3 Rules for Building Good Relationships With Customers

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Anything You Want" by Derek Sivers. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you build good relationships with customers? How do you prioritize customer needs without losing sight of your own?

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers gives recommendations for building a business that meets customers’ needs while still fulfilling your passions. To stay connected to your customer base, he advises business owners to focus on the needs of many small customers rather than one or two large ones.

Read on to learn Sivers’s three essential rules for building good relationships with customers.

Build Good Relationships With Customers

In Anything You Want, CD Baby founder Derek Sivers shares the lessons he learned from being an accidental entrepreneur whose hobby turned into a $22 million business. Sivers’s non-traditional approach to business ownership—centering on honesty, creativity, and humanity—is a model for burgeoning entrepreneurs who want to stay true to themselves and do right by others while building their dream. In this article, we’ll explore how to cater to and build good relationships with customers, according to the knowledge Sivers gathered from creating his own successful business. 

#1: Prioritize Customers, Not Growth

Sivers says that the primary goal of your business is to help people, so while your company needs to be profitable enough to survive, your primary focus should be on understanding and addressing your customers’ needs, rather than growing your business or getting rich. 

Sivers argues that it’s better to scrimp and save to build your business right than cater to investors. Although investors can help grow your business quickly, they may demand that you change your vision or compromise your values in ways that don’t help to build good relationships with your customers. 

(Shortform note: If you’re able to start your business without outside investors, it will be easier to make customer satisfaction the priority of your business. To do this, however, you’ll likely have to lower your start-up costs. Are you selling merchandise? Consider an online store rather than brick and mortar. If manufacturing is a cost you’re not able to afford, you might think about selling a service rather than a product. A willingness to start with used, free, or borrowed equipment and spaces will also save you money.)

Here are two ways that Sivers says you can build good relationships with customers by communicating to them that they’re your top priority:

  • Keep your website as free from advertisements as possible. When your customers easily find what they’re looking for on your site, the experience is positive. If they’re bombarded with distracting and targeted ads, on the other hand, it sends the message that your interests lie elsewhere. (Shortform note: Pop-up ads are a particularly off-putting version of online advertisements—and they can deter customers from visiting your website because not only are they annoying but they also can hurt your website’s search engine optimization and keep you off the first page of Google search results.)  
  • Publicly and loudly cater to your preferred customer base. This demonstrates to your niche clientele that you value them more than the general populace. This will attract like-minded customers and earn you a devoted fan base.
Signal That Your Customers Are Priority #1

Sivers recommends that you get loud about why your select customers matter to you, though he doesn’t specify how to identify your niche customers from the outset. Here are five steps you can take to home in on your niche customers

1. Identify an idea you feel passionately about and a problem you’d like to solve for yourself and others.
2. Assess your target market’s greatest needs using surveys and looking at sites like Quora, Reddit, and Twitter.
3. Research your competition so you can distinguish yourself from them.
4. Examine the potential profitability of your idea with your niche market. 
5. Vet your idea with family, friends, and acquaintances to assess its appeal and viability. 

#2: Provide Great Customer Service

In addition to centering your customer, one of the most important things you can do as a business owner is providing stellar customer service. Sivers says that having positive, meaningful, personalized interactions with customers will not only help you to build good relationships with customers but will also help you to retain them, which is preferable to having to find new ones. 

To start, Sivers argues that you should treat every person who reaches out to your company as if they’re a VIP. Customers feel valued and important when you take the time to have meaningful interactions with them. Though this may feel unnecessarily time-consuming, having longer, more meaningful interactions with customers is more productive and satisfying for everyone involved than interactions that are efficient but soulless.

(Shortform note: As a business owner, you can also show customers that their experience matters to you by personally making follow-up calls to customers who have purchased your service or product to ask what works well and what doesn’t. In fact, some business owners make these calls months or even a year after the product or service was purchased because they want to know how it fared over time. To take it a step further, you can reward customers for their feedback with small tokens of appreciation, like a gift card to a coffee shop. It’s one more way to show that you value their opinion.)

Sivers says you can meaningfully engage customers by tapping into your creative, playful spirit rather than defaulting to rote scripts. He recommends personalizing your interactions with customers in unique and funny ways to grab their attention and make them remember you. 

For example, if a customer mentions during a phone call that they’re having a rough day, you can follow up on your call by sending them a note saying you hope things get better. It might take you a little extra time, but your customer will remember that you listened to her and went the extra mile to brighten her day.

(Shortform note: In Raving Fans, Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles argue that it’s not enough to simply meet customers’ needs—you must continually exceed expectations to win customer loyalty. The authors assert that customer service work never reaches a pinnacle of excellence because customer needs are ever-evolving. As a result, your strategy for delivering customer service that surpasses expectations must remain flexible so you can adapt it to clients’ changing demands.)  

Sivers finishes by pointing out that a little generosity can go a long way with building good relationships with your customers. In general, if you have something they need, you should try to make it available to them at a reasonable price, even if you know you could charge more. He argues against trying to make a buck off your customers or skimping on your product or service to save a few pennies. Instead, he says that if you give breaks to customers where you can, you will build customer loyalty and respect. 

(Shortform note: Others expand on Sivers’s suggestion that you be generous with customers, suggesting that you create exclusive access groups, build loyalty programs, and give memorable promotional products to entice and hold onto the customers you care about.)

#3: When Customers Are Difficult, Find Your Inner Grace

While you can aim to always have positive interactions with customers, you’ll inevitably encounter situations where unhappy customers rear their ugly heads. Sivers contends that the customer is always right—even when they aren’t. 

Sivers recommends that you always practice genuine kindness in response to negative feedback from customers for two reasons: 

  1. Your reaction is likely to be broadcast far and wide, and bad reviews can hurt your business. 
  2. People are human, and they sometimes lash out when they’re frustrated about things that have nothing to do with you. More often than not, they aren’t intending to hurt you or damage your business. 

Sivers says it’s particularly important to appease customers who make a loud, public stink about your company because when you alleviate their concerns they can become some of your business’s most vocal proponents. 

This doesn’t mean you should prioritize difficult customers over your loyal ones just to maintain a good relationship with those customers, however. Rather, Sivers says you should always aim to serve the vast majority of customers who aren’t problematic. If, for example, you have a handful of customers who complain about your service, you shouldn’t respond by changing that service or your policies in ways that will punish the larger group that uses and benefits from those things responsibly. Instead, always stay focused on what’s best for the greater good, let small problems roll off your back, and be grateful for your business and what’s working. 

Manage Bad Customer Energy

Sivers argues that you should appease difficult customers but doesn’t offer specific suggestions for how to do this. You can manage challenging customers using the following strategies

– Stay calm and lower your voice to bring down the temperature. 
– Listen to understand the problem. Don’t argue. 
– Convey that you understand their frustration. 
– Don’t personalize their problem.
– Follow up on promises you make. 
– Summarize the next steps so everyone’s clear about how to proceed. 

As important as it is to thoughtfully address difficult customers’ needs, it’s also smart to ensure that employees working with them engage in self-care to prevent burnout. Toward that end, you should encourage your staff to: 

– Take five- to 10-minute breaks every hour to collect and recenter themselves. 
– Ask for help when they need it. 
– Use breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness techniques to destress. 
– Keep a calm, uncluttered workspace. 
– Celebrate their successes when they get positive feedback from customers.

Finally, research suggests that there’s good reason to abide by Sivers’s recommendation to let the undesirable behavior of a few “bad apple” customers roll off your back: You can boost your profits by tolerating some bad behavior if there’s a net benefit for your business. For example, if a customer tries to return a sweater she bought from your store six months after the designated return period, you might object to her violating your policy and even find the behavior unethical. However, if you permit the return and the customer then buys three jackets and a pair of pants from your store, has the customer actually done anything to harm your business? Researchers say that staying flexible in your thinking and tolerating some bad behavior can help your bottom line.
3 Rules for Building Good Relationships With Customers

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  • How to turn your hobby into a successful business
  • A non-traditional approach to business ownership
  • How to integrate honesty, creativity, and humanity into your business model

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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