Too many business owners still think of "customer service" as an after-sale process to rectify customer problems with completed transactions. The world has changed.

With the advent of instant communication and social media, customer service starts at the first hint of interest by you, and never ends for repeat customers. One bad customer experience will kill not only one customer, but many future ones, who hear the message via social media and friends.

For example, the days are gone when simply replacing a purchase or giving your money back was considered premium service. Now, if your web site is not clear and clean, or you don't have a chat robot for a product question online, you may be abandoned as providing poor customer service, just as certainly as having to wait in a long product exchange line after the holidays.

Now customer service is called the "customer experience," and everyone is expecting you to actually anticipate their personal needs, and totally delight them with all aspects of the shopping experience, price versus value, as well as help with any follow-on questions or problems.

Big companies and small, from Amazon to Zappos, have set the bar high along the following lines:

1. Customer service must be available to customers at all times.

Even small businesses can now easily be global in scope, and available 24x7 online.

Customers expect you to provide access via their mobile devices, as well as being responsive to sales and support questions on social media and multiple Internet channels and partners at their whim.

2. Company amazingly finds you based on your interests.

No one likes to be blasted by TV and online ads for products you have no interest in, but we all love to be pleasantly surprised by memorable deals nearby on favorite clothing styles or food tastes.

The best companies do their homework first to find the customers who will appreciate their service.

3. Technology enhances experience, not impedes it.

We have all been annoyed by the airline agent who seems to type forever into a slow computer, or repeatedly asks for information already known.

Amazon introduced the one-click order button and overnight delivery, which has reset the bar for all other businesses in processing transactions.

4. Customer sees you as a relationship, not a brand.

The days of loyalty to a name brand are over, so every company has the same potential to reach out and build relationships with customers.

Customers expect to be in control, remembered, and treated uniquely, every time they need support or come back for additional business.

5. The marketing metrics covers support as part of experience.

If your marketing metrics and budget ignore the fact that you have call center queues thirty minutes long, or no coverage of online reviews or social media, your customer service is not keeping up with competitors. Zappos, for example, counts the number of new customer relationships established, not minutes on the site.

6. Customer experience starts with user-centric product design.

The standard today for new products is that if it requires a user manual, that is considered a failure. Product usage by your target audience should be intuitive, and the elegance of the packaging, such as that provided by Apple, which always reflects the sleek, user-friendly experience of the product inside, is as important as the product itself.

7. Show empathy and empowerment in handling customers.

Every person in your organization needs to be committed and able to make decisions for enhancing customer relationships. Ritz-Carltons, for example, encourage employees, once they're fully trained, to spend up to $2,000 per guest to solve a guest issue or improve a guest's stay.

8. Make it easy for customers to help themselves and each other.

Customers today want to be in control and help themselves. They also like to hear from other customers, and even help others. That means facilitating customer online forums, special events, and contacts, where they can share experiences, and answer questions for each other.

Ultimately, your experience is your brand and it's no longer possible to separate customer support from the overall customer experience. Both are part of the relationship that you build with your customers, and these can be the key to an amazing advocacy, or the tag of poor customer service.

It up to you to meet customers on their own terms, and they will reward you for doing it.

Published on: May 21, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.