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Do you know that both Google and Facebook know who you are, what you browse and what ads you click on? Consumers seem to have allowed this final barrier to their privacy fall without a fight. Perhaps they don’t even know!

Now that you do know, do you care? Do you think your customers care that you follow them? That you identify them and scrutinize their habits? Whether or not you do, I believe that we should all adhere to a number of best-practices which I share below, to respect our customers. After all, without them, we don’t even have a business!

Companies who are truly customer centric know that it is important to build a mutually beneficial relationship where there is something for both parties to gain from exchanging information and services. Too many businesses ask too much of their customers with little if any benefit in return for the customer. The increased automation of this subtle following online of our every move may have quietened concern in the past couple of years. But I still think it is useful to remember the major points to keep in mind when you want to collect information about your customers. Yes, you can argue that it helps you to provide them with better products and services but they still have the right to know.

1. Ask Permission to Gather Information

Whether you are connecting with your customers by mail, the phone, through email or over the web, you need to first request permission to ask questions and gather the information you need. Not only should you ask for permission, but if you are not in direct personal contact, but connecting via email or the web, you should also double-check that permission has indeed been given by your customer and that they are still in agreement to provide information.

Being attentive to privacy when starting to build a relationship with your customers is vital and shows your respect for them. It also means asking them to confirm their agreement not once, but twice. Double opt-in ensures that your customer is correctly identified and that they have indeed themselves requested to provide or receive information and to be put on your mailing list.

2. There Must be Mutual Benefit

When your customer has agreed to provide information you need to thank them in return immediately. This can be as simple as offering coupons for your products, some valuable information not easily available elsewhere, a free guide or e-book on a relevant topic, or special privileges.

Another thing to keep in mind is not to overwhelm them by asking everything in one go. As your objective should be to build a long-term relationship, you can easily complete the information you require ver time. This also has the added advantage of keeping the conversation more frequent than it might otherwise have been.

3. Make them Feel Special

More and more brands now offer a club membership, especially to their higher-value consumers. These usually provide more targeted privileges and even give customers the opportunity to preview new communication or product concepts.

This is probably one of the more intimate and bigger win-win relationships that can be developed with your customer. However, it does take a dedicated team, ideally within your organization, to manage such a club. These customers are naturally the most demanding for services and are the most interested in your offers, so expect to receive regular updates and breaking news before everyone else.

4. Keep the Relationship Fresh

Once you start building the relationship with your customers, you must continue to interest them by offering news, information, photos, videos or articles of interest. This can be quite a strain on internal resources, so you may want to (also) consider including customer generated content.

Not only does this ensure continuously updated content, but also involves the customer in what is shown, so that it remains relevant and of interest to them. People love to post and comment, so include message boards, tip sharing platforms or photo albums, whatever is relevant to your brand and your targeted customers.

5. Ask Their Advice Frequently

For your customers to appreciate how much you value them and their business, involve them in it. Ask for feedback on how you are doing. If you have new ideas or plans, share details with them or enable them to vote for new flavors, concepts or advertising ideas.

You can also enable them to preview the ads or products before they are launched, but do make sure you provide them with some great information about the offers too. After all, you want them to share the information with their friends and family members, don’t you? This will make them feel like the special and valued customer they are, and also enable them to talk about this to their acquaintances. If you want the ideas to remain secret, then it would be better to get feedback from a carefully screened online panel.

6. Always Offer a Simple Way Out

Once you have made the connection with your customers, recognize that they might change their minds and want to unsubscribe from your club or mailing list. Make this as quick and simple a process as possible. This shows respect for your customer and their time, and also enables them to leave with a positive opinion of you and the brand. You never know, they might change their minds and stay after all, or come back again in the near future.

7. Treat Them as Individuals

I hesitated whether to make this the first or the last point. We all crave to be treated as an individual and receive special recognition and services. Therefore, although all the above points apply to every one of your customers, this last one is really a summary of them all. Do you remember The Golden Rule? “Treat others how you want to be treated.” Nowhere does this apply more than in business and how you treat your customers.

It is amazing how we happily “take off” our consumer hats when we arrive in our offices. We accept things in business we would never accept in our “real” lives or those of our family and friends. Why? My favorite solution to this is to ask yourself, whenever you take a decision “what would our customers think about the decision we’ve just taken?” If they wouldn’t agree, then you probably need to reconsider it.

This is why I decided to place this point last. It is to me the most important one of all. Do you agree? If not, why not?

With so much choice available to customers today, it is our responsibility to build an engaging and respectful relationship with them. If there is no trust, there may soon be no sales!

What other ways do you show respect for your own customers? Please share your best examples below in the comments.