Businesses have been trying for decades to import good service practices and graft them into their own work settings. They use training programs or other means to try and "regimentalize" key service behaviors--an outside-in approach that seldom makes things any better, and often only makes things worse.

Truly customer-focused businesses deliver outstanding service from the inside out. The key is to get your employees coming up with their own ideas for delighting customers, and then letting positive feedback from happy customers motivate your workers to continue implementing more of their own innovative service strategies. This is called the "flashpoint effect," where employee motivation and customer satisfaction fuel each other in a chain reaction of contagious enthusiasm.

That's easier said than done, of course--unless your business has an actual process in place to keep the chain reaction bubbling. Such a process doesn't have to be complicated. These three guiding principles will help your employees generate their own ideas for improving the customer experience. Then step back and watch how quickly these service enhancements give your business a powerful competitive edge.

Customer Focus Principle #1: Exceed your customers' expectations every step of the way. Shoppers at Ireland's Superquinn supermarkets experience the "wow" factor at every turn. When they first arrive, they encounter a supervised play area for young children. In the aisles, they'll find a multitude of signs encouraging them to report "goofs," such as fruit that's over-ripe, in return for which they're given free lottery cards. They'll discover bags of free vegetables they can bring home for their pets ("Make Your Hoppy Happy"). And at checkout, the store offers umbrellas to keep shoppers dry while they watch attendants transfer their grocery bags from cart to car.

You can create these "wow" factors, too. Set up a brainstorming session in which your employees break a typical customer transaction down into its individual steps, and then challenge the group to focus on each step, one at a time, and uncover ways to add a "wow" element of delight in each step. They'll probably come up with more ideas than you can implement, so afterwards, let them choose the best ones and help them implement these ideas successfully.

Customer Focus Principle #2: Make your customers feel important. It's just common sense, right? Maybe--but it's certainly not common practice. Ever see the sign that says "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash"? Or the cartoon of the four little men rolling on the floor with laughter over a caption that reads, "You Want It When?" Everywhere you look, you see businesses making it painfully obvious that they consider their customers to be unreasonable intruders, potential criminals, annoying interruptions of the "real work" the business is trying to get done.

During your employee brainstorming session, get your staff thinking about ways to make your customers feel welcome and appreciated during each step of the transaction. The ideas that emerge often cost nothing to implement (like smiling more or addressing customers by name). Yet these are the little things that can make such a big difference from the customers' point of view.

Customer Focus Principle #3: Tailor the experience to fit the customer. Where one supermarket invests in metal barricades to prevent the theft of its shopping carts, its customer-focused competitor instead chooses to invest in carts that are even more appealing. Mothers with infants can use carts outfitted with a baby seat. Shoppers with older children can use a cart designed like a toy car so the kids can pretend they're driving while the parent proceeds along the aisles. There are even self-powered sit-down carts for the elderly and the disabled.

Flashpoint businesses recognize that they deal with different categories of customers and that each category can have unique expectations. These businesses abandon the one-size-fits-all mentality and look for ways to provide something special for each major customer category.

So invite your brainstorming employees to list the major customer categories in your business, and ask them to think of ways to "wow" each category individually. These are often the kinds of "personal touch" ideas that deliver the biggest impact. Even customers from different categories will be impressed with the efforts your business is making to improve the overall customer experience.

Try applying these three principles in a brainstorming session with your own employees, and discover for yourself how creating a customer service culture from the inside out really can be as easy as one-two-three.

A highly-detailed facilitation guide for the kind of employee brainstorming sessions described above is outlined in customer-focus consultant Paul Levesque's book, Customer Service From The Inside Out Made Easy (Entrepreneur Press). Read an excerpt at www.customerfocusbreakthroughs.com.