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Gaining Customers' Trust Can Be Your Checkmate A small business can earn consumers' loyalty by focusing on this essential quality in four key ways.

By Karen Mishra Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Small businesses can set themselves apart from the competition by focusing on four aspects of trust that can serve as the cornerstones for building a solid reputation with customers and drawing their loyalty.

My consulting company Total Trust developed this list of four qualities through research involving surveys and interviews with representatives of Fortune 500 companies over more than 20 years:

Related: The 4 Things Every Customer Wants

1. Reliability. Do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. It sounds simple, but many small businesses have good intentions and end up failing due to personnel or inventory issues. My favorite local car wash, T.C. Anderson's of Durham, N.C., owned and operated by T.C. Anderson, always has a full staff waiting when I arrive so the wait times are short and the car ends up looking brand-new. I know that I can count on the company to come through whether I need a regular wash and a hand dry or a complete detailed job.

2. Openness and honesty. Don't lie about your company's capabilities or hide its pricing from customers. They won't return but instead will share the bad news with their friends. Instead, be up front about how your company operates and why you charge what you do. Customers will appreciate your honesty.

For example, I am using My Dog Tess, a North Carolina real-estate service, for the second time. The company aims to reduce the costs involved in selling a home. The company is up front about its pricing structure as well as what it will or won't do. I had success in saving money the first time I used the service in a down market, and now I hope to save a bit more in a better market.

Related: Revive That Old-Fashioned Extra: Excellent Customer Service

3. Competence. As a business owner, you need to prove to customers that your firm is the best to get a job done. You can't do that without constantly improving what's delivered.

Two Men and a Truck International relies on feedback cards from its clients to improve the customer experience. Movers leave the feedback cards with customers at the end of a job. When customers mail in those comment cards, they are sent to the company's headquarters in Lansing, Mich., where they are read and digested. The folks at headquarters compile the feedback and send it to each location.

If the company can make systemwide changes as a result, it does so. When great results come in, the company celebrates with everyone. This simple feedback system has helped the firm obtain a high referral rate and grow over 20 years from having one truck to using 1,800 vehicles.

4. Compassion and caring. This is an area where small businesses can shine but their larger competitors may not. When you run a small business, you know your customers, their businesses and families. Knowing someone personally and showing interest in him or her goes a long way toward building trust.

Jim Clark, owner of an Okemos, Mich., franchise for PostNet, a provider of marketing and printing services, is brilliant at this. He knows every customer by name, his or her business and what's important to each one. Clark takes the time to listen ask questions and even remembers what someone told him during the next visit. Even after I moved from Michigan, I returned to visit Jim and it felt like seeing an old friend.

Related: The Savvy Business Owner's Guide to Honesty Via Social Media

Karen Mishra

Marketing Consultant

Karen Mishra teaches marketing at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. She also runs a leadership and marketing consulting firm, Total Trust, in Durham, N.C.

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