The Present and Future of Customer Engagement

Complete customer management and the power of social networking.

‘Traditional’ methods of communication are always in danger of being superseded. The trouble is it’s not always obvious when it’s going to happen. Spare a thought for the erstwhile well-employed carrier pigeon at the birth of the telegraph wire; and what of the expert smoke signaler at the advent of carrier pigeon technology?Back to the Future

Image copyright Back to the Future™

Of course, times have moved on somewhat since then but the principals of technology being superseded remain the same.

Unbeknown to many organizations – especially those busy coping with the recession – we are actually seeing this process in action as we speak. Like it or not, many consumers and those shaping the future of business, are starting to wake-up to, and engage in, a post-email communications landscape.

At the heart of everything is the growth of social networking applications and the evolution of instant messaging which has evolved into the seemingly unstoppable twitter. Many (though not all) are using these tools to communicate in more logical, interlinked and rapid ways than email can possibly provide. For example, why would someone attempt to organize a meeting of a group of friends over email when countless back and forth emails make the process time-consuming and stressful.

Much better organize a group discussion in Facebook where everyone can pool ideas and dates in a visible and collaborative manner. This evolution of communication is not limited to the consumer space though, as business collaboration tools such as Huddle and Basecamp continue to gain credence in the workplace. Huddle itself, boasts a reduction in unnecessary business emails by 50 percent or more.

As new generations of workers continue to enter the workspace, it is likely that email will continue to become less and less relevant. And, though voice-based contact is pretty secure, we are even seeing new communication tools eat into traditional voice conversations as collaborative communication becomes more efficient.

Communications are clearly undergoing a sizeable change. Customers now abide by new ways of understanding companies, gathering information about products and services and interacting with like-minded people about issues. But many companies are being left behind by maintaining focus the ’traditional’ contact routes of phone, mail and email. While this is by no means flogging a dead horse, it does indicate that many have forgotten the meaning of true ‘customer engagement’.

Fobbing customers off with unwieldy Q&As and email-only contact details only serves to frustrate and create dissonance – something nobody wants in their customers at times like these. Aside from simply annoying customers, companies failing to evolve to meet the new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) challenges are also missing out on mountains of valuable customer information and product-enhancing feedback.

So what should companies do? The first thing is not to panic. Social media evangelists talk as if the world as we know it will cease to exist in a couple of days – but this is not the case. Disruptive technologies on the web tend to develop more slowly taking time to gain interest, groundswell and mainstream appeal.

Some appear to be the next big thing but fail to gain mass acceptance – look at Second Life for instance. However, with the launch of Google Wave, an entirely new way to communicate, email will fall under more pressure than ever – when Google gets involved, it usually means things are getting serious.

The ‘path to engagement’ should begin with a listening process where the company must work to understand how, where and why customers exchange and gather information. It’s also important to find out what might be missing in a company’s communication repertoire – for example customers might have trouble finding and engaging with other users of a product or service; this may be something a company can help with. This can be done using polls, interviews and so on. It is important to get this feedback from customers to ensure that all ‘bases’ are covered and also that those that don’t like using online tools are not neglected.

The listening process must then continue in finding out what is being said and where using free and paid-for monitoring tools such as Google alerts and Radian 6. Understanding a company’s customers’ communications landscape is a complex task, so listening and unravelling what is actually happening takes at least a month and sometimes longer.

Once this is done it is up to the company to assess where and how it needs to engage or facilitate engagement with its customers. Some examples of this might be providing company experts to engage in customer forums. In another case it might be creating a space for community engagement or giving customer services departments, onshore or offshore, the tools and processes to engage through twitter and the like.

Various companies have also had success in creating their own CRM-linked social networks, gathering useful information whilst increasing engagement. There are numerous companies that can advise on this process from marketers to customer service and call centre organisations – all should have something to add. A word of caution to organizations before diving-in, is not to think that they should be involved in everything that is happening online.

In many cases customers will be getting on just fine helping each other out without corporate input. However, in most cases there will be something that a company or organization can add. A company’s commitment to customer service necessitates that it caters for its customers’ needs. And, when online customer engagement does take place, it should be on as human, honest and transparent a basis as possible.

It is clear that communications is changing on a daily basis, but too many companies still seem to have their heads in the sand. Acting now to understand the landscape whilst learning how to communicate with customers in new and productive ways, will stand an organization in the best possible stead for the current, and evolving, post-email world.

About the Author

Nicholas (Nik) Nesbitt is Country General Manager, Eastern Afrika at IBM.

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