As an advisor to entrepreneurs, I find that I often have to remind them that the world of customers has changed since they started their last business.

Customer expectations of a relationship and personalization are stretching every business today, and pervasive use and confidence in social media by customers can override all your image building and marketing messages.

Of course, part of the change is that Gen Z (born after 1996) now outnumbers the Millennials (born after 1981).

But even the older Boomers have learned to use technology and social media as the source of expectations from your business, more so than your own traditional marketing.

I'm not suggesting that you abandon traditional advertising and image building efforts, but definitely it's time to supplement them to address the following changes that I recommend:

1. Meeting next generation expectations is key to survival.

Pushing yourself on customers by touting features and price doesn't work anymore. Today's customers want to be pulled to you by the positive feedback from others, and the positive image you present through good deeds, like Patagonia's work with environmental groups.

2. Use analytics to see why customers are buying, as well as what.

Most businesses use big data to analyze past transactions for volume and location, but they now need to look deeper.

I believe it's time for analysis of social media, and more detailed attention to customer feedback, complaints, and testimonials to better focus your offerings sooner.

3. Pursue a customer-centric strategy in everything you do.

Customers will remember you, and come back, if all their interactions feel painless and personalized.

We've all been frustrated with businesses that have multiple waiting lines, treated us impersonally, and made simple things complex. Rethink every process from a customer perspective.

4. Make customer trust the heart of your business model.

Although customers today are comfortable providing personal information in return for a better experience, they are also quick to write you off if you misuse the data, disclose it, or use it to push irrelevant products. Trust requires that you have a strong privacy policy in place, and use it.

5. Regularly ask your customers what they think and why.

Start with employees and executives who are willing to really listen to customers, and make them do it regularly.

Supplement this feedback with more formal modern satisfaction surveys, like the Net Promoter Score. Yet all of these do very little unless you follow-up and act on the input.​ 

6. Use new technology to personalize and expedite.

Too many businesses tolerate old systems, which may be slow or require extensive typing, rather than upgrade to devices that can move around the store, or identify a customer by name and interest, rather than a customer number.

Make shopping a satisfying experience, whether online or in-store. 

7. Hire, train, and reward employees who are customer-centric.

This process has to start at the top, and extend through all levels of your organization. Most importantly, total integration of all groups is the key to memorable customer experiences, with measurements and rewards aligned accordingly.​ 

8. Walk in your customer's shoes to check all interactions.

Periodically, you personally, as well as all key people in your organization need to accompany real customers as they interact with your business.

You need to experience first-hand what their needs are at each interaction, how well you meet them, and where opportunities for improvement lie.

Most importantly, don't get complacent. If you think your business has already turned the corner, just remember that customer expectations, competitors, and economic conditions will continue to turn corners, probably at an ever-increasing rate.

Your challenge is to keep up, without jeopardizing your ability to remain financially healthy and keep their trust.

Both Amazon and Zappos are prime examples of brands that are customer centric and have spent years creating a culture around the customer and their needs.

Not only does focusing on the customer make sound business sense, but research indicates that customer-centric companies can be up to 60% more profitable. How far have you come along this spectrum?

Published on: Dec 16, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.