thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

Is Engagement the Answer?

By on February 10, 2010


The concept of "engagement" is clearly winning the race for the hottest idea in customer consulting circles these days. It is overshadowing customer "experience" and customer "delight" in the pantheon of business improvement words. Be cautious, however, and don’t believe that a single word can change your operation.

Bob Gilbreath, in The Next Evolution of Marketing, shares the definitions of engagement put forward by the Advertising Research Foundation, Forrester Research and his own company, Bridge Worldwide. These and other consultants' descriptions all use words such as involvement and interaction and turning on a prospect and they explain the advantages for the supplier in terms of customer retention and recommendation. I have yet to see any of these manifestos explain the benefits that the customer receives.

These consultants and suppliers mean well. They are trying to invoke participation by customers in a community, which they, as a supplier, are willing to host. However, the advocates frame all of their literature around the belief that “active” customers are more loyal and will buy more and the cost of switching to a competitor increases over time. Isn’t that about the seller, rather than the customer?

Engagement, as commonly deployed, is too programmatic. It is transactional, not strategic. The problem is that when most organizations implement their version of engagement, it turns out to be one-way. It is from them to their customers, particularly in the realm of social media. How many companies are following the customers who are following them? Wouldn’t an engaged organization want to truly know about the customer they are trying to engage? It has become so diluted that the subliminal definition of collaboration or engagement is that the other party is buying from your company.

Over ten years ago, Seth Godin in Permission Marketing and Unleashing the Ideavirus, told us to “stop marketing AT people.” Rather than creating interruptions for customers, it is better to provide value that will grow your relationship with them. It’s a feeling of interdependence, not one-way. Value becomes the mortar to hold together the connection. The touchstone is that it must be on the customers’ terms, not yours, at a level that is both emotional and fun for them.

It is presumptive to believe that all customers want their supplier to be involved with them. I propose that Apple evangelists would still love the company because of its products and innovative thinking. Apple does not have to “manage” engagement because they build customer advocacy into everything they do.

Too often we become enmeshed with buzzwords to the point that we lose our objectivity. Engagement is a marketing term, an attempt to soften the words "selling" and "advertisement." Do not undertake an engagement program unless you can define how it will benefit the customer. There is a false belief that markets and customers will shift behavior in large groups if engagement is available. What lasts are the fundamental values in your organization to take care of customers as individuals. Are you customer-motivated, or are you focused only on a new way to sell? Is your engagement one-way, or, are you truly trying to interact with your customers?

Be very reluctant to toss the word "engagement" out casually. Eventually, the word will lose its impact. The better metaphor for connecting with customers is dance—cooperation with a partner for a single purpose. In this customer-centered view, you would not “win” and “keep” customers and they would not be opponents, but rather, partners, moving in the same direction, enjoying the moment together, interested in each other. The actions taken include anticipation of customer needs and performing together to achieve success. Carried out properly, customers will never want to leave you.


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