What is customer engagement?

29th Jun 2009

Building up customer engagement involves defining what your company stands for and orchestrating customer interactions like a perfect ballet, according to Jennifer Kirkby. She takes us through each scene...

An interruption
I’m busy, the telephone rings. I rush to answer it; I’m expecting a call. “Is that Jennifer Kirkby?” a young lady asks. She stumbles over my name; my suspicions are aroused. She’s from one of my credit card companies; I relax, they’ve won some ‘good service’ points with me recently. “This is a customer information call” she announces. I ask her what about? “Before I can tell you, can you give me the first line of your address?” “No”, I answer firmly “I’m not calling you, you’re calling me, and I don’t know you or what you want”. A silence indicates this is not in her script, she hangs up. So much for customer information. I’m annoyed at the interruption and feel a sense of achievement at defeating the system. If this was meant to engage me by using my data to make a predictive product offer it has failed miserably.

A service
Compare this to a call from the same company a few days previously – the reason I was initially more prepared to listen. They called to tell me that from February I had to use my pin number on all transactions. They didn’t ask for any personal data before talking to me, in fact they had sensed my annoyance at being interrupted whilst having dinner, and made an appointment to call back at a convenient time – which they did. This was impressively proactive; they knew I didn’t use my pin number, and were checking I had it. They had used my information for my benefit and I had given them ‘service’ points.

Engagement card
Now companies love giving loyalty cards, but few realise that their customers give them engagement cards in return. You may not have a piece of plastic but, make no mistake, an engagement card is in the head of every customer on your database. Customers exchange engagement points for personal information. The more I trust you as a supplier on my side, the more information I will willingly give you. If you learn from that information and use it wisely for my benefit, then you’ll get the really important feedback that will engage me, win my advocacy and differentiate you from your competitors. Lose points and I will give you nothing, I may well sabotage the information you do hold.

The engagement muddle
Winning customer points is the art of customer engagement, an area of strategic thinking spawned by the success of companies such as Harley Davidson, Starbucks and Tesco. Now, I’d like to just pause a moment and ask you to write down quickly what you think customer engagement actually means. For this important concept at the heart of real relationship building is being tossed around liberally and is well on its way to becoming jargon. Done? Well, I asked a group of experts to do the same – the answers demonstrated the mish-mash of understanding on the topic; many actually called for some clarity.

Interaction and interest
Some saw it as two way, customer-initiated, interaction ranging from call centre dialogue to the eBay community. Conversely, others viewed it as gaining proactive interest, like encouraging the collection of promotional devices such as Nescafe coffee beans; voting on the X Factor; or throwing a branded street party. But, collecting points or partying doesn’t mean I’m truly engaged – just taking advantage of an opportunity. Two-way interaction doesn’t mean I am interested, after all we’ve been interacting with our banks for years. Engagement must mean something more.

Advocacy and customisation
Some stressed the emotional state of customer advocacy in engagement, either via brand identification, like Apple, or experience like First Direct. But advocacy does not necessarily require interaction, as admirers of Ferrari know. Others pointed at interactive customisation, eg Vodafone’s customised radio service or Amazon book recommendations – but these do not necessarily mean advocacy.

Listen and learn
Some focused on the benefit of engagement: the means to get customers to listen and pay attention in a noisy market place. Others took the opposite view that it is a process by which the company listened, learned and acted to meet individual customer needs.

Engagement true north
All these definitions seem to reflect an aspect of customer engagement, but not the whole story, they need amalgamating. What does that mean for customer engagement in practice?

Defining what your company stands for, and orchestrating customer interactions like a perfect ballet (communications, products, services) to build up engagement. Interactions should themselves be engaging and encourage customer and staff interest and participation. Customer engagement necessitates companies listening to customers, accumulating knowledge and learning from each interaction in order to create more personalised value; it results in a state where the customer feels the company is on their side – and the company’s engagement card is full.


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