Building your customer base is no easy task today. Impressing future customers means being proactive, and that means knowing what they need and want, and also knowing how to deliver. To do that, you’re going to have to get up close and personal.

Great customer service hasn?t really changed that much…in fact, in some ways, it’s gone backwards in time. Remember when customer service was warm and personal? Then for a long time, it became cold, faceless, and impenetrable as companies looked for ways to cut costs. Some companies were shocked to discover that customers hate impersonal service. So by saving money on customer service, they lost customer loyalty. Guess which one is more expensive?

[Tweet “Great customer service hasn’t changed!”]

You don’t have to have an army of employees to provide the personal touch. Here are 10 ways to get cozy with your customers – and your potential future customers – without breaking the bank.

  1. Ask for input. The best way to find out what customers are thinking is to ask. Pose provocative questions on social media, launch mini-polls, or do a full-fledged customer survey to test a new product idea or find out where your company’s strengths and weaknesses lie. SurveyMonkey is an easy, powerful way to connect with your audience and gather their thoughts. You can also ask for a review on Yelp, Amazon, or other online pages where your business or goods might have a presence. Facebook even has a new feature for fan page reviews.[Tweet “What’s your favorite way to ask for customer input?”]
  1. Offer something valuable. In exchange for personal information (like name and contact information), offer something in return. Depending on your product or service, you might consider an informational eBook for download, a discount, or even a little gift in the mail. Sending influential customers a gift box full of goodies is a sure way to get social media shares and reviews. Klout is a great site you can use to get in touch with potential customers who have reach. Reach is power.[Tweet “What’s your best-performing lead magnet (what do you give customers in exchange for email address?)”]
  2. Keep in touch…but don’t overdo it. One way to constantly market without flooding your customers with spam is to divide your time and efforts between social media and segmented email lists. Tweet, post, and share using the 80/20 rule. In a nutshell: 80% of your social media should not be self-serving, one-way advertising. That’s ok about 20% of the time. The rest of your social content should just be social. If it’s all advertising all the time, you’re going to annoy your followers. For emails, segment your lists by keyword and send emails designed to appeal to a narrow audience. A quality CRM like Insightly makes targeted customer communication easy.[Tweet “Do you use a #CRM to manage customer relationships? What’s your fave”]
  3. Respond quickly. You don’t even want to know how many opportunities are lost when companies ignore requests for help or information. The faster you respond, the more likely you are to earn the business. Staples breaks down the importance of customer response time in this infographic.[Tweet “Customer service via Twitter? It’s a great choice if your customers are there!”]
  4. Take control of your presence. Whether you created a profile or not, your business is listed on Yelp, Foursquare, Google Places, and other online directories. While you can’t control the reviews, you can make sure each listing is correct and up-to-date, provide flattering photos, respond to comments, and upload a flyer or a menu.[Tweet “Don’t ignore Yelp, Google Places or other online directories – future customers are watching”]
  5. Analyze your customer data. Connect your existing data to DataHero to really understand it, without having to become a data analyst. Data is complicated, but DataHero shows you what you need to know with suggested charts. Or it allows you to create your own customized chart in drag-and-drop motions. Once you’ve got a handle on your customer data, you know who they are, what they want, and where to find them. All the better to impress them with offers they can’t resist.
  6. Fill your website with great content. Provide a steady stream of great content and people will keep coming back for more. What’s more, you’ll earn a higher spot on the search pages with helpful, well-crafted content.
  7. Brand your photos and graphics. You can’t always publish photos complete with a link back to your site, but you can overlay your company web address so people can find your site. If you don’t, it’s a complete waste of a great share. If you’re not a graphics whiz, can make creating graphics a whole lot easier.
  8. And don’t forget to make your content easy to share. Forget the “like” Facebook button on your blog posts, web pages, and articles. Go right for the share button. When your customers share, their friends see it. They become your advertising agency, your advocates, and your evangelists. Their friends are your future customers.
  9. Avoid overpromising. One of the easiest ways to lose a customer is to promise more than you can deliver in order to close a deal. On the other hand, delivering more than you promised is a sure way to earn repeat business.

One last thing: New customers are great, but your real bread-and-butter is repeat business. The best tools in the box for earning repeat business: Customer service, engagement, and value. Sound familiar? It’s not rocket science. Old or new, customers want you to show you care.