The new study shows that by fully engaging customers, companies can convert "just purchasers" into people who are more connected with the brand.
The concept of customer engagement has been explored for years, but with increasing corporate customer experience (CX) efforts and increasing channels for customer interaction, understanding what customer engagement means, why it matters, who excels and why, and how your organization can drive higher levels of customer engagement has never been more important. To answer these questions, CX Solutions and Voice Crafter collaborated on the “Comprehensive Benchmark Study of Customer Engagement” (see box). Here are some of the high-level findings.
What Is Customer Engagement Really?
Many attempts have been made to define customer engagement. However, taken together, all of the definitions seem to suggest that customer engagement is comprised of two critical elements.
- Affinity: feelings of liking or attraction
- Activation: engaging behavior
Measures of affinity were incorporated into the study by asking customers how likely they would be to repurchase and recommend a brand to others, as well as measures of emotional attachment to a brand, such as pride in the brand and willingness to go out of their way to purchase the brand.
The other key component of customer engagement is activation, or the behavioral side of customer engagement. Measures of activation were included in the study by asking about repeat purchasing, but also behaviors beyond purchase, such as actual referrals, following and posting about a brand on social media, actively attempting to organize and participate in brand-based communities, and participating in brand-sponsored public or charitable events.
In effect, affinity is what holds customer attention and keeps customers focused on a brand. Activation takes the form of continued transactions and interactions with a brand, as well as attempts to get and keep other current and potential customers engaged with that brand.
Why Should You Care?
With so many concepts (such as satisfaction, loyalty, etc.) and so many metrics (such as net promoter score, customer effort score, etc.) to choose from, why should organizations focus on customer engagement?
The answer is simple: Customer engagement may impact business results in more ways than satisfaction, loyalty or willingness to recommend. It’s true that highly engaged customers continue to purchase from or do business with a brand, and they recommend the brand to others by word of mouth (WOM) and online communications. However, highly engaged customers also exhibit a variety of other behaviors that go beyond the ones jus mentioned, such as actively building and engaging in brand-based communities or events, making a brand an integral part of the customer’s own identity and lifestyle (such as a Harley Davidson tattoo), or providing positive feedback and suggestions to the brand.
The results of the study reveal that highly engaged customers exhibit many of the loyalty behaviors described earlier. For example, highly engaged customers are three times more likely to repurchase—and to be willing to recommend a brand—than those that are not highly engaged (Chart 1). And highly engaged customers do not just intend to recommend; most actually have recommended the brand, significantly more than customers who are not highly engaged (Chart 2).
So, highly engaged customers are loyal customers, in thought (intention) and in action (buying and recommending). But the story doesn’t end there. Highly engage customers also use multiple available channels to stay connected to a brand and brand-based communities, such as visiting the company’s website and following the company on Facebook or Twitter (Charts 3 and 4). It’s clear that customer engagement matters because it is good for a brand—leading to increased loyalty (repurchase/WOM) and increased and sustained customer’s physical and psychological “presence” in their relationship with a brand.
What Drives Customer Engagement?
Based on the study results, three key elements can be identified as differentiators and drivers of customer engagement.
- High-touch service from employees: Employees are consistently highly engaged, genuine and proactive in their customer interactions.
- Customer-friendly technology: The company consistently approaches technology improvements from a customer usability standpoint and only implements technology that will have a significant impact on improving the customer experience.
- Effective response to critical incidents: The company has processes in place to efficiently and effectively handle non-routine incidents, such as complaints, claims and emergency response. Customers who receive outstanding service during these critical incidents are significantly more loyal than customer who never even experienced a critical incident.
Driving High-Touch Service
One of the key elements that differentiate companies that have a high level of customer engagement is high-touch service by employees. So how can companies drive that high-touch service? While there are many factors, one of the keys is great training and coaching.
Most companies have new-hire training programs that provide guidance and direction regarding products, services, policies, technology, etc. For employees who are customer facing, additional behavioral training is also sometimes incorporated.
Unfortunately, many companies focus only on process, procedure and technology training. Having these elements in place is definitely a step in the right direction, but behavioral training is much deeper and becomes the key to going to the next level.
Customer engagement training focuses on elements such as a kind, caring and genuine voice tone, proper body language (if face-to-face), use of empathy, active listening, rapport building and the list goes on. This is training that connects the employee to the customer and, ultimately, the customer to the company and brand.
Providing empathy and rapport building are the two largest hurdles for customer-facing employees to address, but are also the two biggest keys to unlocking customer engagement.
Empathy: This is a crucial component in relationship building. It’s the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. Empathy is our capacity to recognize and identify other people’s concerns. Numerous studies link empathy to business results and include studies that correlate empathy with increased sales and customer satisfaction. As one colleague often states when training empathy segments, “How would you react to the customer if it was your mom? How would you want your mom to be treated? If your mom called and was upset, frustrated or confused, more than likely you would genuinely listen and respond in a manner that shows you care and help/support is on the way.”
Some strategies to train employees on providing empathy can include:
- Listen for the hidden meaning.
- Acknowledge emotion provided.
- Place yourself in the customer’s shoes.
- Actively listen, not only with your ears but heart.
- Remain calm.
- Focus on the positive—focus on what you can provide.
Rapport building: Training employees to build rapport during an interaction helps to create a deeper connection. Many companies have a very high degree of professionalism. Contacts are very professional and cordial and customer needs are being met. But taking these contacts to the next level rests firmly on rapport building—
engaging and connecting.
Rapport building is a skill that helps take the customer experience from transaction to interaction. And every interaction counts when it comes to how a customer feels about your company. Today, simply meeting a customer’s needs is not enough to retain them.
Some strategies to train employees on building rapport include:
- Actively listening: This is the key to building rapport. Pick up on customer comments throughout the contact to connect. This can be something as subtle a the customer sneezing and simply stating something as simple as “Hopefully that’s not a cold coming on.” Yes, this sounds simple, but it does show the customer you’re listening and focused on them.
- Keep a list: Some employees are not as quick on their feet to pick up cues. For employees who might struggle when it comes to rapport building, we suggest keeping a list of five things that they can use as their “go to” to make a connection. Something as simple as “How’s your day going today? Hopefully you’re having better weather than we’re having …” Something that starts to create a connection. They can use one of two of these off the list and as they become more confident, the list is no longer needed.
- Engage: Show the customer you value them not only as a customer but as a member or loyal customer. Comment on years as a member or customer, if that’s applicable.
Now we’re not advocating long and lengthy discussions, we’re simply suggesting a dialog that can take place during the transaction, thus turning into a highly engaging interaction.
Having a great training program in place sets the foundation for building an engaged employee. A crucial step in ensuring the employees are able to demonstrate the learned behaviors is through consistent and dedicated leadership coaching.
Coaching is the process of providing instruction, direction, feedback and support to improve business results. Let’s face it, we all like to know how we’re doing. It’s important to have validation that we’re moving in the right direction. And if we’re not going in the right direction, some coaching to help pave the way to move forward and progress. Coaching is about helping people move to the next level of excellence by getting them to understand and overcome their personal obstacles. It’s also a way t keep employees aware of changing business needs and customer expectations.
Coaching is a crucial element in fostering employee-customer engagement. Dedicated coaching leads to positive changes in behaviors that help move metrics and improve overall performance. Although coaching may take some work upfront, it’s a tool that will help improve performance for the long term, and build team relationships that eventually make both the employee’s and the manager’s jobs easier. Effective coaching can turn observations into actions that can improve performance setting the stage for overall job satisfaction—and satisfied employees lead to engaged employees.
Engaged employees become a company’s greatest brand advocates. They are proud to represent the brand and be an advocate for all great things associated with the brand. Being a brand advocate strengthens customer loyalty and positive WOM, which in turn sets the stage for the creation of customer engagement.
As the marketplace continues to evolve, traditional measures such as satisfaction and willingness to recommend may not be adequate for determining what differentiates a successful company from a struggling one. Embracing both brand affinity and activation, customer engagement may provide a more complete picture of how a customer feels about, interacts and identifies with a company, its products and services, and its people.
Through the research, it’s clear that customers who are highly engaged spend more money with a company and are more likely to repurchase and recommend than other customers. In addition, highly engaged customers are more likely to exhibit brand-focused behaviors that go beyond business as usual.
With ever increasing access to competitive information and the commoditization of goods/services, it has never been more important for companies to engage their customers. Customer engagement will be the centerpiece of next-generation customer experience measurement and management systems. By fully engaging customers, companies will convert customers from “just purchasers” into people who more fully connect and identify with the brand.