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What is customer engagement?

A solid customer engagement strategy can boost your brand's loyalty.

By Katharine Crane, Content Marketing Manager

Published March 31, 2020
Last updated July 27, 2020

Congrats — you have a product or service that people appreciate enough to pay for. People like your brand. But your offering, even if it’s the very best, is not enough to guarantee that your customers are going to keep on being your customers.

In order to cultivate customer loyalty, an essential component of your success, you have to also cultivate solid relationships with your customers. A huge part of any relationship, of course, is communication. That’s what you say, how you say it, and how easy it is for your customers to communicate with you. It’s also the degree to which you not only understand their needs but also anticipate them. "Customer engagement should be focused on value for the customer first and the business second," says Nicole Saunders, manager, community engagement, at Zendesk. "It has to have both sides of that coin."

Craft a sound customer engagement strategy and you have taken a huge step in sustaining long-term relationships with your customers.

Read on for best practices on customer engagement.

Why does customer engagement matter?

Your customers want to communicate with you in the same ways they communicate with their friends and family. Chat, email, phone, text — that will vary from customer to customer. Moreover, they want fast and efficient responses. So it’s crucial to your customer engagement strategy for everything to be rooted in a single thread of communication, so customers feel like they are having one continuous conversation. Especially key: that they don’t have to re-explain who they are and what their issue is. Your customers hate repeating themselves.

Anticipate needs in the customer journey

One way to ensure return customers is to anticipate their needs. This can be tricky, though. In the past, small groups decided what trends were trends — executives and editors and designers. It was their job to decide what consumers might want in the coming months. But consumers now have a huge influence on what hits the market and how companies engage with them, sometimes literally in user groups, but more and more often represented through data.

Remember this phrase: managing and interpreting data. This is a true key for understanding customers and proactively identifying opportunities to better serve them. Let’s underscore the term proactively—you’re trying to anticipate the need or wish of the customer in advance. In a crisis, you’re ideally reaching out in advance to communicate clearly how you are responding in a crisis. Another example: Because you are managing and interpreting data effectively, you can predict, with satisfying accuracy, something that your customers might really enjoy. If you text or email them with a product suggestion and they love it, this is great. The danger is making suggestions that are way off the mark, or worse—then you risk alienating your customers or even losing them. The reward for doing it right is customer loyalty.

There’s a flood of customer data coming in channels, systems, and applications. Companies manage 3x as much data as they did 5 years ago, according to The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020. And it’s great, provided your business can properly handle it. But customer data tends to be fragmented and separated across systems and software.

This is why the old CRM systems are not so great anymore; you want a customer engagement platform that is open and flexible and can manage and connect the data dots across many sources. Your goal is to deliver contextually relevant experiences that take into account customer preferences and past interactions. Once a business is able to engage across channels, it becomes easier to build in the cutting-edge, next generation conversational messaging services customers want, creating a single conversation thread that includes social media and chat but is ultimately channel-agnostic.

Create customer satisfaction with true empathy

Empathy—truly feeling for what your customers are experiencing—is critical is critical in a customer engagement strategy. Yes, it is good for your business, beyond all doubt. And you cannot fake it. Ideally, empathy is a value that suffuses your company from the top down, so that it naturally comes through in how your staff and your agents treat each other and then in how they engage with your customers. It's a key element of what is customer engagement.

  • Monitor your customers' experience. Awareness is the most powerful way to know what your customers are experiencing in a problem and in relation to your brand. In whatever way possible, observe your customer interactions. This can include an interaction playback tool, usability studies, or by co-browsing with your customers as they use your product. Always, always pay attention to how your customers are talking about you on social media.
  • Everyone should do support sometimes. Even your CEO. When everyone in the company handles tickets now and then, it’s almost impossible for the customer experience to remain abstract -- or, for that matter, the agent experience.
  • Empathy through AI. We often think of AI as a key tool for simpler tasks or frequent needs that can free up your agents for more complex projects. But it’s also a part of how you empathize. You can put AI to work to gauge your product for errors and difficult interactions (think: rage clicks), then proactively reach out to the customer to offer solutions before they come looking for them.

Establish brand loyalty in your response to customer anger

Angry customers are one of the most difficult things to deal with in customer service. But mastering this skill is essential to your customer experience strategy and also to your brand. “You might ask, If it’s so easy to eliminate anger through empathy, why do people get so damn mad at each other every day? The answer is that empathy is difficult to acquire…” says David D. Burns M.D. “Getting inside the other person’s skull requires hard work, and most people don’t even know how to do this.” It’s hard to help someone who is furious, calling you names, threatening to badmouth you on social media—whether face to face or online or over email. You mean, you have to help this person? We… empathize. Because even after you have, these exchanges can knock you off kilter, making it hard to help the next person, who may be perfectly nice.

Your instinct might be to respond similarly or do the equivalent of hanging up on the customer. But, in most cases, that is not a useful part of an engagement strategy, and definitely not without consequence.

  • Imagine yourself facing an angry customer. They’re giving you their worst. Expensive, movie-grade computer graphic lasers, missiles, and flames are shooting out of them, right at you, surrounding you, burning you. It’s no fun, and if you want to survive, you’re going to need to become fireproof—at the risk of losing your empathy. So that’s not what you do.
  • Instead, step over and stand right next to that customer, shoulder to shoulder. Face what they’re facing. Now all those impressive and scary special effects—which, again, are not about you to begin with—are aimed out into space, away from you. You’re by your customer’s side, able to see what’s happening, but out of harm’s way.

The sometimes intensely challenging consumer engagement that involves anger can lead to loyal customers.

Creative ways to engage with your customers

What are your customers’ challenges? First, find out. Then make solutions around those things. Actually solving for an actual customer need is the cornerstone of any engagement strategy, says Nicole manager, community engagement, at Zendesk. “If you're not offering what they actually need and you're not actually bringing them value that is timely and relevant and easy to digest,” she says, “no amount of swag, contests, bells and whistles, or emails are going to get people to participate in the thing that you're trying to get them to participate in.”

    • Effective customer engagement strategies can be fun

    • However, that doesn't mean you can't have fun—with or without bells and whistles—if you're actually being strategic. Small, custom gestures can resonate deeply with customers. In the ongoing Covid crisis, bookstores have closed the doors, but many are still selling online. McNally Jackson Books in New York City has used Instagram stories to invite customer questions—swipe up to ask for a book recommendations. The staff then curates a selection of suggestions based on the customer's question and publishes the results in a fun, colorful Instagram story. Some authors have pledged to send personal thank-you notes when a customer patronizes an independent bookstore; author Alisa Kennedy Jones said she'd include a pie recipe to go with a related chapter of her book.

    • Effective customer engagement strategies should align with expectations

      We can also look to hotels for ideas for how to creatively bolster the brand and foster loyal customers. It’s OK to stick to the basics if what your customers want and expect is simple consistency: Ray Wang of Constellation Research told us in an interview that he is sometimes loyal to a brand “when I consistently know what to expect, whether that’s getting a key and some privacy at the Fairfield Inn or the more personal touch of that glass of wine at the higher-end Westin." If your business is more oriented to luxury, touches that embody your brand, like chocolate in the room, are a smart way to engage.

    • Communities and how to establish creative engagement strategies
      In a community, you’re encouraging customers to help each other. But you can’t just throw your customers into a digital room and say, “OK, talk!” Or, for that matter, set a goal for the community and push your customers to hew to it if they have ideas of their own. As always, listen. “If you follow your customers and see that they aren't asking that many questions but they really want to share ideas with each other," says Saunders, you can align your community strategy with that. Saunders suggests: First, determine what your users need and want. Interview them, do focus groups, and run through a few pilot ideas. When you’re clear on how you can serve clear customer needs, you’ll be set up to design a sound strategy. "It doesn't come from the business goals. It comes from the user needs," Saunders says. It can later be appropriate to have brand advocates in the mix.

    A guide to customer engagement marketing

    In long-term relationships, it’s often the small personal touches that have the biggest impact. Whether it’s a well-timed note from a loved one, a thoughtful recommendation from a friend, or a like on social media, great relationships are built on personal and social connections. The same is true for any brand that is looking to have profitable long-term relationships with its customers.

    With so many companies fighting for people’s business, a brand needs to forge personal connections with customers to break through the clutter. Customers expect fast, personalized service and support on the channels that mean the most to them, and they want smart, thoughtful marketing tailored to their tastes and preferences. That’s why businesses that are interested in building customer loyalty and long term relationships have a customer engagement strategy.

    • What is customer engagement marketing?

      Customer engagement marketing is a marketing strategy that focuses on engaging customers by delivering relevant, personalized, and timely messages in the channels customers care about the most, including email and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Customer engagement marketing is a real-time marketing strategy that delivers the right message, in the right channel, in the right voice, at the right time, to the right customer.

      Unlike traditional one-to-many marketing tactics, like a TV, radio, or print ad, where a company shares a general set of messages with a large group of people at once, customer engagement marketing adds a powerful component of personalization, which makes customers and potential customers feel connected with the brand. By focusing on customer relationships and one-to-one messaging, a brand can create a meaningful customer journey with marketing automation campaigns that make its target audience feel a personal connection with the company.

      As the name suggests, an engagement strategy is not only focused on selling a product or service, but creating a deeper relationship based on engagement. Companies may serve up personalized ads that are highly relevant for a customer based on their browsing or purchase history, geography, or social media connections. An engagement strategy can also prioritize less transactional engagements, like eliciting a social media like, comment, or share on Facebook from a customer who likes what they see. This can result in more loyal customers with higher customer satisfaction.

      The best customer engagement marketing starts with a holistic view of the customer, and connects the dots between departments and datasets. This allows a brand to give the customer a personalized experience that draws from all the interactions between the company and the customer. For example, a customer could receive a personalized email letting them know that an item that they liked in a social media post is now on sale, or that a piece of clothing they previously purchased is now available in a new color.

    • The importance of customer engagement marketing

      Customer engagement marketing is important because engaged customers are more loyal, spend more money, and are more likely to promote a product or service to their friends and family. Engaged customers also demonstrate more customer loyalty and customer satisfaction than customers who are not engaged.

      Engagement strategies are also important for a business that wants long term relationships with customers, because engagement represents an emotional connection with a brand. Engagement solutions help companies form strong bonds that turn prospects into customers, and customers into repeat customers.

      When done correctly, digital marketing and customer engagement solutions are impactful, cost effective ways of increasing sales, driving customer retention, and growing the lifetime value of customers.

    5 tips for creating a good customer engagement marketing campaign

    The best customer engagement marketing plans are naturally built around customers. While every company’s engagement strategy will look and feel a little different and feature a different mix of social media channels, there are some key considerations brands should take into account when starting to create a customer engagement solution as part of their digital marketing.

    1. Develop a brand voice
    2. Brands that want relationships with customers should develop a brand voice. Corporate-speak is a surefire way to turn off customers, so companies should develop a consistent style and tone that can be used across sales, marketing, social media, and support. A good brand voice can be applied to many different scenarios and is a powerful way to humanize a brand and help foster more emotional connections with customers.

    3. Be where your customers are

      We live in an omnichannel world, and companies that want to engage with customers need to be in the channels that are most important to its customers. This can include social media, email, phone, live chat, messaging apps, and more. Being on the channels that customers use to communicate with their friends and family help foster a familiarity that can spark increased engagement.

    4. Have a content marketing strategy

      Once a brand is in the right channels, it’s important to have something to say. A content strategy will help companies create compelling content that customers want to engage with and share with their friends and family. A content strategy is also at the heart of developing a content marketing plan to engage current customers and find new ones. It can even inspire user-generated content from a company’s most loyal customers.

    5. Make communications personal
      Personalized communications are at the center of impactful customer engagement marketing solutions. This can be as simple as sending a customer a special offer on their birthday, or be a complex product recommendation algorithm that delights customers with smart, thoughtful suggestions for products and services.
    6. Invest in great service and support

      More than 80 percent of customers will stop doing business with a company after a handful of bad interactions with customer support. Therefore, companies looking to maintain long term relationships with customers need to take service and support seriously and always focus on delivering an exceptional customer experience. Helpdesk software or CRM tools make it easy for a business to have a holistic view of its customers and deliver the fast, personalized support that customers expect.

    Successful customer engagement is good for business

    There have never been more ways for a business to connect and engage with customers. Companies that deploy customer engagement marketing strategies are able to leverage these opportunities to create profitable, long-term relationships with customers and increase customer loyalty and satisfaction. With a little foresight and the right tools, implementing a customer engagement strategy is achievable for companies of all shapes and sizes.