Engaging Customers Part 1

A comment from my friend Barbara about a recent post of mine on the idea of persuasion vs manipulation sparked some new thinking for me. Barbara talked about an idea one step advanced from persuasion — connection. The idea that connection creates a strong relationship isn’t all that new, the concept of one-to-one marketing is over ten years old now.  However, it is very rare that an organization has effectively achieved connection with their clients.

I think that this is for two reasons.  First, we often lack empathy for our customers.  Second, we seem to avoid engaging our customers for fear of raising their expectations. This morning I attended a talk at the university that presented the results of the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE or “Nessie”).  Engagement was defined as time and effort spent on meaningful learning experiences. Canadian students are not feeling engaged. They are feeling like numbers in a room. And it’s hard to deliver meaningful, hands-on learning experiences in a classroom of 800 students. The un-engaging lecture is the default for all but the most dedicated teacher.

At the same time this lack of engagement is disastrous for a university. It has long term implications for the reputation of an institution, for the satisfaction of Alumnae, for recruitment and retention of students, and for fundraising efforts in the future. Engagement is a strong predictor of learning. A lack of engagement of the current crop of students has implications for any university and its brand for years to come.

Our level of positive engagement with a brand is a good predictor of our level of loyalty to the brand. There are brands that have followed highly successful engagement strategies for years.  Harley and Apple are two great examples.  They engage customers to help craft the brand.  The brand is essentially developed by the consumer, not by the manufacturer.  Good branding is not about controlling the brand, but about making that brand what the customer wants of it.  The purpose of the new Apple stores in to engage customers with the product and to learn more about what customers want in a face to face environment. 

Branding is about shaping the existing environment.  You can’t use branding to make a product or service something that it isn’t.  It isn’t real, credible and it will fail, because people have great B.S. detectors.  Persuasion is based on communicating about real features and benefits that meet real needs of real people.  Manipulation is about wall-papering over weak products or services with lots of smoke and mirrors.  In the short term, manipulation may work.  But in the long term, it is destined for failure.   

The more we can engage our customers, learn about their needs, and work to deliver to those needs effectively, the better we’ll get at achieving long term profitability.  It’s just good marketing.  But it isn’t easy, or quick.  That’s why many organizations use the manipulative short cuts.  So what kind of organization do you want to work in?


2 replies »

  1. To empathize is to understand someone else’s feelings. (1) To understand someone else’s feelings you need to, as Atticus Finch told Scout “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (2) Perhaps there is no substitution for this. How many marketers l…ive the lives of those who consume their products? How many retail investment analysts live the lives of small retail investors? The answer to both questions may be… too few.

    What is engagement? Is it the dictionary definition: an arrangement to be present at an event, especially a business or social appointment? (3) As simplistic and unsuitable as the dictionary definition may sound, it may increase in relevance when we consider fully the meaning of the phrase ‘to be present’. How often we are only superficially engaged. We are physically present, but our minds are elsewhere. Our interests are not focused on those we serve but on self-interest. Perhaps the problem with the professor at the 800 person lecture is the same as with the manager giving a performance evaluation to a single employee. The professor and the manager are physically present, but in terms of commitment and empathy they are not really there for their audience.

    Engagement is as important to the corporate world, especially on the finance side, as it is to marketing and academia. This is one reason why it is way it is good for employees to own shares. It helps them to empathize with shareholders in general. If you believe like I do that every business has two primary stakeholders, the consumer of products and the consumer of debt or equity, then engagement of both consumers is necessary to balance their interests is the long run. It is this balancing of the interests between these two consumers that is the secret to the long-term success of any enterprise. To engage and balance these interests would certainly take a lot of hard work and a lot of hard thinking.

    (1) (3) Encarta English Dictionary.

    (2) To Kill a Mocking Bird Harper Lee 1 Spark Notes Editors. “Sparkle Note on To Kill a Mockingbird.” Sparkle Notes LLC. 2002. (accessed October 9, 2009).Read MoreSparkNotes: To Kill a Mockingbird

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