CRM, or customer relationship management, is at the top of everyone’s mind these days.

Just as important as attracting new business is developing and nurturing the relationships you already have. Doing so these days requires a sharp eye on the Internet (especially social channels) and equal parts patience and responsiveness.

Here are my top ten tips for keeping your customers satisfied, engaged and returning to do business with you again and again.

1. Let your customers write the rules of engagement.

There was a time when companies told customers how they could contact them; now, customers are in control.

Give customers options for communicating with you. When a customer is having an issue, he or she wants to get in touch with you in the fastest way possible. That may be by phone, via email, through support forums or even on social media channels like Twitter.

But with all these means of communication, you need to be much more vigilant to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. Be sure to monitor every channel and respond to outreach.

2. Track social media.

Social media has given the customer a very powerful voice, and if your business is the focus of an online public outcry, the results can be devastating.

Take a look at what happened when Netflix raised its prices or when Bank of America started charging a monthly fee for use of debit cards.

Companies need to be keeping a close eye on what customers are talking about on Twitter, Facebook and other channels so they can react swiftly before a situation that could have been easily fixed blows up into a public relations nightmare.

3. Respond at the speed of the Internet.

The immediacy of the Internet requires real-time action when online complaints crop up. A quick response decreases the likelihood of a big fiasco.

Hire a community manager or appoint someone from your customer support team who to thoroughly monitor the social web for complaints about your organization. Then empower those individuals so they can act quickly to resolve complaints and issues.

One great example is how some hotels are now diligently searching the Internet for complaints and resolving them quickly — before guests even check out, in fact.

4. Apologize appropriately

There is a big difference between saying to a customer, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and saying to them sincerely, “I’m sorry.”

When it’s time to apologize, there are four simple steps to ensure the apology is made the right way and the customer is appeased.

First, give the reason for the error. Customers are more accepting to learn that a misstep was unintentional. Next, make the apology sincere and truthful. Apologies that are perceived to be insincere are worse than no apology at all. Then, take responsibility. Do not assign the blame elsewhere. Finally, offer a solution. Although the offered solution may not be exactly what every customer wants, most will be satisfied that one was offered, which in turn helps close the issue.

5. Be transparent.

Create a culture of transparency in your company.

Facebook is an example of a perceived lack of transparency — and a resultant customer backlash. Recently, the company admitted to tracking the web activity of its 750 million users even after those users had logged out of the site.

These are the kinds of things where even the biggest companies can lose customer loyalty. Long-term success comes to those companies that are open with their customers and win their trust.

6. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

Only four percent of people complain about a single customer support failure. But 96 percent of people complain when they’ve been burned twice by the same company.

With so many tools available for customers to talk about when a company has failed them, it is absolutely necessary that companies take the required steps needed to ensure that mistakes happen only once.

7. Implement customer satisfaction ratings.

Customer satisfaction ratings and surveys are a great way to see where their customers are happy and where they aren’t.

But surveys can offer a false sense of security. How many companies actually go the extra step and take action based on the information a survey reveals?

Make satisfaction ratings and surveys actionable; dont’ just accumulate data for data’s sake.

8. Keep your agents happy.

Not everyone is cut out for a career in customer service. It takes a special personality to spend an entire day listening to problems and finding solutions.

Your customer services reps are the voice of your company; they speak for you to your customers. It’s important to rotate people through different tasks so they don’t get burnt out.

If you make it easy for your customer service reps to deliver great service, they’ll be happier and so will your customers.

9. The casual customer versus the steady customer.

A company’s response to a customer complaint should depend on what kind of customer it is dealing with: a steady customer or a casual customer.

Steady customers tend to value the relationship with the company. Research shows that these relationship-focused customers are more amenable to recovery efforts, regardless of any compensation, than casual customers are.

An admission of wrongdoing and sincere apology can be more important than restitution. The company should communicate that it values the relationship with its customers.

Casual customers are less won over by proof that the company values them and may care mainly about getting a refund.

10. Stop problems before they start.

Don’t wait for customers to tell you what’s wrong. Instead, use tools to help you, your agents and your community manager to identify where your company’s weak spots are.

As mentioned earlier, use surveys or customer satisfaction ratings to do this. Knowing where your customers need help gives you the power to create useful content for them, or better staff for when your help desk is at its busiest.

Zack Urlocker is COO of Zendesk. He is responsible for all the company’s customer-facing areas, including sales, marketing, business development and services. He has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry and has held executive management positions at MySQL, Active Software, webMethods and Borland. He is a frequent speaker and writer about disruptive technologies and business models.

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