Anyone who has worked in a service industry profession knows the old motto, “the customer is always right.”  Believed to have been originally coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London in 1909, it is at its core, a wise tenet for small businesses to live by.  The reality is that while customers or clients may not always really be right, they should never be made to feel wrong, either.

Whether you are a consultant or retailer, you have an obligation to provide quality service to your client or customer, but you also owe them respect.  You should never feel obligated to support bad suggestions or recommendations, or put your business at risk by agreeing with a customer.  However, it is essential to your business to recognize that if your customers don’t feel heard, understood or respected, your relationship with them, and ultimately your business, will be in jeopardy.

Over my near two-decade career in public relations, and now as a small business owner myself, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction.  It’s probably no big surprise that many times I find out from new clients that the reasons they left their last consultant were because they were unhappy with the service they were receiving, or the quality of work that was being provided.  Here are a few mistakes to avoid making if you want to keep your customers happy.

Mistake #1: Not listening

Have you ever had that conversation with someone where you’re the one talking, and they are practically jumping out of their seat to interject something into the conversation?  You know the person I’m talking about – they aren’t listening, they are just waiting to speak.  That’s a big no-no in the business/client relationship (or any relationship, for that matter.)  If you don’t listen to your customer, and really hear what they have to say, how can you ensure that you really understand their issue, or their needs? Pay close attention to feedback you receive, and find a way to acknowledge it, and take action when appropriate. If you truly listen to your customers, you should never have to be told twice that they aren’t happy with something you’ve done.

Mistake #2: Not providing reliable service

In my last column I talked about quality control in the workplace.  Simple things like using spellcheck and proofreading your work should be common practice if you have clients who rely on you for accuracy. But equally as important to quality control should be providing reliable service to your customers, too.  If you are a retailer, don’t change regular business hours without providing ample notice.  If you are a consultant, don’t go on vacation without ensuring all of your client’s needs will be met in your absence, and providing a reliable person to help if something comes up while you’re gone.  Reliability is an integral part of the customer/business relationship, and without it, customers are likely to look elsewhere for that same comfort.

Mistake #3: Not communicating

Imagine leaving a voicemail for your best friend, then following up with a text, then sending an email – and having them all go without a response. You’d likely be concerned (or maybe even angry) at their lack of acknowledgment, right?  Treat your customer relationships just like you would your personal relationships. Open and regular communication is crucial to the success of your relationship with them. If you get an email with a question or concern, at a minimum, quickly reply back and let them know you’ve received the email and you’re working on it.  If a customer raises an issue on your Facebook page, let them know you’re looking into it (and then if possible, take the conversation off-line).  While you may not be able to address every customer question or concern immediately, acknowledging that you are aware of it and are working to address it goes a long way to building the trust and comfort that they need to want to keep working with you.

Mistake #4: Not doing your homework

You would never open a business without knowing who your customers are, or how best to meet their needs, right?  Then, why would you ever try to provide service to a customer without staying in tune with those details, too?  You should spend as much time as you can getting to know your customer, and identifying the most efficient and effective ways to meet their needs.  Never show up to a meeting without having researched everything you need to know about whatever is being discussed in that meeting.  Run a retail shop? Try surveying your customers from time to time to better understand their preferences on products, service or communication.  A top business strategy should always be knowing your customer and their issues better than your competitor.

Mistake #5: Not earning their trust

Trust, much like a relationship, is not developed overnight.  Don’t expect your customers to trust you, or your advice, without earning it first. Never come across like a know-it-all.  Chances are, they know their issue, needs or business better than you do.  Provide solutions, not more problems.  Anticipate their needs, don’t wait for them to bring an issue up to you.  They want to know you have their best interest in mind at all times.  Value and respect their input, and remember that you are part of a team.  Customers never want to feel like they are just a paycheck to you.  Treat them like a commodity, and you’ll never earn their trust, or keep their business.

Avoid making these mistakes and you’ll be well on your way to building a strong relationship with your customers, and ensuring the long-term success of your business.


A version of this column originally appeared on March 14, 2014 in the Sacramento Business Journal.