Why customer engagement became disengagement… and how to fix it

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Empathy, authenticity, and a rise in online communities are among the factors that should inform how brands interact with their customers

The pandemic has forced brands to confront their own shortcomings, according to Marius Bartsch, head of customer engagement at Digitas UK.

“We’ve seen this magnifying glass held over brands and customers have become much more discerning and demanding,” added Digitas UK’s head of strategy, Charlene Charity at Campaign’s recent breakfast briefing: The Future of Customer Engagement.

“Consumers have been bruised,” said Mark Evans, managing director of marketing and digital at Direct Line Group.

Digitas’ survey, conducted with research agency The Nursery, revealed that 68% of UK customers believe that brands they buy from do not understand or anticipate their needs. 50% of customers are satisfied with the day-to-day relationship with their selected brands but only 35% feel rewarded from that relationship. “Customers’ relationship with brands tends to degrade when they're having to resolve issues or access rewards and benefits,” explained Bartsch.

“Customer engagement is a huge opportunity for brands but if 68% of customers are still telling us we're not getting this right, where are those points of disconnection?” asked Bartsch.

Kindness is key

“The research clearly highlights a lack of empathy,” said Bartsch, citing the “gold rush” towards first-party data in a cookie-less future as part of the problem. “Customers feel that relationships are transactional and that brands are seeing it as an opportunity to grow business rather than grow relationships.” Charity added: “It boils down to kindness.”

That kindness stretches into other areas: environmental concerns and the way brands treat their people. “Sustainability is becoming more and more of an issue,” said Charity. “We work with Eon, the energy company, and their insights show that having a sustainable energy provider has become a basic expectation for customers.”

The traction gained by the open letter from Brewdog employees has shown that kindness begins at home, or at least in the workplace.

But be authentic

Evans warned against getting “too giddy” because “customers are still pretty rational and functional in their thinking”. In other words, in these uncertain times, people want clarity.

Gareth Hussey, director of consumer at O2, continued: “We've always recognised what I call the ‘relevance premium’. Our tracking data says that consumers want relevant experiences and relevant communications.” Hussey cited a personal example of a retail brand who bombard him with unrealistic discounts. “Endless discounts can erode that brand heritage they spent so much time building up,” agreed Charity. “We're all consumers and we can see through things,” added Sharon Hegarty, marketing director for Samsung Electronics.

“Customers want brands that are relevant to their lives,” Hegarty continued. “We've seen a huge increase of customers using our health products and services, for example.”

Tool up for digital

“Our observation,” said Bartsch, “is that few brands tell a consistent story at each touch point, which is how you end up with a category experience rather than a brand experience. And therein lies a huge opportunity: many brands have insufficient digital tools to create those personalised journeys and personalised experiences. A properly supported digital infrastructure isn’t optional anymore, it’s a must.”

Evans added: “Customers have become much more digitally sophisticated, maybe by necessity, so the complexity of what they’re prepared to do online has increased greatly.”

How to listen and learn

Charity sees an “overlooked trend” in the rise of online communities particularly across the entertainment, gaming, and women’s health sectors. “These communities give everyone an equal platform to communicate their views and sometimes those are voices not often listened to. It’s hard to get into but it’s a great way to listen and learn.”

“We’ve adapted to ensure that we’re using the right channels to communicate with our customers, not just through email and push notifications but also increasing our social channels,” said Hegarty. “We’ve worked more closely than ever with the customer services team,” she added. “How many times do you go to the call centre? I’d really recommend you do – listen to what your customers are saying. Lots of test, measure and learn.”

Don’t mention the C-word

Direct Line Group, explained Evans, have moved towards an agile operating model with squads and pods that all have customer experience at their heart. “Direct Line is a fixer brand,” he said, “and that needs to show up in everything we do, every piece of communication and every customer experience. It’s also what we ask of our employees: to be a fixer.”

“We don't even use the term CRM anymore,” said Digitas' Charity. “It just needs to be the way you do business – so you’re always focused on the customer.”

Hegarty said: “Customers don't care which department you're from or who's communicating to them, customers just expect me to know who they are, and to provide a connected omni-channel experience no matter which touch point that you’re talking to them through.”