The information age has changed a lot about the way we do things. Companies are marketing products differently, consumers are shopping for those solutions differently, and customer engagement has become more important than ever.
Not only does increased engagement help build stronger "relationships" with your customers, it can also help lower your support costs, provide a steady stream of data about your market for product strategy decisions, and give you consistent access to a wide range of customer advocates. And that's just the beginning of what customer engagement can deliver for your company.
In order to fully capitalize on the opportunities that customer engagement holds, it is important to recognize that engaging customers is not the same that it was just a few years ago.
Customers' expectations for their online experiences with a company are constantly evolving "“ shaped by the rise of social networks and other consumer digital experiences. For instance, a study released at the beginning of last year revealed that 71% of customers expect online assistance with their issues within five minutes. In fact, 83% of survey respondents listed "getting my issue resolved quickly" as the number one element of a great online experience. This was surely not the case ten or fifteen years ago.
With these growing customer expectations, how and where your company engages your customers also needs to evolve. The first step is determining where you stand on the evolutionary spectrum of customer engagement so you can develop steps toward a forward progression.
Three Stages of Customer Engagement
Stage One: Customer-to-Company Engagement
We'll respectfully call this stage "the old days." Once upon a time, customer engagement with a company was limited to instances of direct communication. A customer might call on the phone, visit your offices in person, or send an email to your customer service department when they had an issue that needed addressing.
Engagement was direct and typically happened one customer at a time with a specific set of company representative tasks with interacting with customers (customer service, sales, etc.).
While these one-on-one instances of engagement might have been more personalized, they were also time consuming and have a limited ability to scale. With today's customers demanding nearly instant answers, simple Customer-to-Company engagement often struggles to keep up.
Stage Two: Customer-to-Content Engagement
Three factors influence the evolution of the second stage of customer engagement.
- Customers are now more likely to spend time educating themselves online before making a purchase.
- Customers have a higher demand for and comfort with online self-service customer support.
- The proliferation and ease of maintenance of online information by businesses.
If your business has reached this stage, customer engagement revolves around the relationship between the customer and the online information that your company provides.
By going to your website, opening an email, or subscribing to your company newsletter, customers are using their interactions with your content to demonstrate their engagement.
You can tell how engaged with your company a customer is by how frequently and consistently they consume, interact with (comments, etc.), and share your content. The content you provide positions your business as a trusted resource and helps to answer those questions your customers desperately need answered quickly.
Stage Three: Customer"“to-Community Engagement
The next evolution in customer engagement involves your customer having a relationship with your entire business ecosystem. Here are some common examples:
- Customers talking to other customers
- Customers getting advice from partners
- Customers collaborating with your product management team in a small group to provide product feedback
These are all instances where your evolved engagement plan benefits not just your customers, but your company as well.
Though there are several ways to bring together your customers, partners, and other stakeholders in your ecosystem, many companies start by creating a private online customer community.
Along with an easy way to segment customers by product type or other attributes so that they access relevant discussions, people, and information, online customer communities provide a one-stop destination for customers to engage with your company, content, and ecosystem (i.e. all three stages of the customer engagement spectrum).
Now, even if your organization's current level of customer engagement is stuck on Customer"“to-Company, don't panic. The best part about an evolving customer engagement strategy is that each stage builds on the previous one. Rather than moving from one stage to the next and leaving the advantages of that strategy behind, the ideal customer engagement encompasses all three stages.
Customer-to-Content engagement is certainly more effective in retaining customers and creating advocates than just Customer-to-Company engagement. However, by not evolving to connect your customers to each other and the rest of your community, you're missing out on an opportunity to create stronger relationships and leverage those relationships with customers to increase revenue and create more innovative products.
Limiting your customer engagement to only the first two stages of the spectrum can also impact how your customers perceive the value that they are getting from your organization and its products. Rather than getting useful insight of other customers, partners, and other industry experts to become more successful with your solution, your customers are only benefiting from the limited engagement your company representatives and online content provide.
Do You Need an Online Customer Community?
Businesses can move toward Customer-to-Community engagement without the existence of an online customer community platform. Your customers can manage to talk to other customers without the confines of a private online community at events, on public social networks, and through other online community platforms in your industry (usually from associations, user groups, and competitors).
However, this approach is not ideal. Avoid losing your brand's position in the market by ceding the central position that communities deliver. If members of your target audience want to talk to each other, provide a place where customers, employees, and partners can come together to help customers get better results from your products or services. By being the host of your ecosystem, you can get the most out of your customer engagement in both the short and long term.
Customer Engagement Takeaway
As the needs of customers change, the approaches your company takes to keep customers engaged also need to evolve. Simply engaging on a basic Customer-to-Company level limits the customer experience and causes your company to lose out on real opportunities to impact revenue.
An online community gives your customers the chance to engage with your business's entire ecosystem and have their needs met through multiple types of relationships (e.g. company, content, community).
Knowing where your organization is on the customer engagement spectrum is the starting pointing in your journey. Then, make concrete plans to shore up your current strategy and progress toward the next stage.