Consider that years ago, back when the concept of customer intimacy sounded like something that could get you fired, I was fighting an uphill battle just trying to get merchants to understand something a lot less sexy: the power of customer data.

I recall one presentation, when a skeptical retail executive scoffed at my results. “How many of our customers were captured in this study?” he asked. “Two hundred, 500 or 1,000?” I told him, “roughly 689,375.”

Twenty years later, that merchant and I are still working together, though the landscape has changed markedly. Loyalty is now a multi-billion-dollar, global industry spanning most every industry. And customers have much higher expectations regarding the value exchange that occurs when they share information.

Repeat business and longevity

For instance, I have a friend who used to shop at the same grocery store almost every week, and every week she complained: the tore layout was cumbersome, the employees were ill informed, and she was often overcharged on sale items.

Yet every week she returned, using her loyalty card that recorded all of her purchases, even though the coupons she got in return were rarely for products she purchased. My friend was hardly loyal, though I have a hunch the merchant thought she was. In fact, I bet a lot of companies define “loyal customers” by repeat business and longevity.

It would be a mistake to confuse repeat business with customer loyalty, or intimacy. Repeat business may be the simple result of location, price, service or product. It also is driven by routine, needs and availability. Customer intimacy, meanwhile, is when a customer chooses to stay with a brand even when an equal or potentially better alternative is available.

How is customer intimacy achieved, then? My guide includes four basic, but important, steps:

Build emotional loyalty

Know what your best customers love about you and build on that.

Ensure you are relevant to your customers

Resonate with your customers through a differentiated experience.

Use data responsibly

When consumers share personal information with you, they are entering into a value exchange. Give them something of worth in return for the data they give you.

Make the loyalty leap

Get organization-wide commitment to redirect your focus from the product to the consumer. These four steps should enable most any merchant to hold on to its customers, even in the face of worthy competition. Take my friend. She eventually dropped her nearby supermarket in favor of a merchant that is further from home and no less expensive, but it responds to her shopping patterns with offers and services that are relevant.

It took a leap of faith on her part, and some responsible data use on the part of the new merchant, but now she is much happier.