Seven Tips for Building Customer Loyalty

Treat returning customers right and they'll return the favor.

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Loyal customers can be an important driver of sustainable business growth. They're usually much less price-sensitive, can be nearly immune to competitive entreaties, and can become a powerful marketing arm, going out of their way to promote and defend your company online and off -- for free.

If you're looking for ways to foster greater customer loyalty, consider these tips.

1. Anticipate customer wishes. When a customer's need is met before it has been expressed, it sends the message that you care about the customer as an individual. It doesn't require telepathic ability, just paying attention and knowing your customers.

It's well worth the effort. The cared-for feeling a customer gets when her wishes are anticipated is where you can generate the fierce loyalty.

For example: Instead of putting up one of those generic signs saying "If our restrooms need attention, please notify the staff," Charlie Trotter's famed restaurant in Chicago long ago decided on a proactive system: They themselves discreetly check the towels and soaps after every use, thus never leaving the next guest's experience at the whim of the last, nor ever putting a guest in the awkward position of having to ask for supplies or maintenance.

2. Hire with patience. In an organization aiming for superb service, a single disagreeable or unresponsive team member can erode customer loyalty and team morale. That's why it can be better to leave a position unfilled, rather than rushing to hire someone unsuitable. More broadly, customer service excellence is most fully achieved when a business owner becomes expert at recruiting and training service personnel.

3. Develop a customer-service vocabulary. Create and rehearse a list of vocabulary words and expressions that fit your brand perfectly. Cut out all off-brand language.

For example, the expression "no worries" may sound fine from a clerk at a Portland audio equipment store, but not from a salesperson at Cartier in Milan.

What's more, search out and replace any vocabulary words that could bruise customer feelings. For instance, avoid telling a customer: "You owe us." Try instead: "Our records seem to show a balance. . ." Employees of some successful companies carry pocket-sized cards with handy reminders of recommended and discouraged phrases to use in a variety of common scenarios.

4. Dedicate yourself to acknowledging each returning customer. Whatever your business and its size, get to know each customer as well as a beloved bartender, doorman, or hairstylist would. For example, the kind who would know each customer's preferences, the name of her pet, when she was in last and other details.

Computer-assisted client-tracking systems -- and an attentive staff -- can help create that same "at home" feeling in your customers -- regardless of the size and price point of your business, and whether it's an online or bricks-and-mortar operation.

5. Make every hello and goodbye perfect. Psychological studies demonstrate that customers remember the first and last minutes of a service encounter much more vividly -- and for much longer -- than all the rest. The first and final elements of your customer interactions should be particularly well-engineered, because they are going to stick in the customer's memory.

6. Speed up your service. Modern customers expect speedier service than did any generation before them. Not only speedier than their parents expected, but even than they themselves expected last year. In the age of iPhones and Amazon.com, you may as well not deliver your product or service if you're going to deliver it late.

7. Show your personality. When customers choose to interact with a person at your company, they want the transaction to be, well, human -- even in an online interaction.

For example, why send emails to customers from a Please-do-not-reply-to-this address? Instead, if possible, invite recipients, even of your mass emails, to respond directly -- and, of course, make sure someone answers those replies when they come.

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