I have researched, studied and written about customer service for more than 25 years, and there are only two things I know for sure:

First, I don't define customer service, and you don't either.

Only your customers can.

The second thing I know is thatcustomer service is becoming more important every day.

As we automate more and more interactions with our customers--"press two for this" or "please tell us how we did by hitting one, two, three, four, or five on your phone"--we have fewer and fewer interactions with real, live customers, and we get less and less actual feedback. (The automated choices only let people respond to the questionsweask, they don't give customers the chance to tell us whattheywant to.)

As a result, we grow more and more out of touch, even though that is not our intention.

Before I give you my one simple rule for creating customers for life, let's take a quick step back and review why customer service creates customer retention (which in turn creates greater profits.)

If you can turn a one time buyer into a life-time customer, six things happen and all of them are good.

1. Your sales go up.People have a reason to dobusinesswith you.

2. If you are helped(i.e., your sales go up), the competition is hurt.(Their sales go down.)If people are spending money with you, they are not spending that same money with the people you are competing against.

3. They stay with you longer. Acquiring customers is always an expensive undertaking. If you take care of yourexisting customers, they have fewer reasons to leave you.

4. That loyalty buildsa barrier to competition. If you have done a good job taking care of your customers, it is going to be difficult for your competition to lure them away.

5. It is easier to get customers to buy more.This is simply the flip side of the last point. It is always easier to sell additional products and services to people with whom you already have a good relationship.

6. You can achieve higher margins. If you have made your customers happy, they will bewilling to pay a bit more for what you offer. You can't gouge them, of course. But they will be a bit less price sensitive. Most people really do believe, as I do, that you get what you pay for.

Okay, you are convinced that customer service can be an effectivebusinessstrategy. So, what is the one rule I promised?

That's simple:

You ask customers what they want and you give it to them.

Both parts of that sentence are equally important.

You have to ask because as we said at the outset, you don't define customer service and I don't either. The only person who does is your customer. That's why you have to ask them what they want.

And once they tell you, you have to provide it (for free if possible; at a fair price if it is not.)

Starting down the road to providing excellent service really is as simple as that.