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Next-gen customer relations: Insights, pro tips, and proven tactics

customer relations

Real estate agents are pros at building relationships with their customers.

Whether it’s baked goods at an open house or a housewarming gift after the sale goes through, they have a way of making you feel special. As they should –– a house is the biggest purchase most people make in their lives.

Consider that every year on the anniversary of our closing date, our sellers’ agent sends my husband and me a “happy house-iversary” card. 

I know she’s only doing it because she wants to be top of mind if we ever decide to sell our house, but it still warms my heart.

Personal touches from a business are impactful. After all, who wants to feel like a number when they can feel like a person?

With customer expectations steadily rising –– 73% now expect companies to have a full handle on their individual wants and needs –– and technology continually opening up new ways to connect with customers, small businesses need to up the ante.

But there’s no reason to feel intimidated (and subsequently paralyzed) because building long-lasting, genuine customer relationships boils down to one guiding principle: Be human.  

In this guide, we’ll shine a light on the true value of establishing and maintaining your customer relations strategy, and we’ll unpack what it takes to get there.

(Hint: Data can help you give the people what they really want.)

Remind me: What’s customer relations?

Customer relations can be defined as the strategies and methods a business uses to connect with its customers and give them a positive experience.

Think about the Starbucks barista who writes your name on your coffee cup or the hotel employee who recovered your distraught child’s lost stuffie. 

Parents, if a hotel employee found Mr. Bear-y McBearFace, put him in the mail, and finally calmed your crying kiddo, you’d probably only stay at that hotel chain for the rest of your life, right?   

Now, it’s easy to confuse customer relations with customer service, but they aren’t interchangeable terms.

So, what’s the difference between customer service and customer relations?

Customer relations and customer service — when combined — make up the customer experience.

But each encompasses a different category of activities:

  • Customer service is reactive: It’s about how you respond to customers’ inbound queries, whether that means answering a question or problem-solving with them.
  • Customer relations is proactive: It centers on how you go about initiating and nurturing connections with your customers, reaching out to them, and showing up for them in key moments. 

An exceptional customer relations program typically isn’t directly about selling or upselling. It’s intended to help support long-term business health –– and, if successfully designed and executed, boosts a company’s bottom line along the way.

3 powerful benefits of building positive customer relationships

The real estate agent who proactively sends me a “happy house-iversary” card every year probably doesn’t know we have one of those coveted sub-3% mortgage interest rates –– and, thus, we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

But if and when we do sell our house and we’re looking for an agent to represent us, she’d at least get some serious consideration.

Below are the main benefits of cultivating great customer relationships –– and the ones that will ultimately unlock a financial payoff.

Benefit #1: Stronger customer retention

Customer loyalty simply isn’t guaranteed nowadays: In the past year, 71% of customers have traded one brand for another at least once.

“Client turnover is always going to happen, unfortunately,” says Pam Abreu, director of client relations at 5K.co. “As somebody who’s been in this business a very long time, I take it less personally than I used to, but it still hurts to lose a client.”

Proactively nurturing customer relationships can help minimize that churn. Plus, it increases the chances customers will feel compelled to stick with you through the inevitable ups and downs of the market, your business, and the world.

If you catch wind that a customer is a flight risk, initiate a conversation with them. Beyond that, make sure you’re continually requesting customer feedback before issues arise. 

Pam’s team distributes net promoter score (NPS) surveys and reaches out to any customer who gives a score below their predetermined threshold.

Benefit #2: A better reputation

I chose my son’s dentist because my sister-in-law repeatedly told me how great the staff is with her two young kids. Think about all the times you’ve bought something because a friend or family member couldn’t stop raving about it. 

Word-of-mouth referrals are powerful: 28% of customers say it’s their preferred way to learn about a new brand, product, or service. 

Only interacting with customers when you’re in reactive mode –– answering a logistical question or having to do damage control –– doesn’t leave a lot of room for people to develop strong positive associations with your brand.

Sure, delivering a great service experience in those moments might yield some repeat customers. But if you’ve waited until then to show off your breakthrough communication skills, you’re already at a disadvantage.

Building customer relationships before issues occur helps put customers in a good headspace around your brand –– and softens the blow when customer problems arise –– and it’s also likely to score you more word-of-mouth referrals.

After all, people only start talking when they’ve had a horrible experience or an amazing experience –– there’s really no in-between. And you want to make sure you’re firmly in the “amazing” category.

Benefit #3: More organic upselling 

Who do you think is more likely to invest in your company’s full suite of products or services: the customer you’ve built a genuine, trusting connection with or the one you’ve barely interacted with?

When it’s time to upsell, the conversation will be much more organic if you’ve invested time and energy into your relationship with that customer. More than two-thirds of customers say they’ll pay more for additional products and services from a brand with great service.

Pam suggests establishing standing meetings with customers. Agree on a cadence that works for both of you. Then, use these meetings as an opportunity to check in with customers to see how they’re doing and how things are going for them when it comes to your product or service. 

Come to the meetings armed with ideas and prepared to discuss return on investment. Then, send a recap to the client after each meeting. 

With these practices in place, suggesting additional products or services can happen naturally in a meeting discussion or post-meeting recap. It won’t just come at customers out of the blue.

6 research-backed tactics for leveling up your customer relations

So, how do you start reaping these rewards? And how do you determine that a “happy house-iversary” card, for example, is the thing that’s going to tug at a customer’s heartstrings?

The short answer? Examining customer research and data. Fortunately, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. 

We combed through Zendesk’s 2023 CX Trends Report and Salesforce’s State of the Connected Customer (fifth edition), which collectively feature product usage data from 99,000-plus companies as well as insights from more than 25,000 consumers and business respondents around the world.

From there, we extracted the top six relationship-building tactics that are truly meaningful to customers today.

Tactic #1: Get personal

It’s always a little bit thrilling to see your name in writing, isn’t it? Even just addressing customers by name goes a long way. 

But now consumers expect businesses to step it up: We all know companies collect data and information about us.

Almost 60% of customers feel they should be getting a personalized experience from businesses based on the information a company has on them. And 56% of customers think every offer from a business should be fully tailored to them.

Pam creates a sense of transparency around this data collection and uses it to add value to each client’s experience by asking them to fill out a personal information sheet during the onboarding process. She then customizes their experience based on their responses. For example, she sends each of her clients a card on their birthday.

“They get something with our name on it that has nothing to do with them spending money with us,” she says. “We want them to know how important they are to us, and we don’t just see them as a transaction.”

Tactic #2: Be a friend

Every customer isn’t going to be your bestie –– nor should they be. But you also don’t want them comparing your conversation style to the teacher from Charlie Brown.

More than 70% of customers say they want a natural, conversational approach when interacting with businesses today.

“I don’t like to start the meeting diving right into it,” Pam says. “I want to talk about their weekend. I want to talk about their family. It shows we have a vested interest, not just in their company and their business, but in them. It’s also harder to break up with a business when you have a personal relationship with them.”

Support your customer success and experience teams as they adjust any robotic, scripted language. Sure, provide communication guardrails and boundaries, but give the people you’ve hired enough leeway to talk to clients like the real people they are.

Pro tip: Let internal threads make your customer conversations more human.

OpenPhone customers can tap into internal threads. These messages aren’t visible to customers, so you can connect as a team behind the scenes, easily looping in specific teammates to gather more information or assign them a task. 

That way, customer needs and wants aren’t going unnoticed, and there’s a feeling they’re talking to someone they know.

Tactic #3: Turn gray skies blue

Customer relations is inherently proactive, but customer service –– reacting to the inevitable customer issues and questions –– also plays into a client’s overall experience. Plus, customers won’t separate the two types of interactions; they’ll look at their experience holistically. 

About 20% of customers say they leave support interactions feeling negative about what happened. That’s a big portion of your customer base you risk losing if every member of your team isn’t prepared to turn their day around.

Arm every customer-facing employee with the ability to recognize different types of challenging customers and give relevant training on practices like expectation setting, apologizing, and active listening.

Tactic #4: Make everything easy 

There’s probably no faster way to damage a customer relationship than to fall short in their moment of need. 

When a customer comes to you with a problem or question, making it easy for them to get the help they’re looking for and quickly reach a resolution is mission-critical.

A high-effort experience drives 96% of customers away from a business –– compared to just 9% with a low-effort experience.

“You might not know the answer off the top of your head, but they’re coming to you for help,” says Craig Stoss, the Director of CX Transformation at PartnerHero. “It is our responsibility as CX people to provide that help.” 

Whether it’s guiding them to a more appropriate person or location, working to reduce their time to resolution, or simply telling them the truth –– that you need more time to find the answer –– being dismissive is never an option.

Pro tip: Reduce customer effort with custom properties and notes

One of the last things customers want to do is repeat themselves. With OpenPhone’s custom properties and notes features, your team can easily add relevant information about specific customers to their accounts. 

Once that information is accessible to any team member, they’ll never need to ask a customer to regurgitate information, and every interaction can be easily personalized.

Tactic #5: Keep your team connected

Whether it’s regular team meetings, a messaging channel, or something else altogether, establishing a venue for consistent team-wide communication and visibility on issues — big and small — is an essential element of any strong customer relations program. 

Customers see a healthy internal communication infrastructure as table stakes today: 85% of customers expect consistent interactions across departments.  

Pam discovered one of the biggest communication breakdowns within her team was during the client onboarding process. So, she and her team standardized their onboarding and now follow the same process for every client: 

  1. Send a welcome email.
  2. Have a kickoff call.
  3. Send a digital marketing jargon sheet that breaks down phrases their customers will see in their reporting.
  4. Request that the client completes an information sheet so they can use their responses to personalize their customer experience.  

This process has helped keep the onboarding experience consistent for each client. 

Pro tip: Keep your customer communication consistent with templates and snippets

One way to show customers your team is on the same page behind the scenes is to standardize frequently sent messages and stick to an agreed tone of voice across all your customer-facing communication.

OpenPhone customers have a leg up in this department. They can develop saved message templates and snippets for messages they send frequently so they’re never starting from scratch, and the copy is always in line with their established brand voice.

Tactic #6: Get the right tools

Customer relations is full of nuances. While those subtleties can present certain challenges, navigating them is a lot easier when you have a few good tools to support you.

Tools can help drive visibility on past customer interactions, make guidelines for talking to customers highly accessible, and much more.

So, get your internal documentation organized, housing things like templates and scripts in Notion or Slite. And figure out what other tech tools will truly help you build strong customer relationships.

For example, having Gong, Descript, or — you guessed it — OpenPhone in place to record and transcribe customer calls allows your team to revisit customer interactions for employee training purposes, to resolve disputes, or to recall helpful details.

Pro tip: Streamline your customer support with multifaceted tech tools

In addition to automatic call recording and AI-generated call transcripts, OpenPhone customers have access to a suite of features that work together to level up their customer communication –– while lightening any team’s workload.

Templates and snippets allow frequently sent messages to be distributed — or scheduled for sending — at any time, and shared numbers give collective access to an entire conversation history, so customers don’t have to repeat information and managers can provide effective coaching.

Let OpenPhone help you build unbreakable customer relationships 

Forging genuine customer relationships is not only good for business –– it’s good for human connection. 

Shout out, again, to the real estate agent whose annual “happy house-iversary” card always reminds me of how excited and optimistic we were the day we closed: standing on our new front steps, keys dangling from our fingers, cheers-ing our champagne flutes. I pull up the pictures we took that day every time the card arrives in the mail.  

OpenPhone can make it easier to create and sustain meaningful connections with your customers. It’s a modern virtual phone system that helps you deliver business continuity; faster, more personalized service; and a friction-free experience.

Start a free trial of OpenPhone to see for yourself how you can start optimizing your customer relations today.

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