Most business professionals understand that customer engagement plays a critical role in their world, but if you ask a roomful of executives to define it, it’s likely you’ll get at least slightly different answers.
For clarity’s sake, it’s always good to consult the experts. Paul Greenberg, president of the 56 Group LLC—who’s written and spoken widely on customer engagement strategies and technologies—defines it as “the ongoing interactions between company and customer, offered by the company, chosen by the customer.”
And in agreement is Brent Leary, cofounder of CRM Essentials, who refers to it as the process of interacting throughout different parts of the relationship, channels and devices, and life stages, as both the company and customer evolve over time.
According to these experts and others, effective customer engagement is essential to both acquiring and keeping clients. But with the exponential growth of available technologies, as well as changes in customer behaviors, preferences, and expectations, engagement is harder to get right than ever before.
In recent years, “engagement’s main philosophy has stayed the same,” Leary says. “You want to be able to connect with your customer and engage them over time in a way that creates value for both sides. But everything else has changed around it: the speed of interaction, the amount of interaction, the style of interaction.”
People are now exposed to more noise than ever, and it is coming at them from all imaginable directions. According to Rusty Warner, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, nearly two thirds of North Americans are what the research firm refers to as “always addressable”—that is, they admit to using their phone or tablet, when they’re away from home, to connect to the internet at least several times a day. And, “as we’ve become always addressable, we have higher buying power as consumers—and that’s great for us as consumers—but it does make it incredibly difficult to the brands that are trying to engage with us,” Warner said earlier this year during the CRM magazine web event “Mastering Intelligent Customer Engagement in the Digital Age.”
Because customers have grown to expect a more substantial presence from the brands they interact with, as well as the immediate attention of these companies, the frequency of communication between business and customers has also increased dramatically. This is especially true for companies that operate under month-to-month subscription models and are repeatedly being asked to prove their value to customers, Leary says. If, by the end of a month, the company is not delivering, a customer has the freedom to drop its services in favor of a competitor’s.
And behavior patterns are ever-changing and confusing. “We know that our behavior has changed,” Warner said. “If you don’t believe that, just think about Uber or Airbnb, and imagine yourself five years ago, waiting in the rain outside a restaurant, ringing up a complete stranger on your phone who picks you up in a beat-up, late-model sedan and takes you to a stranger’s house, where you’re going to spend the night couch-surfing. We just wouldn’t consider doing those things, and now we do it as a matter of routine.”
Our personal relationships and communications are managed naturally through a variety of channels, in an organic and often unpredictable manner whose patterns cannot be easily anticipated. While two people may meet each other virtually through a mutual friend on Twitter, they may only begin to get to know each other on Facebook chat, and transition to email before speaking on the phone, Skyping, or holding a Google Hangout session to arrange a date where they finally meet in person. This is to say that, as Warner pointed out in his presentation, people are rarely thinking about the channels they are using. Their tendencies are just unconscious reflexes, part of what their lives have become.
In light of all this, understanding how to reach customers effectively is no simple task. Leary notes that today, there is a higher risk of over-engaging customers than under-engaging them, due to the high number of avenues through which they might be reached.