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Every entrepreneur knows the importance of company reputation. But exactly how much do your customers really like you?

This month I attended a user conference and was lucky enough to hear Jeanne Bliss speak. Bliss is an expert in building customer loyalty. She started her career at Land's End, a company known for customer service. She's also held senior customer-service positions at blue-chip companies such as Microsoft, Allstate and Coldwell Banker. Bliss has written two books on creating a true customer orientation: Chief Customer Officer and, most recently, I Love You More Than My Dog.

Bliss's insights were thought-provoking and right on target for entrepreneurs trying to determine how to differentiate and hold on to customers amid changing market conditions. She also provides good ideas for entrepreneurs' perennial issues regarding professional services companies: how to maintain service levels as you grow and lose primary contact with customers.

Bliss believes that the best marketing strategy a company can pursue is to become a beloved company--one that has extreme customer loyalty in good times and bad. She spent two years researching companies for her book, which is packed with examples of how everyone from Zappos.com to TD Bank maintains high customer loyalty.

Bliss spoke with me recently to provide specific expertise to WomenEntrepreneur.com readers. Here's a summary of her key points:

Beloved companies have prosperity--both financially and of the human spirit.Nike Air Max TN Plus In Bliss' research, companies with excellent customer service were immune to recent market swings. They stayed true to their core values, and customers kept faith with their brand. They also create a magnetic energy where customers find a way to come back even when economic times are tough. Focusing on customer loyalty pays off big.

Small businesses are about memory creation. Be purposeful about creating "wow" moments for customers that leave an indelible imprint in their minds. You have an opportunity to shape impressions. Identify your top three to five customers and develop processes to delight them. For example, if you are a dry cleaner, how do you want to greet people when they come in?

Perfect the art of saying "I'm sorry." Bliss calls the way that companies apologize their "humanity litmus test." Every company makes mistakes. Apologizing is about repairing the emotional connection. Good apologies are proactive, humble, accountable, honest and include an olive branch to repair the situation. (She discussed a company that sent apple pies labeled "Humble Pie," for instance.) When beloved companies make a mistake, you know they will make it right.

Rid your company of any process that puts customers on the defensive. If your customers have to gear up for a fight to get help, question an invoice or return an item, you're chipping away at customer loyalty. Some of this starts with the people who are interfacing with customers. How do they feel about the customer? Bliss suggests employees should be hired, first and foremost, based on shared values. Ask yourself, "Is this someone I want in the story of my business?"

As the leader, be a role model as a customer advocate.TN Baskets Enfants As the CEO, you set the tone for everyone else. If you demonstrate a high level of appreciation and trust in your customers, your staff will follow. Don't bad-mouth customers or avoid them. Be accessible and respectful both in front of customers and behind their backs. Get together with customers regularly and learn what they want in their own words. Do a company audit to make sure you are consistently creating customer loyalty top to bottom. And be personally consistent in what you say and do around the customer experience.

If you're interested in building a customer-focused company, check out I Love You More Than My Dog. The book is filled with examples and creative ideas any entrepreneur can try--many of which aren't expensive or complex. Bliss also talks about how savvy companies are using social media to strengthen customer relationships, a game changer on many counts.

Beloved companies are all around us. Who doesn't like to shop at Zappos.com or Trader Joe's, fly SouthWest, rent movies from Netflix, or stop by the Container Store? We can all identify with how good it feels to be a customer of a beloved company.

Now's your chance to build one.


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