Micah Solomon, customer service specialist, with five steps to win over and keep your customers

Five Ways to Win and Retain Customers

Customers—the customers we depend on for our livelihoods–are human beings, not merely “slices of market share.” And these human beings can actively support your business, give it a resounding “meh,” or even become actively hostile. With the economy still trying to recover, it’s a perfect time to get a jump on your competition by learning techniques to lead customers into your “active support” camp. Here are five powerful ways to win over consumers and keep them coming back to you.

Anticipate a customer’s wishes—before she expresses them. When a customer’s wish is met before the wish has been expressed, it sends the message that you care about–and are paying attention to–the customer as an individual. That cared-for feeling is where you generate the fiercest loyalty. To accomplish anticipatory customer service requires appropriate hiring (hire for traits, such as empathy and warmth rather than only for specific skills), training to pick up on subtle signals, proper product/service design, and systems/process design that puts customer preferences at the fingertips of front-line staff. A tall order, certainly, but well worth it.

Invest in your hellos and good-byes. Make sure that the first and final elements of your customer interactions are particularly well engineered because, research shows, these moments disproportionately linger in your customer’s memory, largely overshadowing whatever feats of customer heroism (or belly flops) occurred toward the middle of the customer’s experience.

Be on time – or don’t even bother to show up. Modern customers expect speedier service than their parents did—and even than their older sisters and brothers did. In an age of BlackBerrys and iPhones, of Amazon.com and Zappos, a perfect product delivered late is just as unacceptable as a defective product delivered on time.

Keep the personality in what you do—online as well as off. Without a face-to-face –or even earpiece-to-ear – element, online commerce can be as chilly as it is efficient. This lack of personality is deadly; it is the quickest way to turn your offering into nothing more than a commodity. Fight this hazard at every opportunity: For example, if you offer self-service elements on your website, make them fun self service elements. Design them like online versions of comedian Demetrius Martin’s change-making machine that flashes lights and rings bells as if you’ve won a Vegas slot machine jackpot.

Mind your language. Develop and rehearse a list of vocabulary words and expressions that fit your business brand perfectly—and even more importantly, ban the ones that don’t. First step: Prohibit, companywide, any vocabulary words and phrasings that could hurt customer feelings. For example, your service team should never tell a customer “you owe us.” (Try instead: “our records seem to show a balance. …”) Second, look for words that, while not specifically hurtful to customers, work at cross purposes to your branding – and get rid of these as well. Quasi-surfer lingo like “no worries” sounds fine if a clerk at Best Buy voices it, but would be alarmingly off-brand coming from an oncology assistant at Sloan-Kettering…