01/02/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

5 Steps to Improve Customer Relationships in Any Industry

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1. Be Up Front.

It's 2014 and we live in an age of informed consumers. The Internet exists, so most people know where and how to find honest reviews or better deals. You win no points with gimmicks -- smart customers see right through those. Instead, use an honest approach to advertising, marketing and customer service that puts the control in the hands of the consumer, who will then choose you because your business style and practice are leagues above what other companies are doing.

2. Be Flexible.

The "our policy" stuff has to go. Unless a rule is in place explicitly for the safety of others (in which case, rock on), there is nothing more frustrating than the seemingly arbitrary refusal to accept a 30-day-only return item on day 31. Not every frazzled customer is out to scam your company. Sometimes even the most organized person's to-do list gets the better of them. If your customers see that you're willing to be reasonable, they're more likely to give their loyalty and gratitude in the long run. When customers are happy or feel like you've done them a favor, they'll definitely talk about it. You can't beat that kind of marketing.

3. Dial Down Those Robots.

No one can argue that robots make nearly everything better (I love the microwave just as much as the next person), but there comes a point in almost every interaction at which dealing with a real human being is required. Taking care of something quick and simple like paying a bill, scheduling an appointment, or having something mailed out in hard copy is exactly what automated phone service should be used for, but when someone is calling, emailing, live chatting or reaching out through social media, it shouldn't take a 15 minute fight through smoke and mirrors just to figure out how to reach an actual operator. Give people the option to manage which service interactions they handle with a person and which they're comfortable switching over to automated. If there was more wiggle room for these services, most people would probably complain a lot less about the use of automated services in the first place.

4. Remember That We're People Too.

There is nothing worse than watching someone yell at a person in the service (or any) industry, especially about something beyond his or her control. The girl taking an order at McDonald's really does not need to be screamed at because the guy who made your hamburger added mustard after you asked for none. (The customer can be wrong sometimes--that's just simple statistics.) But the door swings both ways. If someone is frazzled, confused, frustrated or upset, that person isn't out to ruin the day of whomever she's sharing those feelings with -- she or he is just looking for someone to help her/him. Expressing a little empathy goes a long, long way, even if there isn't a solution to the problem. Having someone say, "I'm so sorry, and I understand how you feel," is a lot better than hearing, "There's nothing we can do" and receiving an unfeeling thousand-yard stare.

5. Talk to Us.

When customers reach out with a question, compliment or complaint, there is truly nothing worse than silence. Have communication systems in place that are the right fit for your company -- don't offer an email address if it's only checked once a week; don't jump on social media if no one is going to regularly update that Facebook page or Twitter feed; don't ask callers to leave a message if no one ever listens to those voicemails. Have a policy in place from the beginning about how long is an acceptable amount of time to let pass before getting back to someone, state that policy clearly on your company's website, and then stick to it. If customers are going to offer their loyalty to your business, they need to know they're getting something valuable in return--and often that's much more than whatever it is you're selling.