There have always been service providers whose signature was the quality of their work: a hotel housekeeper who tidies up and remembers the extra blanket, the accommodating auto repairman who arrives at 6 a.m. or the night nurse who checks your vital signs when you’re too drugged to communicate. But what can providers of self-service applications do to create a solid relationship with customers that fosters loyalty?

The route to your creating a positive relationship with customers who access a service without any direct personal contact is to simulate characteristics within a partnership. As is the case with customer service relationships in general, effective management of critical details can turn an "at arm's length" encounter into a responsive, affinity-building experience.

Related: Treat Them Well: 5 Keys to Lasting Customer Service

Manage the sights, signals and symbols. Look at all the sensory information. Does the signage or website instructions sound like a vendor giving warm instructions to a valuable partner or like a prosecutor aiming to invoke tough laws on recalcitrant criminals? Just like the library that changed its lingo so “overdue fines” became “extended use fees,” your tone can convey a lot.

“Don’t leave trash on the floor” could be altered to “Thank you for helping us keep your Laundromat as clean as you want your clothes.” And “Our washers are allergic to liquid Clorox” has a different feel than “Don’t you dare pour Clorox in the machines!”

Find a way to leave behind personalized communication. I order dress pants from M.L. Leddy’s, a small Western wear store in Fort Worth, Texas. John Ripps is the sales rep whom I e-mail but never see. He has my measurements on file so I just request cloth swatches, select one or two pairs and place my order. Two days after any purchase, I get a handwritten personal thank-you note from him. After the tailored pants are made, I get a heads-up e-mail from John: “Partner, your pants are being shipped to you today and they are truly gorgeous!”

Always provide a back door. Customers enjoy the convenience of print-at-home tickets, online shopping, electronic reservations and the like. They appreciate automation if it works, was crafted with them in mind and makes their service experience easy. They prefer things fast and simple -- and their way. But if transmission through the channel you’ve established feels one-way, customers feel as alone as the person buying a soda from a vending machine in an unheated remote location.

Customers also want to be able to quickly and easily connect with a human being to bring fast resolution to any problem. This means creating an setup so  there is always a guardian of the transaction watching over the encounter, eager and able to help after a hint of customer consternation. The best websites are easily navigated and have an obvious way for customers to reach “somebody back there” via numerous channels (“call us, web chat with us, e-mail us, pony express us”). The message should be “We are here for you and enjoy communicating.” Ensure that all customer-contact personnel have easy access to customer information.

Related: The Magic of Owning a Customer-Service Problem

Trust your customers. Bob Frandsen of Home Style Coin Laundry in Rush City, Minn., says, “One thing I do to keep customers loyal is that I always send out the customers their refund money if they have filled out a refund slip. Even if they only put down that they lost a quarter, I spend 47 cents in postage to send them their refund.” Trust your customers and they will trust you back.

Wise airport concession stores put the morning newspaper purchase on the honor system. Instead of standing in line just to buy a USA Today, customers pick up a copy as they put a dollar through the slot in the money container above the papers. The practice benefits the in-a-hurry customer catching a flight and helps the store achieve efficient traffic flow to better serve those with multiple purchases or buying something uncommon.

"Serving in the dark" does not have to be silent service stoically given without customer rapport. The superior service provider finds ways to build a partnership with self-service customers even if that relationship ends up resembling that between dedicated pen pals. As customers require service delivered more quickly, more independently and with greater convenience, "serving in the dark" will become, to paraphrase the ad line, "the next best substitute to actually being there."

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