As a consumer, you’ve seen the customer engagement model in action before. If you’ve ever gotten a text from your favorite fast food restaurant with a coupon for a free milkshake, you’ve been part of an automated retention campaign.
Observing customer engagement models from the consumer end gives you an advantage when creating a model for your own business.
By surveying the landscape of customer engagement models, you can pick what works for your brand, start creating happier customers, and maneuver your business toward more revenue and profitability.
What Is a Customer Engagement Model?
Customer engagement focuses on building an ongoing relationship with your customers, rather than a series of one-off transactions. In each interaction with your customer, your goal should be to foster a positive association with your brand.
When you create strategies to improve customer engagement, those strategies are called customer engagement models. These models focus on improving metrics like trial conversion rates, net promoter scores, retention, revenue, and profitability.
Your customer engagement model could cover any touchpoint customers have with your brand, but its primary focus points should be onboarding and retention.
Why is it important to use customer engagement models?
64% of consumers have avoided brands because of a bad experience in the last year.
And it doesn’t take much. A single subpar customer service experience can hurt the goodwill a customer has toward your brand. Preventing a slow slide into customer disengagement is a key reason for using customer engagement models.
But customer engagement isn’t only a defensive measure to keep retention high. It’s also an offensive measure to help your customers succeed. Building a helpful relationship with your customers can be the difference between seeing them get amazing value out of your product—or seeing them throw their hands in the air and give up.
When customers get value from your brand, they stay customers longer and spend more. According to Gallup, fully engaged customers bring in 37% more revenue in retail banking and 46% more in consumer electronics. They also visit their favorite online and physical retailers 44% more often.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’ve seen this in action—Amazon Prime members spend more than twice what non-Prime customers spend.
Key reasons to use customer engagement models:
- Improved retention
- Greater profitability
- More customer loyalty
- Positive word of mouth
- Higher revenue per customer
- Increased customer lifetime value
The Stages of Customer Engagement
It’s impossible to understand customer engagement without first understanding the customer journey.
In the pre-sales phase, customers don’t pull out their wallet right away. They need repeated, helpful exposure to your brand in order to build trust.
In the post-sales phase, customers don’t become advocates of your brand just because they signed up for your product. But with a series of small, positive interactions over time, they’ll slowly build loyalty and reach a stage of high engagement.
From unawareness to brand loyalty, understanding the stages of customer engagement will help you design an engagement model that fits the way customers interact with your brand.
Awareness is one of those seemingly “obvious” parts of the customer experience. If customers have never heard of your brand, how can they buy from you? They may not even know they have a problem that your product or service can fix.
Still, many brands linger in the unawareness stage in the minds of their audience. By building brand awareness through strategies like content creation, advertising, and word of mouth, you can open up the possibility of starting a relationship with your audience. Until they’re aware of you, nothing else is possible.
Once customers have heard of your brand, they move on to the discovery stage.
Discovery can last for a long time. The marketing “rule of seven” is a century-old rule of thumb that suggests customers need to see your brand seven times before taking action. But that was created when consumers saw dozens or hundreds of ads per day. In today’s crowded media landscape, consumers see 5,000 or more ads per day. That means it can take even more time for your message to sink in.
You can advance your cause during the discovery phase by creating content that resonates powerfully with your target customer. Make sure your brand is the first to come to mind when they decide they need a solution.
By the time prospective customers get to the consideration phase, they’re thinking more seriously about taking action. But your brand isn’t the only game in town.
Make sure you stand out among your competitors. Improve your odds by offering value up front in exchange for an email address so you can stay in touch. Social proof can help tremendously at this stage.
After a customer buys, that’s just the start of the ongoing effort you’ll need to make to engage and retain them. With luck and time, you’ll be able to convert them into a long-term customer—or even a brand evangelist.
Once customers part with their money, they’re especially sensitive to what happens next. Providing massive value up front helps dissolve any concerns that they made the wrong decision. The first interactions with your brand after the sale—especially onboarding—are crucial to establishing the foundations for a long-term relationship.
Do whatever you can to exceed expectations during the onboarding experience, with an eye toward helping customers reach an “aha!” moment that provides immediate value and reminds them of why they bought in the first place.
Assuming you’ve set strong foundations during the onboarding process, the seeds of emotional attachment toward your brand have been planted. But what you choose to do over the coming weeks, months, and years is what will create brand loyalty, positive word of mouth, and sustainable growth.
The brands that customers love are, first and foremost, exceptionally customer-centric. They listen to customers and incorporate their feedback. Brands that generate loyalty gracefully handle every little annoyance that comes up—long hold times, return fees, slow support—so they don’t add up into a negative customer experiences. They also proactively reward the loyalty of their customers.
Ultimately, brand loyalty is the end result of successful customer engagement over time.
Onboarding Engagement Models
Your onboarding engagement model will depend primarily on your product’s price point and the complexity of setting up your product. High-cost products tend to use high touch onboarding. Low-cost products tend to use low touch onboarding. Many brands use a hybrid model that includes elements of each.
High touch onboarding features a live interaction between you and the customer.
High touch onboarding sessions often feature customer stakeholders from multiple teams. They may happen in person—especially for large enterprise accounts—but they’re most often conducted over one or multiple video calls.
The advantage of high touch onboarding is that you’re able to set the customer relationship off on the right foot while making sure the customer gets the value they’re looking for. Rather than looking through onboarding documents on their own, customers just need to show up, ask questions, and get a customized onboarding tailored to their needs.
Use This Model For:
High touch models lend themselves best to high cost products.
Spotify would go bankrupt setting up live onboarding sessions for each user paying $10. But Salesforce can easily justify high touch onboarding for a new $15,000 account—especially because successful onboarding leads to a higher customer lifetime value.
Another value of high touch onboarding is getting a direct line of customer feedback. Early stage startups often provide high touch onboarding even if their price point doesn’t justify it. That’s because the value of seeing any issues your customers face in real time offsets the additional expense.
HubSpot’s high touch onboarding includes a custom onboarding plan based on your goals, your organization, and your current technology stack.
In a low touch onboarding environment, onboarding is self-serve. Brands send resources like videos, onboarding documentation, chatbots, and interactive walkthroughs to customers in order to help them get set up.
Human interaction happens in a couple of scenarios:
- When the customer reaches out for help.
- When the onboarding automation system flags accounts that need help.
Although low touch onboarding isn’t as personalized as high touch onboarding, when done right it can still result in high user engagement.
Use This Model For:
Most consumer apps and software products—as well as many SaaS offerings targeted at businesses—use some variation of low touch onboarding.
The decision to use a low touch engagement model is primarily driven by the cost of the product. By automating onboarding and customer engagement, brands are able to reach a scale that allows them to charge less. If they were to shift to a high touch onboarding model, they’d have to charge more.
Involve.me’s low touch onboarding experience relies on emails to provide product tips and documentation. Each email also nudges customers to use the product. There is always the option to reach out to the customer support team, but it’s more of a backup option than a central focus.
Hybrid Onboarding Model
Hybrid onboarding models use the scale of low touch onboarding and the personalization of high touch onboarding.
Many companies take a mix of the high touch and low touch approaches. This is particularly true for early stage startups, which prioritize direct feedback from users. Hybrid models also work well for brands with complex products that require expertise to set up during onboarding.
Use This Model For:
Brands that might normally use low touch onboarding may take a hybrid approach if the setup for their product is particularly complicated, or if they’re focused on gathering 1:1 customer feedback.
Some low touch brands also attempt to improve the customer experience by defaulting to self-serve onboarding, while also providing customers with the option of a personalized onboarding session.
Brands that might typically take a high touch approach may look to reduce cost and keep onboarding calls short by also offering automated emails, online resources, and interactive walkthroughs.
Cloudways, a website host, has a hybrid onboarding process. Most of their onboarding process is self-serve, but for the more complex elements they offer hands-on support.
Retention is crucial to profitability. Increasing customer retention by 5% can lead to profit increases of up to 95%, according to Bain & Company. But how do you keep customers around for longer?
Retention models are the answer. Retention models focus on keeping tabs on the customer relationship and understanding your customers’ ongoing use of your product. By making sure your product continues to provide value over time, you’ll reduce churn.
High touch retention strategies often use customer success managers (CSMs) to improve retention.
I saw CSM-driven retention firsthand when I worked as a customer success manager at an ad agency. The benefits of the CSM approach were substantial:
- Increased perception of value: Customers churn when they feel like the cost outweighs the benefit—or when they lose trust in your solution. CSMs address both of those issues by adapting the product to fit customer needs on an ongoing basis and by building trust over time.
- Lower churn due to relationship-building: People work with people they like. Even if the product isn’t meeting expectations, customers may stick around because they like working with their CSM and trust them to fix any issues that come up.
- More frequent upgrades: The main goal of CSMs is to improve retention, but they can also add value by steering customers toward upgrades when appropriate.
When to Use CSM-Driven Retention
CSM-driven retention is appropriate for products with ongoing customization needs and a high customer lifetime value—particularly enterprise accounts with multiple users in each company. Examples of products that often use CSMs include:
- Customer relationship management tools like Salesforce
- Analytics tools like SAS
- Cloud technology providers like Oracle
Flywheel, a web hosting provider, uses CSMs to manage larger accounts. As a customer of theirs, I can rely on a single point of contact to help me resolve any issues that come up.
Automated retention programs are a lower-touch approach. Email marketing, automated text messages, push notifications, and even direct mail all fall under the category of the automated retention model.
Here’s how most automated retention programs work:
- Set customers up in a system that monitors their use of your product
- Identify those at risk of churning based on their behavior
- Ramp up automated engagement of those at risk of churning
When to Use Automated Retention
When you’re operating at scale, automated retention programs are the most economically feasible way to keep customers engaged.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Customers can smell an automated message from a mile away, so friendly check-ins aren’t as effective here as they would be with outreach from a customer success manager. Instead, use incentives that make it hard to resist engaging with your brand again.
- Ineffective: ”We here at Bank of America thank you for your business and can’t wait to see you soon.”
- Effective: “Here’s a complimentary small milkshake – Happy Friday from Chick-fil-A!”
PayPal sent me $5 one year when I hadn’t used their service in a while. There’s nothing like free money to get you to log back in!
Collaborative Product Roadmap
Inviting customers to give feedback on your product roadmap is messy. Your customers can be tough critics.
But it’s a necessary process because otherwise, you risk spending months or years building something your customers don’t want. Meanwhile, your product moves further and further away from your customers’ expectations.
Collaborative product roadmaps allow your customers to transparently see where you’re planning to take the product over time. They have the opportunity to weigh in, which on its own can serve as a kind of pressure release valve. Customers also become more invested in your brand through the process of seeing their feedback incorporated into the roadmap.
When to Use Collaborative Roadmaps
Collaborative roadmaps are crucial for software products. They’re also a good fit for any other product that you develop and improve over time.
By using customer feedback tools to collect input at scale, you can prioritize the most popular feature requests and create a product roadmap that meets your customers’ expectations.
Monday, the project management tool, has a community input forum where customers can submit ideas and upvote feature requests.
Hybrid Retention Models
Many brands create hybrid models that contain elements of both CSM-driven retention and automated retention. As with the onboarding models, these choices are usually driven by the product’s relative price point.
- High-cost products: Brands using the CSM-driven retention model go hybrid by also using email automations and push notifications—oftentimes to give the customer a reason to touch base with their CSM.
- Midrange products: Brands that fall squarely in the middle of the market may create a hybrid retention model where CSMs are responsible for hundreds of accounts instead of dozens. In a model like this, CSMs spend much less time on each account but are still available as a dedicated point of contact when customers need support.
- Low-cost products: While it’s hard for brands with low cost products to justify hiring CSMs, they may still create automated systems that open the door to 1:1 interactions to give customers a way to get personalized support when needed.
Collaborative product roadmaps can complement any of these hybrid models.
Unless your business is purely service based, you probably need to use a hybrid retention system of some kind. Even if you have customer success managers, adding an automated retention layer on top of your CSMs doesn’t have much downside.
For low-cost and midrange products, offering an outlet for 1:1 support (even if not many customers take you up on it) humanizes your brand and gives you valuable customer feedback.
Waldo is a free Chrome extension. Even so, the founder sends out automated emails that offer users the chance to book 1:1 calls for personalized support and product feedback.
If You Want To Avoid Churn, It’s Time to Engage
Picking the right customer engagement strategy is the difference between growth and churn. Not every model is right for your business. But by designing your onboarding and retention processes with engagement in mind, you’ll have happier customers, a better product, and faster growth.
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