Customer loyalty makes a lot of sense. A person you can count on to buy from you again and again is more valuable than one who disappears after the first transaction. But for many businesses, building customer loyalty means creating “loyalty programs” that reward repeat behaviour. Come to our shop 10 times and your 11th visit is free. But are your customers loyal because they want that free coffee, or are they loyal because they truly enjoy your product and their interactions with you?

Companies need to face the new realities of the customer economy. Customer relationships matter more than ever, because your future revenue depends on those relationships lasting well beyond a single transaction. In addition, the voice of the customer has never been louder; your customers have the power to bring you more business—or drive it away—via recommendations or rants that are amplified by social channels.

Customer service interactions are becoming a primary means of creating true customer relationships. To be successful today, you must understand how relationships actually work, and how to build them. While the ways in which you do this work may be specific to your business, there are some fundamentals about relationship-building that are universal.

1. Don’t Overestimate Your Importance In The Customer’s Life

Rule number one in relationships: You are not the centre of the universe. You must listen to and consider the other person. The same is true of your organisation. A person is not “your” customer, even when she is buying your product. It is a privilege for you to be in her life, not the other way around.

2. Consider Every Interaction In Context Of The Entire Customer Experience

Relationships have memories, but organisations tend to have terrible memories. The customer who buys a product in your store is the same one who writes in when the product breaks. Those two moments are connected, and you must recognise this.

3. Recognise The Right Relationships & Adapt

Not everyone you meet will be your best friend. Some people are great dinner party guests, some are lifelong friends, and others just get a wave when you see them in the neighbourhood. The goal is to have the right relationship with each individual. This requires becoming skilled at reading people. Figure out how to accept and improve the relationships you have—and say “no” when a relationship is unhealthy.

4. Be Something Actual Humans Can Relate To

Given the choice between a faceless monolith and an organisation that communicates directly and simply, consumers will always choose the latter. It is not just okay for your organisation to have personality, it is vital. When there is an incredible amount of choice in the market, personality helps people identify which organisations they want to interact with.

5. Be Transparent

People relate to organisations that are open and honest: Give your customer the same information as you have—good or bad. We are fighting against years of people feeling like companies are somehow screwing them with hidden pricing and confusing return policies. The only way to establish trust and loyalty is to show your cards.

6. Empower People To Do What’s Best For The Relationship

Allow and encourage your employees to act like people. We have been training customer service reps to act like machines—fake smiles, scripts, compulsory “have a nice days.” Little mistakes or inefficiencies will inevitably occur when you allow people to make their own decisions, but the business can embrace these as the very things that make the business easier to relate to.

7. Put A Face On Your customers, Understand Them As People

Your customer relationships are easy to ignore when they’re the sole responsibility of your sales or support people. When you can put a face on the person who is truly frustrated, your employees realise that this could just as well be their neighbour. Make customer relationships a shared responsibility for your entire organisation.

Relationships are not easy. Some will say that relationships can and should be managed. They will give you acronyms that promise to solve all your relationship troubles. But unfortunately, in business as in life, relationships cannot be managed.

And while a business-customer relationship is not the same as a personal one, all relationships are personal at some level. When a person buys a product, they are buying the product of a group of people; when they e-mail the organisation, it is a person who responds; and when they decide whether to return to an organisation again, they are one person making a decision. Focus on that person.