Customer service, please hold.”

I always dislike making a phone call to a store or doctor’s office or any other service provider and being met with this rushed greeting, followed by the abrupt switch to hold music. I barely have time to take a breath and state my reason for calling before I am cut off and put into a waiting queue.

The whole point of a phone call, after all, is a chance for some interaction, solving a problem or requesting a service. Email and a company’s website and social media already provide me with places I can find out information without any verbal dialogue. I’ve already done that homework. Usually, when someone picks up the phone, they have questions that can’t be answered by an automated list of choices or FAQs. Or they have already decided they want the services advertised because, like most consumers today, they did their online homework and they just want to ask a couple of final questions before they move forward.

Today, mechanization is the norm, and this stiff, less-than-friendly tone has even leaked into the people who actually do answer the phone once you get past the robots.

In essence, companies that implement these procedures with a desire to save their customers’ time and create customer bonds instead widen the gap and grow more out of touch with what their clients really want.

It all comes back to the importance of client communication, says Daniel Currin, president of Greenscape, Holly Springs, N.C. The company added nine commercial landscape management clients in the past two months and 30 employees in the past two years.

Currin says the key to the company’s success is providing customers with a client relations manager, dedicated to the site, who visits the job once a week to answer client questions or concerns.

The company also thinks of itself as a landscape marketing company, Currin says. “We are always asking, ‘How do we create a more engaging outdoor space to attract and connect people?’ We are trying to understand how our clients use the landscaping, then help them design, build and create engaging spaces,” he shares.

Asking is the key.

A company can’t define the best customer service strategy without its customers; its customers define it. Asking clients what they want gives you knowledge into how you should structure your customer service procedures.

After all, a sale is a conversation between two people – whether in person, on the phone or online. How can you make these conversations matter?

Author Dale Carnegie, famous for his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” said the secret to sales success is being genuinely interested in other people.

He said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

That could be why “the best salespeople spend 80 percent of their time listening, not talking,” says Marc Willson, a retail and restaurant consultant for the Virginia SBDC network. He recommends asking customers open-ended questions to elicit their needs and wants.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started from Neil Newcomb, owner of Event Learning, a customer service solutions company.

1. Check each customer’s pulse. “Every time you interact with a customer, in person or over the phone, initiate a quick discussion to gauge how they are feeling,” Newcomb says. It provides you with insight and demonstrates to customers you care about service.

2. Check each employee’s pulse. Your people are the ones closest to your customer. Collect and use their wisdom.

3. Define your customer service beliefs and laws. Make sure everyone is on the same page. “Make sure everyone who interacts with a customer lives and breathes the ‘law’ of customer service on every occasion,” Newcomb says.

4. Know your customers’ obstacles. Watch your customers’ movements and behavior to learn what it is like to be a customer of your business.

5. Collect customer data. To keep customers connected to your organization, collect names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

6. Look at your employment policy. “Hire largely for a positive, upbeat and enthusiastic outlook and train for the rest,” Newcomb advises.

7. Establish success measures. Determine core customer service measures of success, such as customer turnover or spend per customer, and track them.

8. Communicate. To last, a customer service improvement campaign has to be “reinforced, learned and practiced continually,” Newcomb says.

Now is the perfect time to tweak your customer service strategy for 2014 to get the maximum benefit. In fact, 86 percent of consumers would be willing to pay 25 percent more for a better client experience, according to a RightNow/Harris Interactive survey.

Stand out and join those companies in 2014.

Nicole Wisniewski is a 16-year green industry veteran and a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.’s marketing/corporate communications department. Reach her at [email protected].