An inquiry into ‘customer engagement’ – making the abstract concrete

‘Customer Engagement’: old wine in a new bottle or  new realms of possibility?

Customer engagement is the new buzzword.  Whenever a new buzzword shows up it suggests that either we have ‘old wine in a new bottle’ or that  ‘new realms of possibility’ has shown up.  If you fall for the ‘old wine in a new bottle’ you may end up looking and feeling like a fool.  If on the other end the buzzword points to ‘new realms of possibility’ and you do not step into and make full use of this realms then you are likely to go out of business – sometimes it can take a little while.  So lets take a closer look at ‘customer engagement’.

There is no such thing as ‘Customer Engagement’

The English language tempts us into errors by converting verbs into nouns.  So we need to be mindful and remember that there is such thing as ‘customer engagement’.  If you do believe it exists then please bring it to me and I will give you a$1m.  Now if I offered you the same deal for bringing me a table then you would have no issue.   To get to grips with ‘customer engagement’ lets examine the verb ‘to engage’:


  • Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention
  • Cause someone to become involved in (a conversation or discussion)
  • Pledge or enter into a contract to do something
  • Reserve (accommodations, a place, etc.) in advance
  • Participate or become involved in
  • Enter into conflict or combat with (an adversary)”
So we can say that when you engage a customer or a customer engages you then there is some action going on.  Put differently, ‘customer engagement’ shows up as behaviour.  A engaged customer will perform certain actions which a disengaged customer will not.

What engaged customers do

What engaged customers do largely depends on what you allow and what technology enables.  Lets just list the kind of actions that engaged customers can perform with today’s technology:
  • They provide you with ideas and suggestions.   Dell ( Dell Ideastorm) and Starbucks (MyStarbucks Idea) are two organisations that have set-up platforms to let their customers share their ideas
  • They ‘turn up’ to special events.  Harley Davidson is a great example – Harley lay on events for their fans and the fans turn up in droves.
  • They do some of the work, they help out.  GiffGaff (telecoms player) is a great example – the customers provide a lot of the customer service to each other.
  • They write and post reviews of your products and services.  Amazon is a great example – customers review products and this gives other customers more confidence to purchase the right products.
  • They collaborate and co-create with you whether that is new advertising, new products or new services.  In the early days of CRM Nokia and Siebel collaborated to build out the Siebel’s telecoms product.  In the B2C market Threadless is a great example – customer can design T-shirts and get a cut of the sales revenue if these designs take off.
  • They complain when you fail to live up to your promise and their expectations.   You might think this is odd yet research shows that the customers that are disengaged from you simply walk away – they cannot be bothered to take the time and make the effort to complain.
  • They buy from you – they walk into your retail stores, they use your website, they respond to your email and direct mail offers …….This is so obvious that most people take this for granted and don’t make the most of this yet Zane’s Cycles does.
  • They bring their family, friends and colleagues along to your stores and encourage them to buy from you.   A small business that thrives on this is Preston Car Sales which is based in Preston, Lancashire. (Disclosure – I helped design and set-up this business.  It is owned and managed by my brother).
  • They speak well of you to their friends, their social network and even the world through social media (blogs, social networks, tweets..).  I am good example of this – two companies that I have recently recommended include Better World Books and HCML on this blog.
  • They do some of your marketing for you by creating new ads or remixing your content to create new ads and post them to the likes of YouTube.  Amber Lee Ettinger (‘Obama Girl’) is a good example of the kind of impact such a engaged customer can make
  • They provide you with feedback when you ask for their feedback e.g. by taking part in customer surveys.

Incidentally, the possibilities that can be listed here are limited only by your imagination.  In the future, if it has not already happened, I can imagine companies setting up prediction markets and inviting customers to take part in them.

What does it take to engage customers?

I wrote several posts a little while back which give a flavour of what it takes to engage customers:

My take on ‘customer engagement’

The internet, mobile and social technologies have created  ‘new realms of possibility’ around how we can engage customers; how customers can engage with us – the organisation; how customers can engage with each other; and how customers can engage with world wide web.  A few souls are stepping into these new realms of possibility and disrupting the way that things are done.  The majority are simply putting old wine into new bottles and labelling it ‘customer engagement’.

The trick is to figure out the form of engagement that your customers are up for and which if acted upon will build mutually profitable and enjoyable relationship and help you build competitive advantage.  Any as any good strategist will tell you there are no formula’s for that – it requires the artful synthesis of analytical and creative thinking along with some good fortune.  And you have to accept that some things will work out well, some will flop and some will be simply ok.

Please remember that a customer that ticks a box that says he is willing to recommend you is very different to a customer that actually has recommended you.  So focus on creating topic that mean something to your customers, build a platform that enables interaction then listen, learn and adapt.

If I have not spelled it out enough – your existing organisational mindset is the key barrier between you and your customers.  You have not got engaged customers because fundamentally you do not want to engage with customers.  Remember that engagement is a two process it requires a degree of openness and vulnerability which many organisations are simply not willing to step into.

Finally, I thank Peter for asking me to comment on ‘customer engagement’ and thus being the genesis of this blog post.  Peter, I hope that this contributes to you.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

4 thoughts on “An inquiry into ‘customer engagement’ – making the abstract concrete”

  1. Hi Maz, Thanks a lot for that comprehensive feedback, very interesting with the company specific initiatives you mention to get some everyday life examples of this!

    What puzzles me at the moment is mainly how to quantify this abstract term. You can usually measure the outcome of a “good” customer engagement afterwards, by saying that it resulted in additional sales, increased share of customer wallet or better margins on sold products/services. But usually the aim of a successful quality management function, would be to detect this already before-hand. “Are we pouring new or old wine into these bottle?” instead of waiting for the customer to taste it.

    Another thought in the area of measuring the quality of a customer relationship, or even partnership would be that such measurements should be “global” so that any found best practices can be shared and implemented in large scale, as well as relevant for different kind of businesses and markets. Tricky one…

    To really find the optimal engagement models I am sure they need to be tailored and customized to the specific client, offerings and relationships as well as markets and maturity. However what I’m looking for are indicators and attributes of successful customer engagements that can be spotted in advance, possibly adopted, and maybe even systematically followed up on.

    If I come across more input, I’ll for sure get back to you to enrich this thread further (which I hope more ppl will do as well), for now the brainstorming continues!

    Thanks again! / Peter


  2. Hello Peter
    I thank you for your feedback. I just want to examine ‘quantification’ with you.

    To that end lets just say that you decide that the kind of engagement that you are looking for is customers sharing their ideas and suggestions with you. HOw do you quantify this? I suggest that you can put forward a mix of the following measures:
    a) The number of customers putting forward their ideas and suggestions;
    b) The number of ideas and suggestions put forward to date, in the last month etc;
    c) The quality of the ideas and suggestions;
    d) The trend – whether the more customers are participating or less; whether more ideas are being put forward or less;
    e) How many customers are commenting/voting on ideas/suggestions put forward by other customers;
    f) How many ideas/suggestions are commented on by the enterprise;
    g) How many ideas/suggestions are evaluated and then implemented by the enterprise;
    h) The revenues generated and costs saved through the implementation of these ideas/suggestions.

    Turning to the subject of ‘best practices’ from experience I can see the value of people being ambassadors for the best practices that they have come up with and even a platform for sharing best practices.

    However, I am totally against imposing best practices on others. Why? First, there really is no such thing as a best practice. A behaviour can only be appropriate or inappropriate to a given situation. The people who are best placed to determine thsi fit is the people who live/work in that situation on a daily basis at the coal face.

    Second, when you have been involved in all kinds of organisational change for 20+ years you learn something marvellous. Anything imposed is like having your foot on the accelerator – it only works as long as you keep your foot on the accelerator. Sooner or later you get tired, you foot comes off and all you have is pretense and game playing.

    Instead of imposing ‘best practice’I suggest something counter-intuitive: forbid other units for stealing ‘best practices’ from units who have invented them. You are likely to find something interesting: people are likely to pester you for the right to take and implement that ‘best practice’. I am not just making this up. I have used that ploy successfully to unstick a CRM programme that had become badly stuck.

    Towards the end of your comment you mention the need to tailor and customise to client, market etc. My experience suggests that you have hit the nail on the head.

    What are the attributes of successful customer engagements? Fundamentally, you engage customers in activities that create value for these customers. For example, in my digital marketing days we found that young men love competing and showing off their wizardry. So when we set up an online customer engagement and loyalty ‘club’ we designed it around competitions, games, status level etc. On the other hand when you take a look at the young females competitions and games don’t do it for them. Rather it is about conversations, relationships, huddling together, sharing tips etc.

    Last word: there is absolutely no substitute for the hard work of getting to know your customers and what matters to them before you start working on creating engagement.

    I thank you for your contribution to this conversation and allowing me to be a part of it.


  3. Hi Maz,

    Can you clarify your thoughts/exeperience a little on “forbid other units from stealing best practice”.

    Is this about creating independent innovation “necessity is the mother of invention”


    about stopping people “stealing” but allow them to “ask” so the creator hence putting emphasis on the value of the best practice.

    good thread developing.


  4. Hello Mike
    If I turn up and offer you what I consider a gift (something that you can/will benefit from) it may not occur to you as a gift. It may occuring to you as me selling you stuff. It could occur to you that I am criticising you. It might occur to you that if you accept my gift you have to accept that there is something wrong with you and so forth. Let me make that concrete.

    Yesterday, I was working with a colleague who respects me and who I respect. The challenge was to put a compelling proposal together and get it out of the door by the end of the day. To help us do that I asked my colleague to photocopy a couple of pages. What did those pages contain? An effective communication method that we would use to develop/write out the proposal. His remark and the tone that he used was telling “Your asking me to ………” When I returned from the toilet I found that he had not copied the pages! He did not perceive the need to change and in fact was offended that I even thought that he needed to learn something new. He is an expert in his field!

    The reason that I mention this incident is that over the last 20+ years I have seen this pattern played out again and again. When I push something on to you then your natural – habitual and emotional -reaction is to resist. You will either do this overtly if you do not fear me or you will do this covertly if I can punish you.

    So how do you get people to adopt best practice? One way that has been shown to work is to demonstrate that it works. Lionise and promote the people that use that way or working and are delivering the results. And then ‘prevent’ the other folks from ‘stealing this intellectual property’. That is to say you give this ‘best practice’ value by restricting access to it. And if people want access to it then they have to pay for it – in some way or another. When you do this you make use of the ‘scarcity principle’: “As a principle if an item is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable.”

    Lets bring this to life. I was brought in a change consultant by a big European company that was struggling to get its CRM programme off the ground. HQ had been pushing this CRM programme – best practice processes and technology – onto the local business units and they were dragging their feet. Upon diving into the situation I learned that the value of this programme was unproven and the only people who believed in it where the people who conceived it in HQ.

    So first we ‘bribed’ one of the influential units to do a pilot and we invested everything into it to make it a success: involve all the people, joint design, joint implementation and 100% funding of all resources to make the project a success. The pilot was a success and the marketing and sales people were singing about it along with head of the BU.

    Now instead of pushing this project on to the next BU (the practiced that had not worked) we marketed the success of this pilot programme in the rest of the company through a number of communications channels. Once we had awareness we moved on to create desire and interest. How? By clearly stating that the centre would only fund and support a limited no of further CRM implementations. Then we invited the BU head to put forth bids to win this investment. And it worked. We picked the BU’s where the BU head was enthusiastic and willing to put a lot of skin into the game.

    Another version you will come across is simply that the act of forbidding something makes that something attractive to most human beings. That is just what is so. This has been found in all kinds of pscyhological research and you will know that from personal experience. How do you get a song to top of the charts? Ban it from the radio!

    I hope that clarifies the situation. I thank you for asking the question and giving me an opportunity to share my views and experience.



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