Strong customer relationships drive sales, sustainability, and growth, especially in today's economy. Companies that build and maintain excellent customer and client relationships lead the pack, whereas those that don't put clients first fall off pace and, eventually, disappear completely.

It is no secret that customers are a company's greatest asset and it costs much less to retain a current customer than it does to acquire a new one. But even though loyalty improvements should be a priority, many businesses struggle to improve the vitality of their customer relationships, especially when they confuse customer satisfaction with loyalty.

Sure, customer satisfaction is important, but to achieve long-term customer loyalty, businesses need to dig deeper and identify proven tactics for strengthening the health and depth of their business relationships.

Why Customer Relationships Matter

A clear correlation exists between the quality and length of customer relationships. Essentially, the stronger the relationship, the longer the customer will continue to do business with you. At Brookeside, we've found that 50% of customers who report strong, "Trusted Adviser" relationships are retained for at least six years. That's a pretty compelling statistic.

A big mistake companies make is not realizing that customer satisfaction does not always translate to loyalty. A satisfied customer is simply someone who has received what he was promised—nothing more, nothing less. Strong customer relationships, on the other hand, imply that you have delivered something extra or provided added value to the customer. Long-term loyalty and the countless benefits that go along with it are awarded to companies that go the extra mile for their customers.

For example, treating your customers with respect on both a professional and a personal level will communicate that you appreciate their business and, most of all, that you value their opinion. Remember the personal details. Did they mention an upcoming birthday or wedding anniversary? Take a mental note and remember to send a card or say congratulations at your next meeting. Let the customer know the relationship means just as much—or more than—the paycheck.

By investing in the development of healthy customer relationships, you can increase loyalty and build long-term value. When you establish trusting, mutually beneficial relationships, customers are also more likely to deliver larger wallet share, higher conversion rates and referrals—all of which are essential ingredients for a successful business.

Creating Strong Customer Relationships

The push for stronger and healthier customer relationships needs to start now. Regardless of your industry, here are five tips worth considering as you formulate a strategy for improving the quality of your customer relationships.

1. Engage customers

Successful relationships are a two-way street. Loyal customers and clients want to be actively invested in the relationship.

If you notice that a customer is limiting his or her involvement with you, it could be a sign that the relationship is on shaky ground. For example, if you find that certain clients often cancel calls or do not respond to your emails, that may be an indication they are limiting the time they invest because they are looking to take their business elsewhere.

To improve engagement, empower customers by inviting them to partner with your company in the process of generating new ideas and initiatives. Are they planning to enter a new market or launch a new product? Ask for their opinion and find out their short and long-term goals. When you draft a game plan, keep them in mind. Plan a brainstorm session; doing so will help build rapport and also give you an inside look at how they operate.

2. Become the first call

Ideally, customers should view your company as a Trusted Adviser, which means that you are the first person they call when they pursue a new line of business or launch a new project, or if they need help.

To become a Trusted Adviser, consider offering assistance before the customer asks, as a way to demonstrate your commitment to the relationship. By getting involved early in the process, you bring added value to the relationship and gain access to additional selling opportunities.

Regularly sending them industry news and updates will also help to position you as an expert and also communicate that they are top of mind.

3. Solicit feedback

In addition to offering useful and relevant information, regularly solicit feedback and advice from customers.

In many cases, insight from regular feedback improves relationships by highlighting problems that existed below the surface—and also because you'll be communicating that you are willing to go the extra mile to make sure you're meeting their needs. Feedback may also reveal ways in which the relationship can be expanded to include a greater scope of products or services.

If you're serious about improving your customer relationships, implementing a regular feedback system is a great way to keep tabs on your customers' wants and needs, which are likely to change from time to time.

Ditch the annual form survey and replace it with something tailored to the individual customer. Whether you use a do-it-yourself survey tool or hire a third-party professional, you are sure to gain important insight into the relationship.

Keep in mind that if you gather feedback from your customer, you must be willing and able to act upon it. Customers who provide you with their feedback expect you to make the changes they've suggested. If you gather feedback and sit on it, you may worsen the relationship with your client.

4. Think individuals, not numbers

Customers aren't homogeneous. Rather, every account has its own unique needs and preferences.

If 80% of your company's customers are perfectly satisfied, you'd probably consider that a home run. However, what would happen if the 20% of unhappy customers account for the bulk of your revenue?

Although it's tempting to make sweeping generalizations based on aggregated feedback, the best client relationships are created when you tailor your strategy to the expressed needs of each individual customer. If one of your larger accounts doesn't understand a new billing process, you need to determine a better way to communicate your system. Over time, it could turn into a more serious problem than you expect.

Be alert and pay attention to your customers' unique needs and treat each like your only customer. It may require more effort up front, but it will pay off in the long run.

5. Maintain open communication channels

Healthy relationships thrive on communication. If your business communicates with customers only at their request or when your company needs something, it will be difficult to leverage relationships as a driver of sales. Instead, touch base often with customers to inquire about their progress and to learn how you might be better able to meet their needs and expectations.

Communication is a key ingredient in healthy client relationships. Satisfied customers are active participants who willingly offer the time and information it takes for you to achieve the best results.

If your customer is shutting you down by insisting everything is simply "fine" without offering context or explanation, it probably means there's an issue, but the customer simply doesn't want to fight that battle today. Letting an issue fester is not the right solution. Schedule a sit-down meeting to talk about goals and how you can reach them together. Facing the issues together will help to create a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.

* * *

Relationship-building isn't foolproof. Despite your best efforts, some customers will choose to abandon your company for a competitor. But, on the whole, the implementation of relationship-building strategies will yield measurable improvements in sales and lengthen the duration of relationships with your company's most valuable customers.

Remember, relationships can always be strengthened.

More Resources on Customer Relationships

How to Win Customers' Trust and Loyalty With Unfiltered Marketing: Stephen Denny on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

How to Offer More Value to Your Crisis-Stricken Customers [Infographic] 

Seven Ways to Build a Loyal Customer Base With Content Marketing 

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image of Tom Cates

Tom Cates is founder, CEO, and Chief Storyteller of salesEQUITY, a SaaS-based client engagement platform that uses a proven quantitative methodology to measure and assess the health of individual client relationships.

LinkedIn: Thomas Cates