The more you know about your customers--what challenges they face, what their long-term goals are--the better you can serve them and the stronger your relationship with them will be. It's now easier for companies to gather more kinds of data about customers, and to act on it in ways that produce a variety of pay-offs. As you develop your action plan, bear in mind that:

1. You don't have to worry that you're behind.

Despite substantial buzz about "big data" and analytics, the fact is that most companies have only begun to scratch the surface. Even among retailers, an industry with ready access to volumes of data on customers, less than half of companies say they have had a satisfactory strategy in place for more than two years, and those tend to be the largest, most global retailers.

2. You may already have the tools you need.

Today's customer-relationship management (CRM) products have dropped in cost and easier to use, thanks to the surfeit of competition that cloud computing has ushered in. The real challenge is to get everyone in your company on the same system and using it to capture all relevant data. Some companies have modified their incentive programs to drive consistent usage.

3. New technologies allow you to partner with your customers.

Nothing makes a customer feel as valued as enlisting their help in designing your next product or service. New tools such as Google SketchUp, Mechanical Turk from Amazon, and others provide a very engaging way to collaborate with customers on future products. Use customer councils, focus groups and other forms of face-to-face contact to recruit customers for such efforts, and use the new tools to keep them involved.

4. You should aim to build "moats" around your customers.

The more you know about customers, the more you can move away from selling one-off products or services toward more richly integrated offerings. Howard Tullman, an adjunct professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, calls this "building moats" and explain it this way: "As you gather more information about customers you may be able to offer quasi-managerial services, such as regulatory compliance, because you understand the full scope of their needs." When Elaine Osgood, CEO of Atlas Travel, saw her corporate clients begin to migrate to low-cost online booking, she used the data she had gathered on their travel spending to create a new cost-benchmarking service. She lost no clients and gained many new ones. "But I still talk to them all the time," she says. "It was by listening to them that I learned how frustrated they were by the lack of benchmarking tools."