What is customer engagement for? Your customers need engagement more than you do.

January 21, 2008

(This post first appeared in the 2nd Online Customer Engagement Survey Report by cScape and E-consultancy which you can download for free, registration needed, here.)

“We need to engage with our customers to improve our conversion, loyalty and retention metrics”, says a keen young marketing consultant in an annual departmental brain-storming session. “Well, yes, I’ve heard that results in good ROI”, says the budget-manager. “So what technologies shall we invest in? Blogs, RSS, wiki, social networking or viral?”

The company launches a project scoping exercise, brings in an agency, builds a business case, tests and refines it. The marketing department soon delivers a marvel of customer engagement widgets, which the CEO delights in mentioning to journalists as evidence of his innovative cojones … until one sceptic visits the cutting-edge community only to discover he is its first and only customer.

The plan went wrong with the budget manager’s first question.  Because the hidden assumption was that customer engagement is merely a bolt-on, technical solution for meeting the big, hairy performance target of the year. Engagement strategies can undoubtedly realise such aims – but not if they’re your starting point. This is likely to deliver a platform about as authentic and alluring as a nightclub chat-up line.

It only gets worse when the solution is scoped out as a technical device, even an IT resource, rather than as an organisational commitment to forging more valuable relationships with your customer. That fetishism for projects and deliverables is precisely the corporate nightmare we all recoil at when experiencing it from the outside, as customers. It doesn’t require too keen a sense of irony to appreciate why a customer engagement plan developed in isolation from customers might run into trouble. Connect first, then develop.

Start from the customer

Any customer engagement strategy that starts from a channel marketing perspective tends to fail because it treats engagement as an add-on to the existing marketing suite rather than as an operational necessity. In fact, engagement is a priority for your customer.

Valuable customer relationships only form around organisations that demonstrate a rich understanding of its audience members, in ways that touch those members so persuasively that they are keen to experience the relationships again.

Effective engagements are internalised by us as customers, becoming tradable tokens of our identity, symbols we actively desire to share with our peers to confirm the sensibilities we have in common.

To attain that level of engagement, the organisation must first profoundly understand what needs its customers have; then decide which of those needs it makes sense for it to attempt to answer, as a brand; and last but not least, assess those options in light of the capacity available to mobilise departments around consistent delivery of that answer. The web 2.0 vehicle, whatever form it takes, is merely the “front end” for a much deeper organisational alignment around the customer.

Meaningful relationships

Few of us consider ourselves to be part of a determinate community, political or social group, with settled values and predictable discretionary tastes. Instead we participate, with varying degrees of engagement, and for varying periods, in a range of possibly overlapping social groups – only partially identifying with most of the people we get to know there.

This forces us to engage in conscious search behaviour, to construct the networks that were once handed to us by our un-chosen communities. Web technologies fit that need perfectly. New parents far from their immediate families for instance can go online to find others who are in a similar position. Online, I can search, find and meet a cycling buddy from my neighbourhood within minutes. Conversely, consider approaching random cyclists on the street and hoping to get along – it just can’t happen offline.

Another consequence is that we come to “know” many more people than was typical in the past. Online social networking allows us to link up with multiple others – those links will be of varying strengths, but there is always a chance that even a weak connection could suddenly prove decisive.

Strength in many weak ties

Indeed, weak ties arguably offer the greatest opportunities to receive the kind of information that might lead to a job offer or a rewarding personal relationship: their low maintenance requirements allow us to plug in to a mass of sources. Just consider typical Facebook activities where we join multiple online groups and exchange brief messages with a range of people.  The expectations of these interactions are lower, but can lead to many more opportunities for making new connections. By contrast, our relatively small network of close ties is much more high maintenance – and more predictable.

Realising the power of weak ties encourages us to extend our networks yet further. Social networking technology helps as it involves onward referrals and searches along multiple dimensions (the book you’re currently reading, your life stage, your physical location), while easing the psychological anxieties associated with offline introductions.

The shopfront of Me

B.J. Fogg, of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, has observed that groups on Facebook are not especially group-like – we simply use membership for badging ourselves, as a prop to express our identity, a passing solidarity or just sharing a joke. Such devices help us construct and enrich a highly controlled, even narcissistic, performance of ourselves – a profile – at once satisfying and infinitely, insatiably open to modification.

Even when we are not online our profile is interacting: It’s telling visitors what we think is great, asking them what they think of us, if they are interested in us, if they think we are hot … but above all, it is always on. While you sleep, work, or loaf, someone may encounter your online self, from any of a million different directions – and offer you a job, a date or their friendship.

Starting with the customer

The first questions for would be customer-engagers should not be “what technology should we deploy?”, nor “how can we engage our audience?”, but instead:
“What is it that our customers are currently doing, where are they doing it and what do they want to achieve.” And guess what –  the best person to ask is … your customer.


One Response to “What is customer engagement for? Your customers need engagement more than you do.”

  1. […] What is customer engagement for? Your customers need engagement more than you do – 21 Jan 2009 This entry was posted in Customer Engagement and tagged customer engagment. Bookmark the permalink. LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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