Smart customer engagement strategies that work

Your customer engagement strategy is critical. Where to start? We share actionable ideas on creating and evolving effective customer engagement — and fostering loyalty

By Katharine Crane

Published April 16, 2020
Last updated January 7, 2022

Your customer support team are heroes. Zendesk was founded on a belief in the power of great service experiences. We wanted the world to experience a positive interaction as the norm—as customers, as agents, and from any other side involved in using, operating, maintaining and paying for a customer support solution.

Your company may have been founded on an entirely different passion. For amazing chocolate, or an alternative to big-box retailing experience, or a certain kind of footwear. Great customer experience isn’t necessarily the cornerstone of every company. That said, a company’s success certainly may hinge on how the people you serve feel about your customer experience — and how well you increase customer engagement.

Key to that, and to customer loyalty: customer engagement.

What follows are ideas you can consider as you create or evolve a set of strategies around customer engagement.

One of the most important reasons to care about customer engagement strategies: loyal customers. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, 70% of businesses are not meeting customer expectations – and over 80% of customers will churn after a bad customer experience – so there is a ton of pressure to succeed, and right away.

What is customer engagement?

First of all, your customer engagement strategy must inherently be:

  • thoughtful
  • strategic

“One of the things that I see, as I was mentioning really often in communities, is people will say, ‘Oh. We want to have a community so we can engage our users.’” says Nicole Saunders, manager, community engagement, at Zendesk. Her immediate response is to ask why. “One of my philosophies in community management is that engagement for the sake of engagement is not valuable to anybody,” she says.

Saunders has read case studies of organizations that have had millions-strong online communities—users who come in, post, and talk to each other. Then, for one reason or another a company decided to shut the community down, and it had zero impact on the business's bottom line. What was the point of this engagement? “You had all of these users that were talking to each other and engaging,” says Saunders, “but it wasn't really creating value for the business.”

    Customer first, business second. Saunders knows that sounds like the opposite of what she just said. But hear her out. “Customer engagement should be focused on value for the customer first and the business second,” she says. “It has to have both sides of that coin.” The reason you’re implementing a strategy or approach must be clear and aligned with your users' needs and aligned with your business goals—but the user needs come first. This matters in all stages of the customer journey: how you engage potential customers as well as in your efforts in engaging customers in a customer retention strategy.

    “One of my philosophies in community management is that engagement for the sake of engagement is not valuable to anybody"

    • Listening to what your customers want
      You have to ask what your customers’ challenges are, listen—then, solve for those things. That last part is the most important part of any engagement strategy, says Saunders. “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.”

    • Being authentic
      How you increase customer engagement actually starts inside your own company. We asked CX leader Jeff Toister: When a company is developing internal messaging about its love for customers, how does it avoid sounding fake or saccharine? He told us: “Keep it real. The process that a lot of companies use to create this messaging is usually inauthentic from the beginning, and that’s where you get a bad result. The most important component of messaging that customer-focused organizations use is what’s called a customer service vision. It’s a shared definition of outstanding service that everybody knows and understands.”

      He cited one former client, a restaurant chain that had a four-step service guarantee and 17 steps that service was expected to follow. They didn’t match or feed off each other, he said. “In isolation they sounded great, but put together it was confusion.” Clarity, instead, is key. “The best customer service visions are very simple. They cut to the core,” said Toister. “I really like JetBlue’s: Inspire humanity. Really simple, razor sharp.”

      This kind of internal vision will be the cornerstone of how your company then externally engages with your customers.

    • Keeping an eye on tracking and retention
      When considering customer engagement, focus also on retention. “It's keeping that relationship with your users warm,” says Saunders. “It's focused around brand evangelism.” Think about how to inspire your customers to go out and recommend you to other organizations and peers and things like that. Another really important piece of the strategies is how you're tracking those things. What are the actions that are going to measure success when you increase customer engagement, and how do you track it? , and how do you track it? Saunders refers back to those communities of millions that got shut down: "I think there's an argument to be made that there probably was value there in that people were building brand affinity, and probably some of them were going out and sharing that with their peers and their colleagues, but if that community wasn't tracking those activities, figuring out who's referring, where is business coming in from, and why are people referring, then they're not going to recognize that the value of that engagement either."

    • Communicating via your customers’ channels of choice
      This is a guiding light. “Customers don’t care what department you’re in, customers don’t care what channel you’re in—as long as it’s the ones that they’re using,” Ray Wang, principal analyst, founder and chairman of Constellation Research in Silicon Valley, told us in an interview. Customers also don’t care about the term omnichannel, but they want what it delivers. Ultimately, omnichannel means a seamless conversation with your customers, meeting them on the same channels they use to communicate with friends and family. That likely means Facebook and Twitter, and social media generally, as well as longer-standing channels like phone and email. People are social animals; we like social interaction, even when we're taking care of maybe not the most exciting business. The ideal omnichannel customer could be the person who simply feels like they can always get through to you, however they want.

    • Pivoting gracefully in a crisis
      Always be clear about who you are when you set out to communicate. Customer engagement strategies must be grounded in who you are as a company, what your brand stands for, and who you are to your customers, in general, and in terms of any key current events. Large-scale self-awareness in a company is key during a crisis. If you make gorgeous casual gear for the office or the outdoors, say, your customers might love you—and also not need extensive messaging around what you’re doing to respond to current events. Nor should you proceed as if nothing has happened and continue to promote your goods or services in a way that’s tone deaf regarding what your customers might be experiencing. If you can find a way to help them, help them. But also, stepping back from unnecessary customer interactions and communication can sometimes be golden. You don't always have to engage.

    • Your approach to the AI equation
      The Zendesk CX Trends Report 2020 found that less than 30% of companies offer self-service, live chat, or other digital options. CX fueled by AI stands as a potent differentiator, especially for Gen Z and Millennial customers. “We have to determine when we automate something, when we augment it with a human, when we augment it with a machine, or when we actually automate it completely,” said Wang. What’s more, there’s a spectrum of these types of experiences, and people are going to have different preferences.

      Harnessing AI to conquer repetitive tasks can free up your team to work on more interesting and complex types of support and user engagement.

      Ada's Ruth Zive speaks to the power of AI in a CX strategy: "Value goes beyond just retention and CSAT. Your AI-powered solution should act as an extension of your brand. For instance, your chatbot should speak in your company’s voice, have a distinguishable personality that resonates with customers, and engage customers at least as much as your marketing collateral."

    Questions to ask when increasing customer engagement

    • Who are your customers?
    • What do they want?
    • What do you want them to know?
    • What are they saying about you on social media—and how are you responding?
    • Are you including your customers, through user-generated content or surveys on Twitter or even just asking them what product or service of yours they love the most?

    Answering these questions and acting on them strategically can cultivate loyalty, inspire engaged customers, and foster legitimate, genuine customer relationships.

    Examples of successful customer engagement strategies

    There's a famous example of a stuffed tiger that Toister used in his book: At the Tampa airport a child loses a tiger and airport staff take pictures of the stuffed animal having adventures all around the airport, before returning it to the child. "That wasn’t a new concept," said Toister. "They read about it somewhere else. But it still makes the news when it happens." That, and social media. Such engagement is golden for Facebook and Twitter, the kind of thing that makes people feel good because it's really... good. "The formula really is: Anything that is outside of the norm is going to capture our attention," said Toister.

    But not all successful customer engagement has to be a stuffed tiger in an airport. he mentions Zappos, which used to automatically upgrade you to free two-day shipping but not say so—"it was a surprise and delight." After while, the surprise is gone, but that kind of thing is still a differentiator in terms of competitors. "[If you can] do things that are unique and add a certain level of value, I’d say that’s different than other organizations," says Toister, "you can sustain that without the surprise and delight moments.

    Engage in small, tailored gestures

    Hotels offer some great examples here of how a simple gesture can strengthen the brand and cultivate loyal customers. Companies often try to force fit certain types of models. A no-frills lodging might stick to the absolute basics: Provide an entry card and privacy and a safe, comfortable place to sleep. Meeting expectations consistently is a huge step toward brand loyalty if your brand is not based in extras. But if your business is more oriented to luxury, if your target audience links personalization with customer satisfaction, other gestures are in order—say, chocolate in the room. "Sometimes I’m 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," said Ray Wang. Probably no one is going to rave on social media about the no-frills experience, but you still got an A on how to engage your customers.

    Set up (the right) communities

    This is many-to-many support, where you empower customers to help each other. Successful customer engagement strategies include communities, but they have to actually be executed according to a strategy. Saunders has often seen companies head down the path of communities with an approach of, "We're going to launch a community, because we want to just deflect support tickets, so we're going to answer support questions there." Great—if your users want to get support in your forum. But say your business has something to do with design and you open up your community to help people use your design tools, and all they really want to do is share portfolios, see each other's work... If you push for them to engage according to your great idea, your intention for the space, they're not going to engage because it's not what they want.

    However. If you follow them and say, "Oh, OK. Our users actually aren't asking that many questions, but they really want to share ideas with each other and use that as inspiration," you can pivot your engagement strategy to follow what your users clearly need. You're going to be a lot more successful. Saunders advises: Number one, find out what your users need and want. Interview them, have focus groups, and test a couple of different things out. Figure out what they need and how you can serve that need, and that is going to help you design your best strategy. "It doesn't come from the business goals. It comes from the user needs," she says. Then, once you do that, you can start to figure out, "OK, so our users want to share design portfolios and get inspiration. How does that relate to our business?" Well, maybe it's that you need to build brand ambassadors and brand advocates, and maybe it's enabling these people to share with each other.

    Create a dynamic knowledge base

    Think of this as one-to-many support. This form of support is an engagement platform in which agents can share institutional knowledge and answer tons of common questions that don't require one-on-one, real-time support. Offering support resources in a structured format is as critical as providing exceptional one-to-one support. It's well known now that people prefer to solve things themselves.

    You can ensure a thriving knowledge base by including agents—soliciting their feedback on existing or potential articles; vetting the articles on a regular basis to ensure their relevance as your business changes; setting permissions for who can publish directly, ensuring quality and consistency.

Free customer experience guide

Find out how to create great customer experiences that will lead to loyal customers, improved word-of-mouth promotion, and increased revenue.