No matter how much time you spend poring over sales numbers, they won't tell you which customers really love you. Sure, repeat buyers might be head over heels for your products, but are they really devoted to your brand, or will they quickly jump ship for a competitor's offer? Half of consumers are willing to switch brands if their needs aren't anticipated, according to Salesforce.

True brand loyalty isn't just about having people clamoring for your solutions; it's about having customers who are emotionally invested in your company's success.

Getting consumers to that point takes work--relationship work. You can start by treating everyone who shows an interest in your organization like a friend. Friends are the kind of people who provide unwavering loyalty and support, even without special perks.

The Benefits of Friendship

Want to start a heated debate? Pit a die-hard Trader Joe's fan against a Whole Foods enthusiast. Each will tout the benefits of his or her trusted preference, simply out of affinity. Ironically, both stores sell similar items--as do other groceries. The difference lies in the subtleties of the experience.  

This type of advocacy comes with many benefits for businesses. Notably, loyal customers will give a brand they love a chance to fix mistakes, rather than just leaving at the first sign of a problem.

Developing tighter relationships with customers adds up to something Mark Bradley, President of creative agency Bradley and Montgomery, calls "Leverageable Loves." These are the (typically subconscious) emotions, motivations, and associations that form a recipe for brand affinity that is strong and stable. Bradley explains, "These loves are important to tap into because consumers want to be treated as individuals, not sales numbers.

Getting Buddy-Buddy With Customers

Of course, you can't expect a friendship with customers to happen without effort. Here's how you can get closer with both buyers and prospects.

1. Base your friendship on honesty.

When you ask friends for their opinions, you expect honest answers that will prevent you from making a mistake or embarrassing yourself. Your relationship with consumers should be honest too. Maura Smith, senior vice president of marketing at Pepperjam, recommends gathering unfiltered market feedback, even if it stings. As she points out, "Honest feedback uncovers blind spots and provides objectivity that can help you accelerate or correct course for major initiatives."

Positive feedback is nice, but it isn't nearly as valuable as constructive, critical insight. Collecting feedback in any form--via interviews, surveys, etc.--will provide immense value, as long as it's honest. To help customers feel safe telling it like it is, provide consumers with anonymity through online surveys or third-party vendors.

2. Show your friends that you really care.

In friendship and in business, lip service won't get you loyalty. Truly caring about the customer and their experience is what matters. Start with simple niceties like "please" and "thank you"; you'd be surprised at how unusual it is for companies to show good manners to their constituents as a policy. Want more ways to show you care? Generate policies and processes that make lives easier, not harder.

For instance, you might want to switch up your returns policies so people don't have to jump through hoops to return unwanted merchandise. Ikea has this down to a science with its 365-day return policy. As long as merchandise is in decent condition, the company takes it back within a year. Similarly, Lands' End doesn't drive customers to madness just to get rid of an unwanted item.

3. Keep your promises.

Do not go back on your word. Period. We've all had friends who keep canceling plans. Eventually, we back-burner those relationships. The same thing happens in business. If you tell a customer you'll be at their door between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., don't arrive at 9:10 a.m. Consumers know respect when they see it, and keeping your promises is a great way to show you value their time.

So, what happens when you do make a mistake or can't live up to a promise? Fall on your sword and communicate immediately. Like with a friend, an apology goes a long way to defuse the situation and will make the customer feel both heard and valued.

In the end, you will find more long-term success counting on friends than simply counting sales.