You’ve sweated and toiled to create the coolest site on the Web. Your business plan’s a winner, and everything looks great. Now you can sit back and relax, right? Wrong! Until your site’s users—your customers—respond, you won’t know how good your site really is. If they see anything they don’t like, your customers will tell you. How well you listen can make or break your business.

There’s an old saying that a happy customer will tell five people about you, while an unhappy customer will tell twenty people. That was before the Internet and social media. Now, it couldn’t be easier for a single dissatisfied customer to complain to your advertisers, or alert hundreds or thousands of people to your shortcomings in a post or tweet. Building and maintaining positive relationships with your customers is crucial.

Good customer relations anticipates questions before your users even ask. Smart customer relations can actually help keep your direct support costs down. Here are nine keys to building and maintaining positive customer relations for your business:

  1. Be Prepared: Too often, customer relations plans are hastily developed when a crisis erupts. Forward-looking businesses craft a solid customer relations plan as an integral part of their product development and launch cycles. You want your customers’ first impressions to be good ones. And more important, you don’t want their first impression to be their last one as well.
  1. See Through Your Customers’ Eyes: Review your site critically, and get some outsiders who aren’t familiar with what you’re building to do likewise. Chances are you’re too close to your product to see it as it will be seen by real users under real-world conditions. Depending on your resources, you should consider formal usability testing in a real-world setting. But even a pizza-party-site-preview session for a dozen or so outsiders can be helpful, and the results may surprise you. You may not be able to resolve all the issues before your big launch, but at least you’ll know what they are.
  1. Provide Superior Support: Being responsive is not just about website design. Customer support is an absolutely essential part of every customer relations plan. Even if your site is fairly simple, you need to provide a way for visitors to ask questions and get timely answers. More sophisticated sites, with games, downloads, merchandise for sale, chat rooms, or other kinds of interactive content, will require more support. If you included a critical usability review in your pre-launch plans, you should already have a sense of what your users will see when they visit, and what they’re likely to ask. Be ready to respond by providing ample online help. If your site requires registration, don’t forget to provide easy, secure online means for updating personal information, resetting or replacing lost passwords, and so forth. Remember that the more help you offer before your customers resort to one-on-one contacts, the better for them and for your bottom line.
  1. Use Your Medium: You’re a Web-based business, so your first line of support should be online. First, help your customers help themselves by providing comprehensive FAQs and searchable knowledge bases. Depending on the nature and complexity of your site, your arsenal of direct support tools can include one-on-one email, chat sessions, and even actual customer questions with straightforward responses. You may need to offer support by telephone as well, especially if transactions are a part of your site, but be prepared for the added cost.
  1. Track Your Contacts: Plan on tracking your customer contacts so you can tell how you’re doing, and to spot trouble before it gets out of hand. As a rule, 80 percent of your contacts will come from less than 20 percent of your users. Good tracking can help you identify members of this “frequent contact” group so you can devise proactive ways to assist them without eating up your limited resources.
  1. Set a High Standard: Whatever direct customer support you provide, don’t forget that the Internet is an instant-gratification medium. Set a standard for responding to customer inquiries—within 24 hours or one business day if at all possible—and stick to it no matter what. If you have to get back to a customer in order to resolve a problem, make sure to tell them how soon you’ll be in touch with an answer.
  1. Plan for Crises: Don’t forget to plan for an operational crisis, because you’re likely to have one. The Web is built on technologies and standards that continue to evolve day by day. What works today may be broken tomorrow when your network provider installs an “upgrade,” or that essential server patch causes your entire site to crash into an nearly-unrecoverable mess. And don’t forget the next-generation desktop, tablet or phone-based browser, which you suddenly discover doesn’t support your existing site. Even the most careful systems administrators will encounter unanticipated problems. You may not know just what your particular crisis will be before it happens, but you can still prepare action plans to cover nearly any contingency.
  1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: The essential rule of good customer relations is “communicate.” If there’s a problem, you really can’t communicate too much. If your site is up but “broken,” post a prominent notice and update it as often as you can. If your site is down, set up an informative autoresponder message on your support email boxes and/or a notice on your support phone line and update it frequently. If you have a presence on social media (and you probably should), don’t forget to post your updates there as well. Your customers may not be happy with bad news, but they’ll appreciate the fact that you kept them informed. And once the crisis is over, don’t disappear! Continue to respond to any lingering concerns as quickly and completely as you can.
  1. Always Tell the Truth: This is extremely important. In all your contacts with customers, be forthright. If the news is not what your customers want to hear, you may be tempted to apply some “spin.” But be careful. Customers can smell spin, or worse yet, outright lies, a mile away. Your users will appreciate your honesty, even when it hurts, and they’ll be more inclined to stick with you through the rough spots if they think you’re dealing with them fairly. Finally, never try to snow customers with lines like, “We made these changes because we’re listening to you!” if that’s not absolutely true.

Remember, it’s much harder to restore lost customer confidence than it is to build and maintain a positive relationship from the start. Keeping your customers satisfied, and always treating them as you’d wish to be treated, will pay handsome dividends for you and your Web-based business.

Want to learn more about keeping your customers satisfied? Ask Andy.