Editor’s note: This post is sponsored by PartnerUp and written by Megan Dorn.

In this day of increasing customer acquisition costs and depleting marketing funds, it feels more prudent than ever for businesses to find new ways to hold on tight to the small business customers they have and turn them into true fans. It’s a well-known adage that happy customers are loyal customers. But with tightened budgets, how do companies go about keeping these small businesses (with tightened budgets of their own) happy?

While there are many ways to drive customer loyalty, listening to your customers is perhaps the most important. It’s the foundation on which companies should base interactions with their customers. By listening to them, you’ll be able to better understand their real needs and wants, and you’ll see where your own strengths and weaknesses are. Listening can also lead to meaningful conversations between you and your customers, which deepens relationships.

Online communities are one of the most efficient ways to listen to your customers. When your company hosts an online community for your small business customers, and you truly have the goal of listening and being a valuable resource for them, something special starts to happen. Your good intentions and efforts will begin to translate into actual business results for your customers, and ultimately for you as well. As you open your ears to their thoughts, concerns and complaints, you gain their respect and confidence, causing you to no longer be simply a vendor who provides a service, but rather an indispensible partner.

Does this translate into customer retention though?

Absolutely. Listening helps you give your customers the products, tools, services, resources, etc., that will enable them to realize tangible business results. And when your customers’ business successes are a direct result of your community, they’re not going to want to turn to anyone else. Not only that, but you’ve gained incredible brand recognition in the process and are “top of mind” for them as they continue to grow their businesses.

Here are a few key points to remember:

1.) YOU must be the one listening and driving the conversation.
2.) The ideas you derive from listening MUST be focused around driving real business results for your customers.
3.) Custom, online communities specific to a business purpose create a long-term loyalty that you don’t always get with broader mainstream social media platforms.

Listening to your customers through a privately-branded online community can build a loyalty that will take you beyond the transactional and into the indispensible.

Megan Dorn
Megan Dorn manages the PartnerUp blog, newsletter, member communications, content and small business community as the Communications Manager at PartnerUp, the first and largest online community for small business. She also manages PartnerUp’s public relations efforts.

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