According to Statistics SA, in September 2011 alone, 330 South African businesses closed their doors. Of these 65 were in the wholesale, retail trade, catering or accommodation categories. That’s shops, restaurants and hotels or B&Bs that are now out of business.

Some were voluntary closures; others were forced liquidations; all tell a sad story of lost potential, money and jobs. Clearly South Africa still finds itself in very challenging economic times. And while you can’t presume that all the business closures in September or, indeed, the whole of 2011 were only due to the economic environment, it’s safe to assume that many of these businesses simply couldn’t survive the recent decline in business and customers.

Looking further back, since the beginning of the year, a staggering 2 475 South African businesses have closed. 619 of these were in the wholesale, retail trade, catering and accommodation categories. On the positive side – if you can find a positive side to business closures – this figure is actually down from the same period in 2010, which saw 2 930 companies shut down.

But despite this decline in closures year-on-year, the truth is that almost 2 500 businesses have stopped trading in the past nine months – and that’s a lot no matter how you look at it!

As a customer service professional, I have to ask the question: “How many of these businesses might still have been trading, if they had paid more attention to keeping their customers happy?” While I’m not implying that customer service is a ‘silver bullet’ solution to challenging economic conditions, there can be no doubt that businesses that place little priority on creating great customer experiences are bound to suffer the ill effects of a recession more than those that have always kept their customers happy.

Nowhere is this more obvious, particularly during the festive season, than the restaurant industry.

While it’s natural for restaurant owners to want to capitalize on higher patron numbers to shore up their finances for what promises to be an equally challenging 2012, doing so at the expense of good customer experiences is tantamount to business suicide. In other words, if your restaurant is enjoying an increase in reservations, but you don’t want to incur higher overheads by employing some extra staff to meet the growing demand, there’s a good chance this may be your last good season. In fact, it may end up being your last season. Period.

While people expect to wait longer for service during the busy times, they don’t expect to be neglected, subjected to poor quality, or have a terrible experience. And that applies whether they are visiting a restaurant or visiting the mall.

So, if your business desires a merry Christmas and prosperous New Year, stay focused on offering great customer experiences, rather than fixating on short-term turnover. Rather than being a cost consideration, see it as an opportunity to stand out from the poor service crowd. In the process, you’ll not only boost their bottom line, you’ll also potentially win some long-term, loyal customers. Which is the best way to ensure your business doesn’t find itself on the next Statistics SA “closures” list.