How to Electrify Your Customer Relationships

What does it take to build a powerful customer relationship? According to Bill Lee, author of The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most Important Asset, most companies leave untold profits on the table because they assume they only way they can deepen their customer relationships is through the product or service they provide. (Customers will flock to a bank because its interest rates are better, the thinking goes, or because they get a free iPod when they open an account.) But that’s only half the story, says Lee – and it creates a shallow, what’s-in-it-for-me relationship.

Instead, he argues that companies can electrify their customer relationships by meeting customer needs that, on the surface, may appear entirely unrelated to their business. “Companies can create value in other dimensions: affiliation, reputation and status, and learning and growing,” says Lee. In other words, smart companies can become central to their customers’ lives not just because they have a great product (that’s table stakes) but because they help customers advance personally and professionally.

Lee cites the example of Salesforce.com, which frequently hosts cocktail parties that allow current and prospective customers to mingle. It’s a great sales tool: 80% of prospects end up signing on the dotted line. But what’s most critical is that the events are a win-win. Prospects aren’t being lectured to or badgered to commit. Instead, they’re given an opportunity to network with others in their field in a classy, relaxed setting and build their professional contacts.

Recognizing customers’ unspoken needs can be a powerful way to cement bonds of loyalty. Do they want to achieve recognition in their industry? Maybe you can help them secure a speaking engagement at a conference your company sponsors, or have them write for your newsletter. Do they want to develop their technical or managerial skills? Perhaps your company should start organizing professional development seminars. Helping your customers achieve their own goals earns you gratitude (and, often, their willingness to refer business or provide testimonials). Says Lee, “it’s about creating mutual, concurrent value.”

So what’s the best way to understand – and begin to meet – those customer desires? In many ways, says Lee, companies simply need to get out of the way. “You’ve got these resources you hire,” he says. “Marketing and sales employees, agencies, consulting firms, vendors. None of them come from the buyer’s world, and they’re all working together to convince the buyer to do something. The only resource we have that comes from the buyer’s world is other customers – so instead of getting outsiders to convince them to buy, create peer influence.”

Start from the ground up, says Lee, and ensure your message is clearly focused on your customers. “On your website, you should have customer testimonials and content that’s relevant to customer successes,” he says. “Everything else should be on trial for its life. Because if I’m a buyer or a customer, or if I’m a media influencer looking at your website, why would I care? If you can’t give me a compelling answer, it goes.” And be sure to talk frequently with your customers; the more you know, the better you can develop marketing efforts (from informational newsletters to conferences) that provide real value to them.

Not every company can embrace this intensive form of customer relationship building. (It may be easier for business-to-business firms, which usually have a much smaller number of clients.) But for companies willing to make the investment, it can be a powerful way to reach a target audience already inundated with advertising messages and quick-hit promotions. Helping your customers advance professionally may seem like a tall order – but it could represent your critical competitive advantage.

What is your company doing to cultivate customer loyalty? How are you deepening your customer relationships?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 2, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.