A first impression. A moment of bonding. An incident that rubs you the wrong way. All of these scenarios contribute to the opinions you form about the people you encounter.
Customers experience the same thing each time they interact with your company. They either come away feeling valued--or duped by how your company treats them. Their decisions to do future business with you are entirely based on that opinion-forming instant in time.
So what can you do to make sure your customers get the right perception?
Cut the bullshit.
Customers are real people. They have names and needs, and they want to feel that they matter to your company. Rightfully so! Don't read to them from a script, gloss over their requests, or undermine their intelligence. They deserve to be heard completely, to be answered honestly, and to be helped with care. Make sure your customer service team is composed of people who pay close attention, who truly believe that they are on a mission to make the world a better place one customer at a time, and who solve all problems as though their life depended on getting the customer the best outcome. Customers have a choice where they spend their money; how you treat them is the most important ingredient in helping them decide.
Pick your words wisely.
Vocabulary is powerful. Lots of companies use words the wrong way, distorting the real dynamic of the customer relationship with pretentiousness or smooth talking. If you own a hospitality-type business, for example, and you refer to your customers as "guests," that's OK. If, on the other hand, you own a retail store and you call customers "guests," stop it! The truth is, they're not guests, but customers who pay your salary. For that reason, they have the right to be treated as what they are: business partners. They're not visitors you are momentarily glad to see, but do not want to overstay their welcome. Distorting your description of their role spells out from the start that your company has no idea how to interact truthfully with them. Keep the customer dynamic simple by empowering your team to speak to the client in the way that person is most comfortable being addressed.
Own your imperfections.
Customers understand that no one, and no company, is perfect. And because they know that, they are willing to cut your company slack for an occasional problem--IF you handle it correctly. Don't lie about what happened, don't pass the buck to some unforeseen disaster, or to some other colleague or department at fault. And whatever you do, don't tell them that as a "one-time courtesy," you will make it right for them. It is not a courtesy to fix a problem; it's an important part of the customer relationship that you, your team, and company are responsible for. A customer who brings an issue to your attention doesn't want lip service, he wants action. Give it to him with grace and humility, and he will give you another chance.
These things may seem obvious, but ask yourself how many of the companies you buy from actually stand by these commandments, and you will likely find the answer to be very few. Giving customers what they want is not rocket science; it's about getting back to basics.