Making Customer Engagement a Positive Experience

The concepts of customer engagement and employee engagement are getting a lot of attention these days. But what is engagement . . . really?

In its simplest form, human engagement is nothing more than a sensory interaction between two or more people, or between one person and some form of stimuli, where a mental or physical connection is made. An engagement can be something heard, seen, touched, smelled, tasted or otherwise sensed in some way. As long as there is a sensory connection – i.e., one’s attention has been captured in some way – one has been engaged.

Importantly, engagement can have a positive impact or a negative impact. While we tend to use the word “engagement” in a positive sense, it’s important for those responsible for engagement to note that it can result in a negative experience as well. For example, playing with all of the new gadgets in your brand new car may be positively engaging, but if the experience results in an accident, one is likely to describe the engagement as negative.

From a banking perspective, trying to use an ATM that doesn’t work or waiting in line for twelve minutes to see a teller are both examples where a customer has indeed been engaged, albeit not in the right way. Both situations engage the attention of the individual, and will elicit a corresponding emotional response, but in a manner likely to create disengagement from the institution!

Engagement vs. Experience

So, what’s the difference between an engagement and an experience? Here’s how I look at it: The engagement ultimately creates the experience. Said another way, the engagement is the interaction itself (i.e., “what” actually creates the sensory connection) while the experience is how one “interprets” what has occurred. So, an engagement precedes the experience.

If someone walks up to you on the street and says “hello,” you’ve been engaged. But how you actually feel about what that person said is your experience; engagements lead and experiences follow as the result. The key is to create engagement so that the experience is highly desirable and one wants to continue to engage.

For purposes of building a business, the most important factor to be considered in engagements is the quality of the engagements. Why? Because, the quality of the engagement dictates the quality of the experience. Blankly looking someone in the eye while passing down a hallway is a form of engagement but, by itself, will do little to deepen the emotional connection between the two parties.

A smile can warm up the engagement while you say “hello” to the other person in a friendly tone. Stopping to shake hands and getting into a meaningful conversation would be even more engaging. Each is a progressive improvement over the prior engagement, so each is a progressive improvement in the resulting experience.

At what point, then, can an engagement be termed “quality?” The simple answer is, when an involved party experiences an emotional connection that leads them to feel better or more fulfilled in some way. Quality engagement encourages further engagement while engagement without quality is nothing more than an incidental occurrence.

So, what does it take to create quality engagement? The answer is actually pretty straightforward. The interaction must be one that genuinely interests and adds value to the experience or condition of the individual being engaged. Quality engagement creates a richer, more involved, informed or inspired experience. It doesn’t leave someone feeling neutral; it leaves them feeling more “connected.”

Neutral engagement, which leaves one feeling the same as they did before, can be the appropriate solution if the desired outcome of the engagement is simple satisfaction. For example, if the ATM machine works as it should, the engagement hasn’t changed my experience in any way, which can be fine. The key is to stay clear of negative engagement, or things that create any kind of adverse experience.

Unfortunately, banks and other businesses are rife with engagements that are less than what a customer may want or expect. And, all too often, customers don’t report these sub-par situations, robbing us of the opportunity to change a negative into a positive. If enough of your engagements are negative, the repelling force can be truly destructive. But if your engagements are of quality and genuine relevance, you’ll keep them coming back for more.

So, here are my rules for creating quality engagements:

Have a system for continuously creating, measuring and improving engagements. We have a process at our bank that enables us to develop and track employee and customer engagements in a way that continuously and consistently improves them. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we want more engagement. We simply go to our process and allow the collective intelligence of the company do its magic. Look at every possible opportunity for engagement through the eyes of the customer – and the customer may be the employee as well. If you notice anything that you think your customers may not like, you have an opportunity to change a negative engagement (and experience) into something more positive. For example, a simple account application engages a consumer because they must interact with it to complete it. But the application’s complexity, print quality, colors and so on will determine whether the customer feels good about filling it out or if their experience is something south of that.

Understand that engagement is everywhere; it’s not just a social media fad. Much of today’s engagement conversation is social media-centric. But that’s only one small, albeit powerful, piece of the opportunity. Customers and employees can be engaged in many different ways. You just have to think about where their attention can be captured and work on improving that interaction to create stronger attraction power.

Make sure your leadership “gets” engagement. If leaders don’t understand the importance of engaging employees, employees are then far less likely to engage customers. Leaders want engaged customers, but they first need to engage employees to develop the mindsets and systems to consistently make it happen. The finest engagement is leadership-driven because without leaders driving the agenda, quality engagements cannot consistently occur.

In my view, this is where most companies fail in creating quality engagements: leadership doesn’t focus on the need to improve engagements with employees and, thus, the employees are not encouraged to do so with customers.

As author Dale Carnegie once suggested in so many words, always stay focused on the genuine interests of the individual(s) whom you are trying to engage. If an idea seems cute to you but your target audience doesn’t really care that much about it (i.e., it’s not relevant to them), the likelihood of quality engagement falls dramatically. Nobody can have a quality engagement with something they could care less about.

At First Victoria, we worked with a vendor to create a software platform that engages employees in helping the bank create continuous improvement and innovation. The software enables employees to collectively collaborate in ways that drive improvement. This approach increases ownership and buy-in through employee expression and recognition. It’s designed to engage employees in the improvement process because it allows them to actively be part of the bigger solution. Employees are engaged by the experience of being listened to and respected, which then inspires them. Inspiration occurs when you realize there can be something better for you.

Rewards and recognition of some sort are excellent tools to create engagement, but the individual(s) you are trying to engage need to genuinely care about the rewards or recognition you are offering. Generally, the reward or recognition needs to meet a certain “threshold of relevance” or importance to the individual for them to engage.

For example, it’s unlikely that Bill Gates will engage with you if you offer to write an article about him in your company newsletter. While that would certainly be a form of recognition for the multi-billionaire, it is unlikely that the recognition is compelling enough to create a quality engagement for Mr. Gates. On the other hand, offer Mr. Gates an opportunity to be honored in an internationally respected publication as a great philanthropist and his level of engagement would almost certainly increase because the relevance threshold (what is meaningful to him) would more likely be crossed.

Fun engages. Everyone harbors a child inside himself or herself. Making something fun or enjoyable for someone will almost always grab their interest. It’s hard not to engage in something that one sees as fun. At First Victoria, we involve our customers by helping them create a personal YouTube video to express how much they love our company. Those who see the fun in this activity will engage and those who don’t won’t. And that’s okay.

Not everyone engages in the same way. When creating engagement, always realize that almost nothing you do will be considered a high-quality engagement for everyone. Some will simply “care” more than others. However, if you focus on the genuine interest of the individual or target audience, you increase your chances of connecting in the right way. So just make sure you’re creating engagement for which the rewards are worth the effort.

And, remember that the ego is an important component of engagement. Give someone a reason to think they will be recognized (i.e., “liked”) or accumulate points or badges for doing something extra and you’ll have them hooked and coming back for more. The airline and credit card industries know this all too well as they reward customers with frequent flyer miles or award points.

Mr. Olan is senior executive vice president and chief retail and marketing officer for Victoria, Tex.-based First Victoria Bank. He can be reached at [email protected].