goes beyond crafting a policy that outlines how to handle requests and complaints and handing it off to your employees. To build customer loyalty, your customers need to know that you, the business owner, are invested in their experience.

On a regular basis, talk to your frontline staff—those who deal with customers every day—and ask them what the key issues are, Bliss advises. Assign someone to deal with the major issues, then reach out to your customers directly to better understand the problem.

All customers want to feel they are being listened to. “This is simple, it works and it puts your skin in the game. When you let your company and customers know of your direct understanding and involvement in resolving these issues, it will have an impact and it will set a standard and an example [your team] will emulate,” Bliss says.

3. Learn from the data at your disposal

If you aren’t learning from the issues that arise, you can’t effectively help your customers. Bliss advises tracking and trending feedback from patrons and then managing that customer data to get a comprehensive view of their needs. By doing so, you’ll be able to better serve, and market to, your customers.

Tracking customer data is easier, more efficient, and less bothersome to your customers than surveying them directly. Plus, if you’re effectively tracking customer data and feedback, a survey will only validate what you already know. “If your survey is telling you new things you didn’t know,” Bliss says, “you’re just way too distant from your customers—and in a most precarious position in your relationships with them.”

As a small business owner, you are the beacon to which everyone—customers and staff alike—looks for guidance. Show them all that you value your customers’ experiences, and you will build a loyal base for your business. “That is what people are looking for—to see if there’s more behind the customer commitment than lip service,” Bliss explains. “You need to prove that there is.”

Michelle Stoffel Huffman is a researcher and staff writer for Think Glink Inc. Prior to joining Think Glink, Michelle worked for the Chicago Tribune as a daily news reporter and community manager, covering local government, business, tax issues and crime. She now specializes in real estate industry news, consumer financial reporting and home design and decor. She is a graduate of DePaul University in Chicago.