Ode to engagement

It used to be simple,
Then it got complicated.
Now it’s personal but
Tomorrow that’s just not good enough!
These four lines sum up the past, present and future challenges facing companies seeking to engage with current and potential customers.

Let me explain.

It used to be simple: remember when customers had to call into your shop or office to do business with you during hours the company determined to suit themselves. Few are old enough to remember that banks and some shops used to close at lunchtime and almost always on Sundays. Companies set the rules, opening times and how they would interact; they held all the power and customer choice was to buy from them or not. In some cases, customers didn’t even have that choice, with some companies operating actual or effective local monopolies – you shopped where you lived. Even companies that had competitors didn’t put the customer first. Everything was designed from the company perspective in what was often a win-lose relationship: companies won; customers lost.

Then it got complicated: the Internet changed the game, notably on availability and price transparency. Massive growth of e-commerce spawned hundreds of alternative sources of supply. Now customers had real choice, which gave them real power. They forced companies to respond by making it easier to do business with them, penalising those that did not by switching suppliers. New types of businesses – intermediaries and comparison sites – appeared that made the task of comparing prices and offerings much easier. The customer had someone to do the leg-work for them.

Social media became an almost overnight “must-have” as companies scrambled to respond to the conversations customers were having without them. A mix of fear over battered reputations and opportunities for greater sales led more enlightened companies to embrace the social explosion and extend their dialogue with customers.

This growth in how customers wanted to communicate highlighted the weaknesses in how companies were organised, with separate teams (often separate businesses) responsible for different channels of communication and where customer data sat in separate systems. As customers gained access to more and more ways of communicating they forced suppliers to drop the “my way is the only way” approach. A multi-channel contact strategy became a must-have, transforming call centres into contact centres, although in many cases the change was in name only as companies still stuck to the tried and tested ways they preferred. Complex menu and IVR systems were introduced in the name of “customer choice” when the real reason was to increase productivity and reduce costs for the business.

Now it’s personal: customers have long complained about being treated like a number, not a person and count “not knowing me” as one of the biggest frustrations when dealing with companies. It is now 28 years since Rogers and Peppers introduced the concept of one-to-one marketing. They described it as: “being willing and able to change your behaviour toward an individual customer based on what the customer tells you and what else you know about that customer. ”

Given the massive growth in communications, companies now have the opportunity to know customers much better. Few, however, have invested in bringing together the single view of the customer that underpins the concept of one-to-one, a concept that has applicability far beyond marketing. In many companies, customers are fragmented by siloed data and even more siloed managerial mentalities. How can marketing or a customer experience be personal if the picture and the premise on which it is based are fragmented?

This leads to customers being frustrated by a supplier’s inability to join up their offerings and communications into a coherent whole: to deal with the person, not just the immediate issue in front of them. That falls well short of personalisation. As a minimum, customers expect companies to be able to capture all relevant information about their relationship once and use that information to deliver offers, communications and service that meet their needs.

Personal engagement, be it marketing or experience based, is built on personal information and customers rightly expect their data to be held safely and used ethically. Losing or abusing this important, personal resource kills a relationship.

Built on an holistic view of the customer and outside-in thinking is today’s state of the art for personal engagement but a level of maturity and capability few have achieved. But ….

Tomorrow, that’s just not good enough: tomorrow we will have to go beyond one-to-one to drive meaningful and sustainable engagement based on customer context. Context extends understanding the customer to include their needs at a specific point in time. The only difference between value and junk is timing: valued communications/interventions reach the customer (or prospect) when the need they address is front-of-mind, perhaps even when the customer has not specifically expressed that need. Valued interventions are, from the customer’s perspective, timely and helpful; otherwise, they are intrusive and objectionable. The first strengthens engagement; the latter destroys it.

This deep understanding is generated by two sources of insight. The first is a much richer view of the customer, one that embraces and integrates multiple sources of data into a comprehensive, single view. The second is based on the search for patterns in aggregate data sets. What has worked for customers with similar profiles in the past? What actions and outcomes have created true advocates? What combination of data points lead to long-term, satisfied customers?

There are three, closely connected keys to successful context-based engagement.

● It is mutually beneficial; the communication or action benefits the customer and the company. This benefit may not be concurrent – one might gain more at a point in time, but over the longer term, both gain.

● It is based on an holistic view of the customer: a rich and comprehensive data set that uses data, inference and predictive analytics to highlight the most appropriate action.

● It is event-, not time-driven: the engagement takes place when it is right for the customer, not some arbitrary campaign timeline or anniversary.

Companies that master context-based engagement have the opportunity to steal a march, to deliver an experience that meets the fundamental needs of their chosen customers and thereby create a degree of loyalty that will be difficult for others to compete with. They may not be unassailable, but they will be formidable competitors.

Note: This blog first appeared on Engage Customer

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