Most small businesses, when they hear someone mention “customer relations,” might think of big PR firms that plant ads in the daily paper.
Or, they imagine having a publicist who can get the company CEO to speak in business conferences with shareholders and clients and be featured in industry magazines.
All of that is… not exactly right. Here’s why.
Customer relations are what you build with your customer or client base (no matter how big or small) over a period of time by adding value to their lives and being trustworthy. You can’t just buy customer relations by paying the local media to feature your business in the Top 10 Emerging Business of Springfield in 2020.
That’s publicity, and it has its special place in marketing. But it won’t help you build good customer relations.
You have to earn that by delivering repeated, consistent, and personalized customer experiences.
Consider your favorite gas station for example. Or the Chinese takeout restaurant where the cashier lady remembers your usual order by heart. Or the furniture store by the expressway you’ve been buying from since your college days.
More often than not, you frequent these business establishments not because you know the owners, they’re on your daily commute route, or they’re more affordable. You absent-mindedly drive to these locations because they’ve most likely built a good customer relationship with you.
It’s the same with customers everywhere else in the world. Customers are free-thinking citizens. They volunteer their time and money to do business with you because you solve their problems.
But you shouldn’t call it a customer relation unless they trust your brand and buy from you repeatedly. That’s because positive customer relations compound over time. It deepens the trust customers have for your brand based on what you do, how you do it, and how it affects them.
Keep on reading to learn:
- Why you should build customer relations
- The difference between customer service and customer relations
- 3 customer relations examples from real-life companies
- 3 ways to foster strong customer relations
Why should you build customer relations?
Customer relations are the most valuable currency you can have in today’s volatile economy. To understand why, let’s look at a few market trends that are causing it.
Depending on how you look at it, we’re either living in the golden age of capitalism or a wild, wild west version of the free market economy.
Competition is at an all-time high and “business monopoly” has become a mere myth. For every business that boasts of having a proprietary product or service, there are at least 10 other competitors in the same category who offer similar solutions for a lesser price.
Most businesses today, big and small, are defaulting to a subscription-based business model. But churn—the rate at which customers abandon a brand—is the arch-enemy they all fear. Customer churn (and by extension, a low customer retention rate) is pretty common these days because people have so many products and features to choose from.
Good customer relations can save your brand because returning customers are your biggest defense to fight customer churn, improve brand loyalty, and stay ahead of the competition.
There’s another reason why businesses hate churn. Customers’ thresholds for an “acceptable” customer experience have become very fickle. Consider this insight from Salesforce for perspective: it takes at least six to eight positive touches for a business to convert a casual website visitor into a potential lead.
Can you guess how many bad interactions a customer needs to go through to abandon the brand forever? Just one. Yep. Just one public goof-up is all it takes for a brand like United Airlines to upset its customers forever and lose millions of dollars.
Pretty terrifying, right?
Building strong customer relations is an antidote to this. It’s your only hope to acquire new customers, retain your existing clientele, and have an edge over the market competition.
What’s the difference between customer service and customer relations?
If you’re thinking that you’re already doing plenty to build good customer relations because you have great customer service, make no mistake—they’re different from each other.
Of course, they have striking overlaps just like other business functions such as marketing and sales or accounting and payroll. But that’s where their similarities end. In general, the importance of customer relations is more far-reaching than customer service.
For starters, customer service is Newton’s third law applied to business. For every action a customer takes to reach out for help, there should be an equally meaningful reaction.
It’s your business’ job to establish a customer service team that can answer all the “what ifs” that customers might ask:
What if the product goes kaput after I buy it?
What if I want to exchange or return it?
What if I need help using it properly?
Customer service exists because customers need assurance that they can trust you for their purchase.
We know what you’re thinking—that sounds exactly like customer relations. Well, yes it does. But no, customer relations are too important for a business to limit to the confines of a customer service department.
Building lasting customer relations takes a very proactive, very outbound, and customer-obsessed effort.
Let’s look at Chick-fil-A as an example. The famous American chicken joint recently earned the rank of having the best customer service in the fast-food category. They beat their immediate competition to flank giant brands like Disney Cruise Line and Ritz-Carlton. For a privately-owned company like that, it’s a pretty big deal to share the stage with multi-billion-dollar global conglomerates.
The reason why Chick-fil-A has a loyal fan following isn’t limited to the deliciousness of the food they serve. This is what Donald Miller, author of Building a StoryBrand, has to say about Chick-fil-A’s roaring success: “The food and service there are so extraordinary that most of us don’t even think of it as fast food.”
So much so, that even with its many documented controversies, Chick-fil-A’s business doesn’t seem to have been affected too much.
Chick-fil-A ranks at the top of the fast-food chain because they offer an all-around delightful customer experience from the moment a customer watches their heart-warming TV commercial to the time they take a bite of one of their juicy sandwiches.
Here’s how Chick-fil-A’s founder, S. Truett Cathy, expresses the brand’s obsession with customers:
“We should be about more than just selling chicken. We should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.”
Maybe a little cliched, but Chick-fil-A walks the talk.
They’ve built infallible customer relations because unlike other fast-food chains, they encourage their employees to own the customer experience. They ask new recruits what their career goals are and help them achieve those even if they are outside of the fast-food industry.
And although they pay their staff the average industry wage, the frontline employees deliver exceptional customer service because they’ve built a cultural DNA of being customer-focused at all times.
But your customer service principles are just one small part of the larger spectrum of customer relations that spans from marketing to product to sales and customer support. (By the way, customer support and customer service aren’t the same thing either.)
And Chick-fil-A isn’t the only company that’s winning at building positive customer relations. There aren’t many who have aced it, but the ones that have, do it with unparalleled grace.
3 customer relations examples from real-life companies
As you read the following examples, note how these companies have built or reshuffled their company DNA to deliver a well-rounded customer experience across all their touchpoints.
Actor Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock fame is perhaps the best person to rave about Wegmans’ fanatical brand loyalty. Wegmans is a family-owned food chain from Buffalo, NY with branches across seven states on the east coast of the US Sadly, they don’t have any stores on the west coast.
Many years ago, Baldwin’s mother refused to relocate to a swanky part of Los Angeles with her star son because she wanted to live close to a Wegmans store.
Now that’s some brand loyalty.
Wegmans customers worship the brand like it’s some kind of cult. After all, there aren’t many brands that have inspired a broadway musical or rank regularly among the best companies for customer service AND the best place to work:
But the secret to Wegman’s deep-rooted customer loyalty is not so much of a secret. They are just serious about genuinely caring for their staff and their customers.
For instance, Wegmans’ employee turnover rate is half the industry average because they invest generously in their staff. They spend more than $50 million a year on workforce training and development and award college scholarships to the interested ones without any catch. That’s great for employee morale.
And look at what happens when a business like Wegmans takes the employee-first approach. Wegmans collected an average annual sales of $9.7 billion in 2019. No wonder customers love Wegmans as much as their employees do.
If there’s an oversaturated niche in retail, it has to be the beauty and skincare segment.
But Sephora has emerged as a winner even in such a tough market mostly because of its unblemished omnichannel strategy for customer engagement. The France-based beauty brand secured the #1 spot in the best Retail Personalization Index in both 2018 and 2019—and for good reason.
Sephora’s obsession with its customers is obvious in the way the brand unifies its offline store experience with its digital services. The moment its customers walk into one of the 2,300 stores across the globe, they’re in for a special experience.
From its in-store technology such as Color IQ that scans the customers’ skin to help them find the perfect lip gloss to offering one of the industry’s best loyalty rewards points—Rewards Bazaar—Sephora has retail experiences figured out:
Sephora also understands that the future of commerce is mostly virtual. They have an interactive virtual makeover platform and Foundation Finder that Sephora’s brand loyalists use like teenagers use Snapchat filters and Instagram.
And unlike other brands, Sephora’s loyalty program is a runaway hit because it lets customers choose how they want to spend their reward points.
Sephora’s high-touch customer relations also leverages digital channels such as emails, mobile, and in-app notifications to offer hyper-personalized recommendations and incentives that are hard to ignore.
And psst… you can also follow Sephora’s example and reach your customers on any digital channel using RingCentral Engage Digital:
In 2003, Lego’s business empire was almost crumbled under an $800 million debt. In 2015, the Danish company rebounded as the world’s most valuable toy brand. It’s fair to say that Lego’s near-failure and comeback story are as tightly interlocked as their building blocks.
The quick gist of it: Lego almost went bankrupt because it had lost sight of its customers. They got carried away with their success and didn’t really care who their real target audience was. They hastily introduced a new line of toys and didn’t respond well to the customer complaints of damaged toys and late deliveries.
But once the upper management came back to their senses, they took some proactive measures that made Lego a household toys brand around the world.
First, Lego partnered with a customer experience management vendor to understand their customers’ pain points and devise a plan to improve their customer relations.
In addition to being a children’s toy brand, it also invested heavily in reinventing its brand image to cater to grown-up customers. For instance, it collaborated with Star Wars and Marvel Studios to create content that appealed to their grown-up fan base.
Then, of course, there’s Legoland theme parks built in partnership with an entertainment company that attracts kids and their parents alike. Lego also turned around its attitude towards customer service by positioning itself as a personable, friendly company.
In 2016, one of its customer service responses to a seven-year-old Lego fan went viral in social media when one of their service reps took the time to write with a kind and thoughtful reply.
3 ways to foster strong customer relations
You might be wondering if training your employees well—like Chick-fil-A does—is the only way to create great customer relationships. That’s one way to do it, but there’s more.
Let’s look at three things that you can do in your business to build positive customer relationships.
1. Let your employees take the reins
We gave this away already, but it’s worth exploring it more deeply. To build effective customer relations, you have to first train your workforce to become customer-centric across all interaction channels.
Employees are your first customers. They’re the ones putting in the time to help your brand grow. So coach your staff on the importance of customer relations and build incentives that will drive them to foster strong customer relations.
Culture flows from the top. You won’t be able to create a great customer experience unless you treat your employees the way you want to treat your customers.
More and more companies are taking an employee-first approach lately because they know that treating your staff with love and care will eventually trickle down to the customers.
Brands like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and The Cheesecake Factory have built strong customer relationships because of their focus on enriching employee engagement. (Here are a few employee engagement apps you could look into.)
2. Make communication a priority
To drive this point home, we’d like you to first be acquainted with the concept of the services marketing triangle. Here’s how it looks:
The concept of service marketing is simple: it underlines the relationships among the key actors in a business—the brand, the employees, and the customers.
Take one out or downplay its role, and it’ll bring your business to its knees. They’re like the legs in a tripod, the foundation on which your business is built.
But the services marketing triangle isn’t complete without talking about the underlying aspect that binds all of these actors together—communication and a collaborative culture.
The extent of collaboration between the three players is central to the success of your business. And what facilitates the cross-collaboration between the three? Technology.
You may not need a full-on collaboration hub, but having some kind of communications tool is important for a healthy business. If you can allow your customers to contact you using the channel of their preference—whether it’s phone calls, texting, or even video calls—you’ll make it more convenient (and more likely) for them to get in touch with you.
And as any couple will tell you, communication is the key to good relationships.
Choose a tool that integrates with your other apps so that your customer service team can transfer customers to each other without making the customer repeat their information again and again each time. For example, RingCentral Contact Center™ has intelligent routing to make sure your customer’s call goes to the agent who’s best suited to solve their problem.
3. Make your brand experience consistent
Launching a great ad campaign or building a culture of customer service teamwork is no longer a competitive edge—everybody is trying to do it. The real challenge lies in how you can make your brand experience cohesive and consistent across all channels and platforms at all times.
Consistency is important for the same reason why you prefer to go to the same gas station to top off your fuel tank. Our liking for consistency explains why you always buy the Sour Skittles candies instead of the new variety of M&Ms.
We prefer consistency because it brings us predictability. Human brains are prediction engines, and we’re evolved to dislike surprises. As Dr. Carmen Simon puts it in her book Impossible to Ignore, surprise is a prediction error.
It’s like when you’re looking for a pit stop when driving down the interstate. Do you stop to eat at a nondescript burger joint or do you take the exit when you see the all too familiar golden arches of McDonald’s on the signboard?
If you’re like the rest of us, you’d most definitely hit McDonald’s because you already know their menu, the prices, their toilets are clean, and their ice-cream machines probably don’t work.
You build trust with customers when you minimize abrupt surprises across all your brand interaction points. Customers have to know that every time they come to your brand, you’re going to exceed their expectations.
Making it difficult for customers to contact you will certainly lower your support overhead costs in the short term, but it’s no different than burying your head in the sand. Sooner or later, it’ll bite you.
As a brand, you have to be accessible to customers. Don’t hide your contact center phone numbers and live chat options behind layers and layers of navigation on your website.
Here’s the worst kind of surprise that throws customers off guard—automatic recurring payments. According to a report by CreditCards.com, many brands (some well-reputed ones too) make it easy for customers to sign up for monthly automatic payments, but make the cancellation process twice as hard.
Experts have a name for this kind of deceptive practice—it’s called Dark Patterns, and it’s a trick brands apply in their user experience to trick customers into taking certain actions.
Here’s an example from a craft brewery brand:
If you look closely, the company makes it impossible for their users to cancel their subscription on their own. Instead, they are being pushy about selling more beers to the users.
Moral of the story: Don’t be like this brand. It makes your brand experience inconsistent and untrustworthy.
Here’s a cheat code to what we just said about not giving surprises: leverage it to create positive brand experiences. Surprises are great when they add unexpected value to your customers’ experience.
Here’s an example from Zappos:
The takeaway? Keep your brand experiences consistent as much as you can, unless of course, you have a nice surprise under your sleeve to delight your customers.
Tie everything together and start building good customer relationships
The importance of building strong customer ties goes by many names—customer service, customer marketing, customer experience management, customer engagement, what have you. But don’t be too hung up on the semantics because they’re all aliases of the same principle, that is building long lasting customer relationships.
You can develop positive customer relationships as long as you have your head and heart in the right place and the right communication tools at your disposal. And if you ever feel your customer relationships need some work, just refer to the examples laid out in this article for inspiration and remember that relationships build over time.