5 Steps to Earning Customer Loyalty

06/30/2015 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

If there was ever a time when providing good service at a fair price was enough to earn a customer's loyalty, it has long since passed.

Customers want it all: convenience, service, discounts, and selection. But even if they have all that in one place, they still may stray.

That's bad news for businesses, because repeat customers make for a great return on investment (ROI).

Let me explain. Most businesses know how much it costs to bring customers in the door. For example, if a neighborhood thrift store spends $200 for an ad in a community newsletter and gets 10 customers from it, the "cost per lead" is $20. If each customer spends $20, the shop breaks even. The problem is, no business wants to just break even. But if those same 10 customers become loyal customers and come back again and again, each time they buy a blouse or a pair of jeans, the ROI increases.

How do companies get repeat customers? How do they break through the din of competition? First they must recognize the importance of customer loyalty, and then follow these five steps:

1. Give great service. Customer loyalty will wane when customer service is lacking. To avoid this, make sure customers are dealt with promptly and courteously. Listen to their needs and meet them as efficiently as possible. Customers will remember this, but they will remember bad service even more. What's worse, people are twice as likely to share a bad experience on social media as they are a good experience.

2. Be quick to resolve issues. Not every product works exactly the way it's supposed to, and sometimes paid services don't meet expectations either. When a customer's expectations haven't been met, you must work hard to make sure any issues are resolved to her satisfaction. Begin with a sincere apology and an assurance that you will make it right. Your customer will remember this and feel that their future purchases are safe with you.

3. Keep in touch. Gather contact data on your customers when you can, and keep it current. Reach out to them with special offers or new products and services, or just send them a birthday card. Use any excuse to keep your company in their minds.

4. Reward loyalty. Every once in a while, treat a loyal customer to a free product or special discount. You'll be surprised at the goodwill this will engender.

5. Thank your customers. Chances are you have competitors in your category, and this means your customers have options. The fact that they chose you, whether because of your pricing or reputation or convenience, is something that you appreciate, so show it. Thank them. Thank them every time for choosing you and let them know in words and deeds how important your business is to them, regardless of whether they're your smallest customer or your largest.

When you factor in how hard it is to get customers in the door or on the phone in the first place, it makes sense to take just a few extra steps to keep them happy and coming back.

While you can't count on customer loyalty, you can count on this: if you're not working hard to keep your customers, you can bet someone else is working hard to take them.