Admit it. You cringe a little whenever you receive an email from someone you know that starts with: "I was just thinking of you and hope you're doing well," because 99 percent of the time, the next paragraph will include some sort of request: for help, for a referral, for business, for something.

The same is true when you receive an email from someone you don't know that starts with: "I love your new product/service/book/blog post," because 99 percent of the time, the next paragraph will include some sort of request in return for compliments that now seem insincere.

Either way, any warm fuzzies you might have been feeling instantly disappear. And you're a lot less likely to connect, much less become a customer.

Want to connect with people without seeming self-serving? Want to keep in touch with your customers without seeming obvious or gratuitous? It's easy. The key is to have a reason: an unselfish reason. The key is to get or stay in touch in a meaningful and memorable way--unforced, natural, and with a purpose that benefits the other person, not you.

Here are some ways to pull that off:

1. Set up alerts. First, know the other person. Then set up an alert on his or her name, company name, and industry and topics of interest. Then you can connect or reconnect with something to offer: congratulations, information about a competitor, breaking news in his or her market, etc.

And that way you turn a generic "Thinking of you" into a much more meaningful "I immediately thought of you when I saw this."

Many people use Google Alerts to automate the process. Also consider a tool like Mention, because it monitors the Web and, unlike Google Alerts, social-media channels.

2. Ask for input. Though the "How can we improve our products or services?" inquiry is fine, it's also boilerplate. If you have a blog, ask a connection or customer to share his or her knowledge or expertise. Your customer will appreciate the exposure to a broader audience (and will definitely be flattered you asked).

For example, I've photographed weddings for years. (It's fun.) A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Knot and asked some of our couples what, in retrospect, they would have done differently in regards to wedding planning. They loved talking about what went right and what went wrong.

But don't just limit yourself to connections and customers. Seek input from potential connections for articles, blog posts, whatever media you use to communicate with your customers and your industry. They'll be flattered you want to tap their expertise.

But don't follow up the request with an immediate sales call. Ask because you genuinely want to highlight their expertise.

3. Offer recommendations. Many companies actively solicit blurbs and words of praise. They have to; very few people volunteer kind words. That's why offering an unsolicited recommendation is a great way to stand out.

Say you attend an event and love the speaker. Send her a note and conclude with, "If you like, please feel free to use my comments for promotional purposes. It would be my honor."

You can do the same with any product or service you genuinely like.

Here's another simple way to reconnect with customers. Many people feel uncomfortable asking others to complete LinkedIn Recommendations. Instead of waiting for a customer to ask, jump in and write one. Not only will you strengthen a connection, but you will also get the chance to (subtly) describe your business and services when you discuss how you and the customer did business.

Remember, people tend to like--and remember--the people who like them. And they definitely like the people who offer genuine, unsolicited praise.

4. Comment. Millions of people and companies publish blog posts and articles. Few receive any comments on their posts (which can be pretty disheartening). Regularly check out a potential connection's or customer's blog. Use Google Alerts or Mention to find articles the person writes for other sites, or articles where the person is quoted, and leave thoughtful comments.

He or she will greatly appreciate the support--and the fact you provided it.

5. Offer to provide a credit reference. I realize this one is a little unusual and only applies to customers, but it can be very powerful.

Most suppliers ask for references before extending credit. If a customer has a solid history of paying on time, offer to serve as a reference if the customer sets up other credit relationships.

Just call and say, "We were asked to provide references to a vendor, and I thought about how great you are to work with. If you ever need someone to provide a credit reference, just let me know."

Even if the vendor never takes you up on the offer, you'll show you not only respect but also trust your customer.