Between spring start-up and summer ops crunch, it is easy to lose focus on who we work for. Like it or not, without customers, the productivity we strive for and the operational engine we continue to invest in, is irrelevant. The way to get better at keeping customer needs front and center is to nurture your relationship like you build and tend a garden. Plant the seeds for trust, employ best practices to grow respect and eventually harvest the kind of loyalty that creates customers who are easier to serve, with opportunities to earn higher margins.

1. See through the eyes of the customer

It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing what we do through our own perspective. Thinking about what our customers are experiencing requires us to understand that their perceptions are continually changing. These shifts in behavior are influenced by many factors, such as the status of their own customer base, economic and market impacts and the pressures they face from people they report to.

The better we listen, empathize and pivot to their priorities and preferences, the better we can solve their problems and stay on top of their needs. One of the best ways to demonstrate that is to customize how we communicate; this includes how often we reach out, report back, how we trouble-shoot and how we propose and estimate new work.

Regularly checking customer alignment helps prevent problems caused by not meeting expectations. The most productive way to do that is to have a conversation with them on-site and conduct in person job walks.

It is also important to have a formal customer feedback process. This can be done yearly via surveys conducted by an independent third party, where each customer gets a chance to provide an unfiltered assessment of our overall performance (as opposed to dealing with incidental issues that occur throughout year). When feedback is received on a regular basis, it provides a baseline to compare results and input that can improve performance.

2. Make it easy to do business

Customers want us to eliminate the frustration and guesswork. This requires managing moments of truth — the interactions customers have with your team. This starts with first impressions in marketing/sales, then moves to job start-up, operations and administration and follow-through.

Mapping your customer’s experience will open up opportunities for you to see where customers may run into problems and be proactive about solutions.

One way to raise awareness of how your decisions impact your customer is to bring the voice of your customer to the table. This exercise includes having an empty chair at your meetings and asking "….and what would the customer think about this?” You may be surprised how often what seems like a good business idea could have a negative impact on your relationship.

Ensuring consistency of your customer’s experience across all service lines requires a service and operations teams that are prepared and equipped with success behaviors and relationship tools. This usually starts with a strong company culture grounded in a shared vision and customer-centric values that are actionable and continuously reinforced by leadership.

3. Your customer always bats last

One of the daily challenges of running a business involves dealing with unexpected problems. Our sense of justice wants our customer to know how they caused or contributed to the problem, and for them to take some responsibility. Unfortunately, this approach wins the battle but loses the war.

When we say, “the customer bats last,” we acknowledge that customers are not only responsible for our home runs but have the power to cancel contracts, not pay for services, not approve enhancements/change orders, or give bad Yelp and Google reviews, and word-of-mouth.

Ultimately, the key to growing and cultivating a satisfied and loyal customer base is to play the long-game: be strategic about customers that are a good fit, that add value, and customers that appreciate our knowledge, our level of service, and our ability to work together with them as mutually-beneficial partners.