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How Leaders Can Strengthen Relationships with Their Customers and Stay Relevant Customer relationships matter. Here's how we keep them strong even through uncertainty.

By Cheri Beranek Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The recent surge in digital behaviors has raised the bar in customer expectations. According to a 2021 McKinsey report, 75% of consumers switched stores, products or buying methods during the pandemic, and consumer loyalty became more elusive. Ecommerce giants set high standards, and a more personalized customer experience has become the default rather than the standout.

Simply reacting to customer demand is no longer enough. Companies today need proactive customer service that improves experiences and reduces friction at all stages of their buying journey to be competitive. Building customer relationships before, during, and after a sale means fewer problems to tackle, and those that remain are easier to solve.

With a deeper understanding of customer needs, we can build the best products and services to meet them. We can better anticipate changing trends and adapt by continuing to take in feedback. The more precisely we understand what they want, the more data we have to improve and expand what we offer them. With consistent engagement, we can adapt to their changing needs more effectively.

Related: How to Build Strong Customer Relationships in the Digital Age

Let customer insight guide innovation

Engage with customers and make understanding them on a deeper level a priority. By uncovering their unique and evolving needs, preferences and pain points, we can deliver more personalized solutions, communication, and support that exceed their expectations and develop stronger relationships. According to McKinsey, 71% of consumers expect companies to deliver personalized interactions, and 76% get frustrated when they don't. Personalized experiences influence customer buying patterns and demonstrate that a company is listening.

When organizations drive customer-centric innovation, customers feel heard and more satisfied. With insight into their customers' businesses, goals, and challenges, companies can offer expertise and support beyond sales transactions, differentiate themselves from the competition, and strengthen customer trust and loyalty. Use their feedback to identify their unsolved problems and develop new solutions. Nurture and enhance long-term customer relationships by positioning your company as a strategic partner and indispensable ally.

Bake in flexibility

When it comes to customer service, I always say it's better to implement practices than policies. Policies create a wall between company representatives and customers that halts productive communication. A customer wants to return an item or request a payment plan only to hear, "Sorry, that's not our policy." Someone higher up with more authority makes that decision, and the sales rep has no control over changing it. We activate policies to hide behind them in response to a customer request that falls outside their parameters. Even if the customer seems understanding, these uncomfortable experiences can damage the relationship.

Conversely, practices allow company representatives to compromise or make exceptions, which customers appreciate. Practices are modes in which we interact with customers before, during and after the sale and assign responsibility for every phase of that experience. Individuals retain the power to evaluate the situation, make allowances, and be flexible if it improves the resulting experience. With a team aligned around a company's core values and objectives and a culture of empathy and curiosity in serving customer needs, team members will know the best decision to make, even when it clashes with company policy.

Related: You Need Consumer Insights To Ensure The Success Of Your Business. Here Are Five Ways To Find Them.

Built trust through kept promises

Lofty promises may keep customers happy, but only as long as they are kept. After years of supply chain issues and little relief in sight, making promises and keeping them has become more challenging, particularly for customer service. When a client placed an unusually large order for some custom drop cables ordered, we assured our sales teams we would be able to fulfill it on time. We never counted on our supplier sending a critical component late. The client was understandably upset and looking for someone to blame, and our customer service reps had to handle it. Shortages of critical parts or materials and insufficient and unreliable transportation — how can they commit to keeping promises when so much is out of their control?

Encourage sales and service reps to be transparent when they recognize the effects of conditions outside their control. When we realized the component's delay meant we would miss our customer's deadline, our chief technical officer called their tech team and gave it to them straight. They may not have wanted to hear about the delay, but that customer felt included, which built their trust in us to keep them in the loop. We still serve that customer to this day. Even with the most understanding customer, broken promises' damage to relationships is much more challenging to repair than any discomfort caused by transparency.

Related: Why Building Customer Trust Is Even More Important During Economic Hardship

Lean into humility

To build strong relationships with our customers, we need to be good partners, which means admitting when we make mistakes. There is nothing worse as a customer than the feeling of calling a company with a legitimate complaint only to have service representatives refuse to accept they are in the wrong. Even if that customer manages to convince the representative to give them what they want, they walk away with a bad taste from the encounter.

It takes courage to recognize a mistake and even more to apologize for it. Accepting this as a mentality when dealing with customers can save the time and stress of otherwise tense and uncomfortable conversations. Instead, an honest apology creates a neutral ground where both parties can meet at the center and work toward a resolution. Be strong enough to say sorry when it matters and means something. A customer will more likely remember the effort we made to fix our mistakes than the mistake itself.

Building any long-term relationship takes more than a one-time effort. To stay relevant to consumers as their needs evolve, we need an ongoing commitment to continuous customer engagement and a willingness to adapt. Leverage technology and analytics tools to gather customer data, uncover patterns, and gain actionable insights. The more skilled companies become at applying data to deepen their customer intimacy, the higher the returns: better customer outcomes, upward migration, retention and loyalty. With a resilient and customer-centric organization, leaders are better equipped to drive sustainable growth through uncertainty.
Cheri Beranek

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Clearfield

Cheri Beranek is the CEO of Clearfield and a 2023 EY National Entrepreneur of the Year award winner. Under her leadership, Clearfield has grown from a concept to a market cap of more than $500 million, providing optical-fiber management and connectivity solutions across North America.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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