Article | 14 min read

Customer relations 101: A customer relationship guide

Understand the ins and outs of customer relations to improve your customer experience, raise profits, and boost brand credibility.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published March 17, 2022
Last updated May 2, 2022

Henry Ford once said, “It’s not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It’s the customer who pays the wages.” There’s a reason this business revolutionary is still quoted—he was absolutely right. And ignoring his wisdom can prove disastrous.

Building strong customer relations will certainly help contribute to a company’s success, but in today’s customer-centric market, it’s a critical focus area. After all, over 90 percent of consumers are likely to spend more money with businesses that offer streamlined experiences.

This can be frustrating. You’ve spent countless hours and dollars developing a product, and in an ideal world, it would sell itself. Why should you shift your attention away from the product and onto the consumer?

The good news is that with smart investing and a firm handle on customer relations, you can do both.

What is customer relations?

Customer relations refers to the methods, strategies, and processes a company uses to improve the customer experience on a short- and long-term basis. It’s the sum of all customer interactions and experiences. This may differ depending on the size of your business and the style of your customer service.

Customer relations is one of the most undervalued aspects of potential business growth (partially because it can require a large investment). But it shouldn’t be.

Over a decade ago, Watermark Consulting published its renowned Customer Experience ROI Study, which was largely ignored by industry leaders at the time. However, Watermark has continued to publish annual studies on customer relations, and the accumulation of data is staggering.

Looking at the same businesses over 11 years, Watermark discovered the companies that led in customer experience outperformed their competitors by a 3-to-1 margin. Such a margin represents millions of dollars and solid, undeniable market advantage.

When people first began examining customer relations and its benefits, the initial hesitancy lay in the lack of financial data. We now have that data—the proof is clear as day. So, let’s explore how your company can harness the customer experience to achieve exponential growth.

Examples of customer relations activities

Customer relations encompasses a wide variety of tasks. Take a look at some specific activities so you know where to start:

  • Analyzing customer feedback through surveys and customer service interactions
  • Setting marketing strategies
  • Working with IT and technical teams to streamline customer interactions and decrease wait times
  • Building and maintaining brand credibility
  • Ensuring the customer service experience is consistent across customer touchpoints
  • Proposing solutions to frequent issues, bottlenecks, and customer holdups (including researching and proposing the right sales and marketing software)

Not every team’s priority is going to be putting the customer first—that’s understandable. Each department has its own KPIs and goals to hit, so they all won’t necessarily be focused on the same things. That’s why customer relations is there: to ensure the customer is never forgotten.

Customer relations vs. customer service

Customer relations and customer service share overlapping principles and sound like interchangeable terms, but they’re not quite the same thing. Customer service is usually reactive (helps customers in real-time), while customer relations is primarily proactive (strives to improve the customer experience and solve problems before they happen).

For example, customer service might deal with an angry customer reporting that the product they ordered doesn’t work as advertised. Customer relations would take that interaction and help craft clearer messaging so buyers are better informed when they make purchases.

Ideally, the two departments work as a team on a customer feedback loop to resolve issues at the source so there aren’t repeat incidents down the line.

The bottom line:

customer relations

Customer service interacts with customers directly to solve problems and creates a positive journey through the sales funnel.

customer relations

Customer relations builds relationships with current and future customers based on customer service feedback.

The importance of customer relations

Customer relationships are vital to any business: happy customers → repeat customers → more money. Research shows that 84 percent of companies that work to improve their customer experience report an increase in revenue, and customer-centric companies are 60 percent more profitable than those that aren’t.

84% of companies that work to improve their customer experience report an increase in revenue.

However, other benefits to investing in improved customer relations often go overlooked. Let’s draw back the curtain.

Benefits of customer relations

    More repeat business: Satisfied customers make repeat purchases and refer friends and family to your business. According to Forbes, loyal customers are five times more likely to buy again and four times more likely to tell someone else about the company. That’s immeasurable free advertising and passive income from simply creating a positive customer experience.

    Better business reputation and brand credibility: Customers are impressed by great experiences, and they’ll reward businesses that provide them. American consumers will pay 17 percent more to purchase from a company with a reputation for excellent customer service. This shows that a good customer experience also increases revenue by enticing consumers to spend more.

    Ability to maintain prices: When you’re marketing solely based on your products and not on your customer experience, your prices face more fluctuation. If people aren’t buying, you have to reel them in somehow. And without the pull of a wonderful experience, you’re left with no choice but to offer sales or discounts. Establishing a superior customer service experience will earn you more loyalty and allow you to keep your prices where they need to be.

    Increased competitive advantage: Brands with a superior customer experience bring in around 5.7 times more revenue than their competitors that lag in such efforts. So if you’re looking to set your company apart from the crowd, focus on providing a memorable customer experience.

    Improved employee morale and attitude: When your customers are happy, your workers are happy. No one gets excited to engage with people who are calling in to complain about a bad product interaction. When you prioritize positive experiences across the customer journey, your employees will feel more motivated, and your business will thrive. Don’t believe us? Companies with engaged employees outperform the competition by 147 percent.

Customer relations by the numbers

If you need more proof that customer relationships are the way of the future, here are a few statistics:

Who is responsible for building and maintaining customer relationships?

customer relations

Earlier, we mentioned that customer relations not only refers to customer relationships but also to the team that builds those relationships. Technically, everyone at a company is responsible for creating healthy customer relationships, but there are specific jobs within the customer relations department that help with the process.

Customer relations team roles

The customer relations department normally includes three levels.

  1. Customer relations executive: This person oversees the customer relations team as well as all interactions between the company and its customers. They also develop new strategies for building and maintaining stronger customer relationships.
  2. Customer relations managers: CR managers supervise customer relations representatives and their daily interactions with customers. Depending on the size of the company and the style of selling, some CR managers will also handle any relations with major B2B clients. CR managers often work with the CR executive to determine what strategies are working or not working for the team.
  3. Customer relations representatives: CR reps are in the field—they’re directly communicating with customers on the phone, via live chat or messaging, and through email. They’re core to the company’s success because they hear feedback straight from the customers and can pass the information upwards.

What makes a great customer relations employee?

When you’re assembling your customer relations team, you need people who can work together to solve numerous fast-moving problems. Here are some of the top qualities companies should look for in customer relations job candidates:

  • Empathy

CR employees must be able to step into buyers’ shoes and understand their problems so they can form a connection with them. Considering that 70 percent of today’s buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they’re being treated, empathy is a crucial trait.

  • Adaptability

CR activities vary every day. Customers have different personalities, reach out with a range of issues, and contact the company through multiple channels. Your staff needs to roll with the punches and provide quality customer service no matter the circumstance.

  • Persuasive speaking

Persuasion skills aren’t only essential for your sales department. Whether it’s convincing an angry customer to calm down or helping them work through new solutions, using a friendly and persuasive voice is key for successfully managing customer relationships.

  • Strong communicator

Nothing frustrates consumers more than not getting direct answers to their questions. A brilliant customer relations worker knows how to balance charm with clear, factual responses.

The following traits are highly desired in customer service staff, but they’re also valuable assets for customer relations team members:

  • Positive attitude

You can’t help someone find a positive outcome without a positive attitude. Even when a customer is upset or frustrated, the CR rep must stay focused on working through the issue and finding a solution.

  • Responsible

Customers know when you don’t want to deal with them. Their problem might not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. Customers appreciate it when they aren’t passed around until someone finally decides to listen to them and help them. Unless it’s necessary, reps should stay with a customer throughout the interaction and resist transferring responsibility away.

  • Calm under pressure

This is a hard quality to quantify, but it’s an important one for customer relations workers. It doesn’t matter how loud a customer might be yelling—a CR rep can’t yell back. Consumers do all sorts of things that we may want to call out, but that’s not the place of the customer relations department.

  • Good listener

A great customer relations employee knows that listening is half the battle. No one can solve a problem without fully understanding what the issue is first.

  • Organized

Every day is a busy one in customer relations, and representatives and managers must be able to keep up without getting overwhelmed. When you have 50 people on hold, you need to know how to solve problems quickly and kindly—this is where strong organization and time management skills come in handy.

2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center

Learn why Zendesk was named a leader in the 2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center.

How to build customer relationships

The key to forming lasting relationships with your customers is understanding what they want. That said, you have hundreds—if not thousands—of customers, making it difficult to pinpoint what they truly value. How do you know where to start?

Harvard Business Review looks at customer needs through the lens of the Elements of Value. The Elements of Value pyramid resembles Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: it breaks down the internal and external needs consumers want to satisfy when they buy a product or service.

There are four basic elements of customer value when it comes to decision-making:

  1. Functional: the product or service saves time, avoids hassle, makes money, lowers risk, etc.
  2. Emotional: the product or service reduces anxiety, improves mental or physical state, provides feelings of nostalgia, etc.
  3. Life-changing: the product or service is an heirloom, offers hope, gives access to a community, etc.
  4. Social impact: the product or service results in self-transcendence.

Not every product, service, or company is designed to fulfill every single need—that’s fine. The secret is to identify what your company already provides to customers and what it could be doing more of.

With that in mind, let’s examine a few ways you can build better, stronger customer relationships and the needs those relationships might fulfill.

Customer relationship improvement strategies

When you’re implementing a new strategy, you need to know why you’re doing it and who it’s benefitting. Here are several ways you can improve customer relations by addressing all four types of customer needs.

Functional

Decrease wait time. Reducing hold times will improve the customer experience and boost customer satisfaction. After all, customers love when they can easily reach a representative (even if it’s not for a complaint). While buying software or hiring staff to achieve this might mean higher prices at first, keep in mind that 86 percent of customers will pay more for a better experience, so the investment is worth it.

Create simple tools for your customers to learn about your product. Depending on your business, your product might require extensive learning and/or training. No consumer wants to waste time trying to figure out how to use it on their own. By investing in training opportunities or basic instructional videos, your company sets itself apart as one that values its customers’ time and energy.

Use software to increase efficiency for your employees and customers. You may be hesitant to buy the latest sales force automation system or robust CRM software, but you’ll earn those dollars back in repeat customer revenue. Time is money—when you speed things up for your team and your customers, you’ll quickly see the value in the investment.

Emotional

Show appreciation for your customers. Your brand credibility is only as good as your customer experience. Reward your repeat customers and let them know you appreciate them. Something as simple as a loyalty program or a complimentary product goes a long way toward cementing customer relationships and encouraging referrals.

Listen to your customers. Asking for feedback is only part of the equation—you must also actively and visibly implement that feedback in your company, services, or products. If you can show customers that their opinions matter, you won’t have to convince them to stick around.

Be personable and accessible. You’re likely too busy to interact directly with every customer who purchases your products, but small adjustments can make interactions feel personal. Take the time to customize automated communication, and make sure a human voice is always accessible when customers call. People don’t want to buy from robots—they want to buy from people.

Life-changing

Create a community. Brand identity can be difficult for many people to understand, but plenty of customers use brands as symbols of belonging to a group. Even something as simple as a community forum—where customers share stories, tips, and experiences with one another—will keep buyers engaged with your company while also enabling them to connect.

Build your marketing around the long-term impact of your product. If you have the opportunity to market your product as a legacy creator, seize it. We live in a fast-paced society and rarely get the chance to create anything with true longevity. So if you’re selling something that can help someone achieve their dream of running a business, then focus on that—they’re not buying a product, they’re buying the tools to build a legacy.

Social impact

Invest in a fulfilling workplace for your employees. Not only are happy workers 12 percent more productive, but they also create a cause for your customers to rally around. Any company can treat their staff poorly while still selling products and services, but a company that’s known for treating their employees well and providing a positive customer experience? That’s a social draw. Suddenly, consumers aren’t just enjoying your products: they can feel good supporting a business that cares about its workers.

The best tools for managing customer relationships

As important as exemplary customer service is, it’s a tall order to expect your team to keep track of every single customer and all their individual needs without any help.

For the best customer relations, you need the best tools. Invest in a strong CRM, a sales tracker, and great contact management software to make your customer relations team unstoppable.

Zendesk Sell and Zendesk for service offer the features your company needs to make every customer feel like they’re your priority. Between automated customer communication alerts, extensive sales histories, detailed client profiles, and guided customer help channels, Zendesk software enables you to reinvent the customer experience. Request a demo today.

2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center

Learn why Zendesk was named a leader in the 2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center.

2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center

Learn why Zendesk was named a leader in the 2021 Gartner Magic Quadrant for the CRM Customer Engagement Center.

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