By Amy Hill, editor

Recent headlines indicate that unemployment numbers in November were down in 43 states and that housing starts in the United States reached a 19-month high. Confidence among small businesses also rose for a third straight month, and an index of consumer sentiment was also up to its highest in six months. If this keeps up, 2012 will be a good year.

Unfortunately, it also looks like business costs, in particular health care coverage and other employee benefits, are rising. This may create problems for those of you providing benefits for your employees. And, of course, where will fuel costs be this spring? Hopefully, not higher.

So, where does that leave you as you plan for next year? Is it going to be feasible to raise rates for your customers to help make up the difference, or will you have to eat some of the cost increases?

For consumers, your customers, it’s still quite a scary economy. Even though spending is up, most are still bargain hunting. Most people understand rate increases, but they’re also looking for the most bang for their bucks. What are you going to do in 2012 to set yourself apart from everyone else?

One way to stand out is to consistently deliver excellent customer service. This doesn’t cost you a lot of money. Start by making every client feel like they’re your only client. At every opportunity, refer to them by name and offer a warm "Good morning" when you see them head out for the day as you work on their lawn. Answer the phone or have someone within you company answer the phone when prospects and customers call. That’s much better than voicemail. Do you send simple thank-you notes that let clients know how much you appreciate them as clients? Why not?

A few other really easy ways: show up on time; leave job sites clean; stand behind your work. Most clients won’t mind paying a little extra for a service when they know they’re getting what they pay for.