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Building customer relationships: From the first impression to developing long-term loyalty

Building customer relationships

You may wince a bit when you reach out to a customer and misspell their name by mistake.

But everyone can get the occasional name wrong. What’s worse is when companies don’t know their customers on a deeper level.

According to Salesforce, 73% of customers expect companies to understand their unique needs. Yet how many companies are delivering on that expectation?

If it sounds like a lot, it can be. Customer service teams often feel stretched thin — both in time and resources. And when there’s so much asynchronous written communication along the typical customer journey, getting a pulse on a relationship with a specific customer is challenging.

But you can start. And there are plenty of tools to make customer relationships easier to build and maintain without stretching your resources. Let’s explore some actionable approaches you can adopt to delight your customers and build relationships to last.

“You had me at hello”: starting the relationship on the right foot

Thirty-three milliseconds. 

According to one study, that’s how quickly we form our first impression of another person. It’s why one character in the film Jerry Maguire admits to the other: “You had me at hello.”

A first impression only requires one interaction. But it can determine the circumstance for your entire customer relationship.

But first impressions can be complex, which is why it helps to understand how your customers form them. Let’s explore.

Don’t start with business small talk

With a phrase like “building customer relationships,” the temptation is to go straight to small talk. But this can be counterproductive, according to one study

In that study, small talk or “talking shop” didn’t help in a professional environment. In the context of delighting your customers, small talk about business won’t help you master the first impression.

But you need to say something to generate a good first impression in customer service. What is it?

In a customer service context, personal small talk can be beneficial. As Psychology Today notes, “[small talk] can elevate mood and increase cooperation.” And those are your precise goals if you’re starting a new interaction in customer service.

The trick? Not to waste time with unproductive business small talk. 69% of customers want to solve their problems before reaching out to customer service.

In those cases, a little bit of small talk might seem like an interruption.

Either build a personal connection to demonstrate that you want to be helpful — or start solving their problem. You’re more likely to inspire repeat customers that way.

Establish a first impression with the right context

Starting with small talk about your business clearly isn’t the way to go. So what should you do instead? As Jay Nathan, EVP & CCO at Higher Logic shares on LinkedIn, your first impression isn’t always about delighting customers.

It’s about establishing a lasting relationship that will naturally delight customers.

Don’t introduce your customer service as white-glove support or as a “one-stop shop” approach for solving all problems. 

If you do, customers will come to expect everything from your customer support. After all, that was the impression you gave.

But Nathan suggests it’s better to manage expectations early. Present customer service as an advisor, a consultant, or maybe a dash of help from a product expert.

What does Nathan recommend? Getting specific with your expectations. Your first impression should look like this instead:

“Our [customer service managers] are here to build relationships with customers, facilitate meaningful interactions with them, and help move them toward specific usage and value milestones.”

The customer journey begins with a first impression. Good customer relationships start with more than happy first impressions. They should be first impressions specifically targeted to help and delight your customers.

Follow through on your brand’s promises, both implicit and explicit

The trouble with first impressions, Nathan seems to say, is when you promise more than you can offer. Customer service management is often expectations management.

Morgan Housel, author and Founder of The Collaborative Fund, calls this concept “expectations debt.” The higher the expectations, the easier it is to disappoint someone. 

Says Housel: “Expectations are like a debt that must be repaid before you get any joy out of what you’re doing.”

In customer service, high expectations can work against you. If you set high expectations and come up short, even a stellar performance can feel like a mild letdown.

The solution isn’t to lower expectations. It’s to deliver on the promises your brand makes, both implicit and explicit.

A few ways you can take identify these promises:

  • Audit your communication trails: Regularly review your team’s conversations to help ensure everyone’s aligned on setting the right expectations. 
  • Keep a pulse on competitors: Your customer’s expectations may be stemming from what your competitors can provide. 
  • Put systems in place to make it easier to follow through: Regularly revisit your team’s follow-up systems 

Use tools to start off on the right foot

What are the practical steps to a good first impression? If you use OpenPhone, you can use customer service tools to set the stage for a great interaction.

The first step, as Jay Nathan notes, is to establish the right relationship for your first impression. If you use OpenPhone, your contact notes and custom properties can remind your team who each customer is. 

A contact note like “Sam prefers AM meetings” or “Sam has a German shepherd named Ruffles”  might seem small. But for Sam, remembering these is enough to feel like there’s a real relationship there. (And it may help prevent Sam from becoming a difficult customer).

Another major part of your workflow can include a shared business inbox with OpenPhone. Any contact notes and conversation history is available to anyone with access to a shared inbox.  If you need to transfer one of Sam’s problems to the person in the correct role such as an account manager — this will help you with that and give your colleague the context they need to provide a memorable experience. You’ll feel more like a consultant to Sam rather than pure customer service.

Checking your biases: what you need to build customer relationships

Before you can attract loyal customers, you need to know what a strong customer relationship looks like. And that means checking your own biases for what you think a customer relationship should be. These are tips you can apply to new and current customers.

Relationship-building is a skill, not an innate talent

One common bias is to treat relationship-building as an innate talent. “You either have it or you don’t”? Not necessarily. 

According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)? “Many people assume that relationship-building should come naturally, when in reality, it is a skill that must be developed and practiced.”

This bias might seem harmless at first. But consider how it affects some of us. Some people associate professional networking with being insincere, for example. 

Why? Because they haven’t developed their own capacity for authentic networking. 

Before you do anything else to inspire more brand loyalty, change this bias. It is possible to build strong customer relationships systematically and authentically. 

And remember: when you do, you’ll increase customer satisfaction.

What actually builds customer relationships

Strong customer relationships start with a concept called mindful listening

The bias of many? “Mindful listening” simply means paying attention. Giving 100% focus to the customer.

Those are useful traits, but they don’t quite hit the definition on the head. According to Psychology Today, “ Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, recasts mindful listening as ‘receiving empathically.’”

In other words, mindful listening is more than simply paying attention. It refers to the act of trying to see a solution from the customer’s side. 

But what is empathy? It’s often confused with sympathy: the act of feeling sorry for the situation.

Replying initially with sympathy can fall flat when talking to customers. They don’t feel it’s genuine when a customer says, “sorry to hear that.” Customers have heard that before.

Empathy is more specific to a customer’s subjective emotional experience and tries to solve the problem from that perspective. That’s true customer engagement

This brings us back to Jay Nathan’s idea: set a first impression with your customer service in its proper role. You’re not a universal problem-solver. But you are a helpful consultant.

Recognize the “curse of knowledge”

We’ve previously called it the archvillain of customer communication: the curse of knowledge.

The “curse of knowledge” occurs when two parties interact, but one party fails to understand the perspective of the other party that knows less about a specific topic When one party tries to impart knowledge to the other, it’s easy to omit key details. 

Customer service is a particularly tricky place for the curse of knowledge. Your team almost always finds itself with more product knowledge than the customer. If you don’t identify the key details customers need to know, you’re asking for frustration on their end.

Hard to build a relationship with a customer if they always feel like they’re catching up.

How do you solve it? There are a few solutions you can use to get your customer on equal footing:

  • Ask high-quality, open-ended questions. Yes-and-no questions produce short answers with negligible insight. But you don’t close the knowledge gap until you gather actionable customer feedback, straight from the source.
  • Assume each question is fresh. Yes, customer notes with OpenPhone help set the proper context. But not every customer question applies to previous cases. Remain neutral and non-judgmental, asking clarifying questions to get to the core of their current problem.
  • Pay attention to cues. Here’s where customer notes can step in. Can you use specific cues that demonstrate you’re paying attention? For example, referencing a previous customer note or re-stating their reason for needing the problem solved.
  • Generate an emotional connection. Go beyond “active listening” and start empathizing. Product features are nice to have, but a brand can build loyalty by connecting on an emotional level

If you want to inspire customer retention, you have to close the knowledge gap and understand your customers may take in information more effectively through different mediums.  In some cases, a video walkthrough or screenshot can be all you need to address your customer’s needs. 

Constant improvement: you won’t get the customer experience right the first time

Even with a good first impression and closing the knowledge gap, your customer service won’t be 100% perfect. That’s all right. You can continually revisit your team’s approach to customer interactions and coach them as needed.

With OpenPhone, you can record phone calls to reinforce some of the principles above. Are customer reps demonstrating active listening by showing empathy? Are they restating the problem to demonstrate active listening?

Using these tools, continually evaluate your performance and consider:

  • Is your team capturing information in a CRM? Maybe your team is short on “cues” because there are so few to work with. Consider onboarding with a CRM that builds a unique customer profile so you can record each customer’s preferences.
  • Is your team trained to block out time at the start and end of days? Use this time to follow up with customers. Your team will always have outstanding action items. If they don’t make time to follow up on them, the “ideal” time will never come.
  • Are you monitoring the “emotional deposits” of your team? Think of emotional deposits like a bank. Are you depositing enough — in the form of kindness, honesty, and courtesy — to build those customer relationships you want? This makes requests for testimonials and other asks far easier for your existing customer to say, “yes” to. 

Use OpenPhone’s call recordings features here. It generates call transcripts for easy review. You can use these transcripts to create action items, following up with customers even when there are language barriers or other miscommunication issues.

Mixing up touchpoints with customers

We asked Ryan Quindlen, lead of Customer Success & Experience at Laudable, how he would build customer relationships. And his answer was simple: start texting as soon as you can.

“To me, I think if you can get on a texting basis with some of your customers, consensual, of course,” said Quindlen. “Getting on a texting basis with them, that is really the key to relationship building.”

Think of your most intimate relationships these days. Chances are, when you’re away, you communicate via text.

“If you made a new friend at a bar, would you give them your email address or would you give them your phone number? Right? And that’s the experience that we want to create for our customers,” said Quindlen.

Multiple touchpoints with your customer base across different channels, whether a text or adding them on LinkedIn, can feel more natural with your target audience. And less like “marketing strategies” on their end.

Done right, a new touchpoint feels like a friendly check-in. 

Reaching out over the phone also signals that you’re giving the customer extra care. And that’s especially important when your customer is so frustrated enough that you risk losing their business. 

How do you know when to text if someone’s at risk of churning? According to Natalie Baran-Chong, Customer Success Manager at OpenPhone, customers typically fall into one of three categories: grow, maintain, or defend. And texting is perfect for the “defend stage.”

“Defend is basically…someone who’s like a churn risk,” said Baran-Chong. “Your outreach is going to look different compared to the other categories.” 

Consider your customer can see that text faster than most other forms of communication. They are more likely to see a text on their phone’s lock screen than an email. 

Be there when your customers need you

Delighting customers is sometimes as simple as being in the right place at the right time.

Emotion is the top factor in prompting purchases and building trust in your brand. And 90% of global customers spend more money if they feel that emotional touch.

The question isn’t whether to provide that emotional touch. The question is when.

Take Trader Joe’s, which helped out a customer in need. According to a Reddit user, a woman was worried about her father, a World War II veteran living on his own. Normally he had enough to eat, but one day, the weather snowed him in.

The mother called around for food delivery, eventually finding a Trader Joe’s willing to make an exception. 

They delivered the food—no pay required—only leaving behind a note:

Merry Christmas!

The man’s grandchild posted about it to Reddit, where the upvotes started flowing.

That’s not just active listening on the part of Trader Joe’s. That’s what genuine empathy looks like in action.

Understand that customers expect the gold standard

You want to be careful of “expectations debt,” true. But you can’t afford to ignore the customer service expectations that already exist.

60% of customers will take their business elsewhere after a single poor interaction. That raises the bar for everyone.

Says Quindlen: “When trying to build a human, authentic relationship with your customer, you need to treat it like a real-life relationship.”

That’s what Tony Hsieh did. The former CEO of Zappos kept in the loop with his customers by providing a personalized response to every single email.

It’s usually Tsieh’s team who stepped in, but they typically included a personalized note about the subject of each customer’s email.

If you want to build real customer relationships, that’s what you have to do, too. No, not literally.

But show your human side and start treating customers like friends. They may just return the favor.

Use technology to support your budding customer relationships

Strong customer relationships will require automated personalization software and CRM software if you’re going to scale them. If you’re going to improve customer relationships, you need to go a step above the software.

Start with a solid — and appropriate — first impression. Practice (and repeatedly coach) empathy by referring back to recorded conversations. Used tool-based opportunities like contact properties to delight the customer.

And when your customers need it most, offer a human touch. 

Ready to put your relationship-building software to work? Go a step above the usual digital marketing tactics and learn how to meet and exceed customer expectations.

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