Customer Relations

by Roisin Murray & Wallace Murray

Establish your customer relations strategy

Harvard’s Fred Reichheld is probably the guru of customer loyalty. He reckons you can lose half your customers over five years, if you don’t work on customer retention. You’ll have to replace them just to stay in business. That’s a lot of work. Imagine the cost of all that extra marketing and cold sales. So, customer relations and your strategy for enhancing them are an important part of your marketing and sales strategies.

People often think of a strategy in terms of grand corporate plans. In truth, it is no more than a statement of how you intend to achieve your strategic aims. That is – the steps you will take to get what you want. If you think of it that way, it is more obvious how a strategy can help.

The first step is to clarify those strategic aims. In this instance, that means defining what you really want from customer relations. Although some people might say:

  • More repeat than new business
  • Customer loyalty, becoming the supplier of choice
  • Keeping the business you’ve worked hard to get
  • Fewer complaints or ‘awkward customers’.

Be careful what you wish for – you might just get it!


Imagine taking up an offer of a blind date with a tall blond(e) and finding they are not of the gender you expected. Or maybe they are, but live on the other side of the world. Not a properly clarified aim! In a business context, some people have achieved the sales figure they wished for, only to find their profit was way too low.

Getting clarity on your strategic aims should be done in tandem with your marketing people, who will be deciding who your ideal customer is and how to segment the market.

Given the market segments, what are the customer service implications for each segment? They may vary.


Exercise to clarify your aims.

So take the time to think through all the angles and implications of your ambitions. Otherwise, the outcome will almost certainly surprise you, and that could be unpleasant. Clarify your aim thoroughly, and you have a better chance of liking it when you get it. You are more likely to feel that the financial, physical, emotional or other cost was worth it. Complete the exercise to see how thoroughly your aim has been clarified. You can also look at the topic on Goal Setting for some more thoughts on clarifying and achieving outcomes.

Thinking it through

If you have your properly clarified strategic aim or outcome, it’s time to think about how to achieve it. That means deciding what to do in the long, medium and short term. Always bear in mind that the point is to give people a feeling of being valued – of belonging. This is what is needed to draw customers back repeatedly and motivate staff.

Long term

Long-term aspects may involve significant financial investment, and may be relatively complex to achieve or to undo. For this reason, they are often addressed at organisational level, perhaps as part of the overall strategy. An obvious marketing example is the loyalty card. However, such initiatives are not always solely driven by the need to enhance customer relations. Consider how the customer will view the initiative from their perspective.


Jo Malone, the exclusive scent and skin care brand, have invested in high-class wash-hand basins and luxurious towels, supported by attentive advice from a ‘consultant’ (rather than a sales assistant). You, the customer, feel as though they have unlimited time just for you. Why? Because it’s almost like having a micro health spa pamper break. Anchor a pleasurable feeling of that sort and customers will keep coming back.

Costa Coffee and Marks & Spencer were ahead of the field in locating in motorway services. Or was it the motorway services who sought the change? Whichever way round, customers were surprised to find high street quality in that location. Again, think about bookstore cafés or café art galleries, or indeed motorway services with adjacent convenience hotels. When first introduced, these all induced pleasurable surprise in the customer – ‘Oh! This is good. Why did no one think of that before? I’ll come here again!’

And remember your staff. The way you treat them spills over into the way they treat each other and your customers. They too need to be considered as part of your customer relations strategy. Long-term considerations in relation to staff may include such things as pay and other reward structures, flexible working and access to services such as healthcare. Again, the point is to give them pleasant surprises about how well they are treated.

Medium term

Medium-term initiatives may be a little easier to change or undo. They may also be more easily addressed at individual branch or team level. However, they probably still have no obvious direct link to any specific purchase. Such initiatives might include special events for loyal customers. These might or might not be clearly related to your business. They may verge on corporate hospitality, so may be covered by another policy. As with long-term issues, the label doesn’t matter. Just find out if your organisation does such things. If not, make changes within your own area of responsibility or work out how best to influence change on a wider scale.

The idea is to make any excuse to keep in touch. Think carefully about how you do this to make it meaningful for the customer, and don’t overdo it. This is about relations, not selling. Junk mail may make sales, but it doesn’t do a lot for customer relations.

Examples of initiatives that can have a positive effect on customer relations include invitations to previews of new season’s lines, product launches, social or prestigious events, art shows and so on. At least one restaurant we know sends their customers birthday cards, just to keep in touch!

What about the staff? Think about things like special celebrations of success, thank-you events or some other form of one-off or time-limited appreciation or recognition. Again, you’re looking for something that helps the individual to feel that they are part of the family. Virgin employees receive invitations to a corporate bash at Richards Branson’s place. Years ago, MacDonald’s started giving their counter staff gold stars. Some organisations opt for ‘employee of the month’ awards or photos on the wall, which is fairly cheap and doesn’t have to extend beyond a single team or branch.

Short term

Short-term considerations relate more directly to each buying event. We focus on this crucial area of the short-term aspects to customer experience throughout much of this topic. Concrete initiatives might include discount cards, the idea being to reward loyalty. These are fine, but have a limited effect unless customers have a pleasant experience when making their purchase.

The equivalent for staff would be day-to-day management behaviour. It is often the small things that make the difference. If you want help in thinking up some initiatives, have a look at the Creative Thinking topic.

The steps you might want to take may become obvious once you know exactly what you want, and you can get help with Strategy here. On the other hand, if you get stuck or fancy a bit of fun, why not have a go at the following exercise? You can do it alone, but it’s more fun with others, perhaps at a team meeting.


Have some fun with reverse modelling. Think of all the ways you could really screw up relations with any number of customers. Put yourself in the position of your customers. What would really turn you off, drive you nuts, or cause you to never do business with these people again. Write your ideas on some of those sticky notepads. Sort them into categories after you have put them up on the wall.

Now, look for the reverse idea connected with what is written. It might be a straight reverse – for example, ‘rudeness from staff’ simply might reverse to ‘be polite’, but it might suggest more than this. It might lead you to think about the perceptions of customers, and why they might think people are being rude.

Is there something here about style and method of delivery of bad news that sounds rude to customers?

How might practices and systems be changed to ensure that this isn’t the case?

Think as widely as possible and look out for the gems!

Put the message over

A strategy is just a bunch of words. Results come from action. Action comes from people understanding what is required of them, so it is important to tell everyone about the customer relations strategy and what they have to do to make it happen.

You may have drawn up the strategy yourself. You may be a manager or team leader. You may be a team member. Whatever your role, be sure that you and other people really do understand.

Find out if you and they know about the marketing and sales strategy. Find out if they know what sort of people the organisation wants to do business with; what sort of products or services it wants to provide, and what makes those products or services different from those offered by competitors? Do you know what the organisation really wants?

If you don’t know, ask people higher up the ladder until you get a convincing answer. Read the topics on Influencing and Rapport first, however. Otherwise, you might simply irritate the top of the office to no good effect by asking questions they can’t answer.

Set positive anchors for customers

One key element of any customer relations strategy is to offer customers a positive experience they will remember and tell others about. Remember when bookshops used to be places where browsers were discouraged? Where the notion of anyone eating or drinking in the shop would have been anathema? But now...

If you want a coffee, find a bookshop!

Have you noticed how many bookshops have coffee outlets these days? Waterstones were the first. They spotted that customers wanted to linger. They wanted to handle the books, to smell the newness of them, to read a page or two – the imaginative answer was to make it possible for customers to relax with their purchases and savour a delicious coffee, maybe nibble a pastry. Add to that welcoming, friendly and helpful staff, evenings with authors and comfy sofas – soon the whole book-buying experience became firmly linked to a wide range of positive associations.

Different aspects of the experience may appeal to different customers, but all of them help to bring the customers back time after time – that’s why most bookshops have now introduced similar ideas.

The process of building up such associations is called anchoring. Positive anchors really cement long-term customer relations. You might like to find out more about the technique in the NLP topic.

What could you do to set positive anchors about your business in your clients’ minds?