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Building Customer Relations by Listening

Improving service at a small business starts with communication. Ask employees and clients what's working and what's not

Customer service is one area where small companies can outshine their competitors and cultivate intense loyalty among regular customers. But exceptional customer service goes beyond mere politeness into nuanced relationship building. Diane Berenbaum, senior vice-president of Communico, a Westport (Conn.) customer service consultancy, has just written How to Talk to Customers (Jossey-Bass, 2007) with her colleague Tom Larkin. She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about what makes a great impression on a customer and where some small-business owners miss chances to wow their clients. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Why is customer relations so important, particularly for small companies?Service is a real differentiator, no matter the size of the organization. Small companies particularly need to differentiate themselves because they don't have the advertising and exposure that larger firms do. One of the best ways to differentiate in your relationships with customers is to focus more on listening than on talking.