The Marketing Strategist:

Six Steps to Establishing a Formal Customer Engagement Program

November 15, 2012

Customer engagement programs can strengthen relationships and build loyalty with key stakeholders at existing customer accounts. Research shows, however, that customer engagement programs are most successful when managed programmatically—not as one-off activities or campaigns. Here are six steps that Marketing can take to establish a formal customer engagement program. A successful customer engagement program has many moving parts, but ITSMA’s framework can help companies create more effective customer engagement programs: 1. Set clear objectives. Clear, appropriate, and well-communicated objectives are the cornerstone of any successful program. First and foremost, a customer engagement program must focus on deepening relationships, not on short-term sales transactions. All stakeholders across the company (senior executives, account managers, marketing, and so forth) need to both understand and agree on the program objectives, such as engendering loyalty and trust, strengthening existing relationships, developing new relationships, and more. This is often easier said than done because it is difficult to partition the customer engagement activities from the broader account team objectives. Still, the customer engagement professionals must persevere! Ultimately, the only reason for investing in customer engagement programs is to position the company for increased revenue growth within the account. However, this objective must be understood as a long-term, indirect benefit. The immediate concern is the quality of the relationship. 2. Tier and target customer accounts. Through strategic tiering and targeting of customer accounts, companies build relationships with those customers, and the executives within those customers, that present the greatest upside. One-size-fits-all programs rarely work. Furthermore, with limited resources, companies are unable to provide the same level of engagement across all of their accounts. Some accounts are targeted for one-to-many programs, while others receive more attention through one-to-few and even one-to-one programs. Many of the companies ITSMA has worked with create different programs for various tiers of accounts. And then, within accounts, personalization—based on personal profiles of key individuals—is highly effective. Customers are typically selected based on current revenue or profit, potential revenue or profit, strategic value, or the current state of the relationship. Individuals within accounts can be targeted by position, reporting relationship, role in the purchase process (e.g., budget holder, decision maker, influencer, end user), or influence. Some programs are designed specifically to spot the rising stars and help accelerate their careers. Sales (or client directors/partners in professional services firms) should be involved in the customer selection process. Sales owns the customer relationship and if the account team is not on board, failure won’t be far behind. 3. Balance the event and communications mix. The best-performing companies take a programmatic approach, as opposed to an event-focused approach, to their customer engagement programs. They also follow an overall cadence and communication strategy based on customer input. Specifically, they:
  • Connect in-person events with ongoing communications to progressively build stronger relationships. Without diminishing the importance of face-to-face activities, a sophisticated use of linking communications elements (email, newsletters, webcasts, and interactive social media) could significantly enhance the return on investment (ROI) from expensive in-person meetings. For some companies, the follow-up activities capture and communicate significant value, extending the shelf life of an in-person event.
  • Avoid overreliance on one-to-many activities, such as large annual conferences that do not encourage more intimate and mutually beneficial relationships. Although big conferences are likely to remain important, a tiered approach should be explored, incorporating one-to-few activities such as advisory boards and customer councils. Follow the trends and develop events that are smaller in size, shorter in duration, customer-driven, and centered around peer networking.
  • Create an exclusive club via membership boards and councils that provides an untapped opportunity to strengthen relationships, create advocates, and build unparalleled insight.
4. Create optimal content. Content is the number-one driver for senior executive event attendance. If there isn’t compelling, relevant business content, executives will pass on your event in favor of another provider’s. Hospitality programs are fewer and farther between and are best left to the sales organization. Along these same lines, the best way to differentiate your program is through your ideas and thought leadership, not the chosen venues. When planning events, solicit input from customers to select activities/meeting formats and create agendas. As important as the formal content is to capture potential attendees’ attention, the real draw for your programs is peer interaction. Customers want to network, learn, and even influence your strategy and plans. Consequently, you need to make sure that events include true peers. One of the happy outcomes of an event that emphasizes customer input and peer interaction is the creation and co-creation of new intellectual property (IP). This new IP can be further developed and packaged for delivery via multiple channels (portals, videos, white papers, podcasts, LinkedIn, and so forth). 5. Implement great program management. Best-practice customer engagement programs are typically managed globally by a dedicated group within the marketing organization. A single global program is not requisite; however, a global committee or management office will facilitate optimal resource utilization, consistency, and best-practice sharing. Regional, country, and local programs and events are needed to supplement global events. Most importantly, there needs to be discipline around action items and follow up from meetings and events, including adherence to timelines and timely, ongoing feedback. Accountability must be a priority. 6. Garner internal stakeholder commitment and support. To flourish, the customer engagement program needs support from all the key internal stakeholders. Obtaining sufficient budget and resources is always a challenge. Many of the individual programs and activities can be expensive and demonstrating ROI, given the long-term nature of the value proposition, can be difficult. Still, in our research we have been pleasantly surprised to find that senior management seems to know intuitively that customer engagement programs are important. Thus, they are willing to fund the programs even when there is a lack of hard evidence to support investment. That, however, does not mean you should forgo building the business case altogether. On the contrary, marketing still must set objectives, define key performance indicators (KPIs), and measure its results with the goal of documenting marketing’s contribution to business outcomes. When at all possible, marketing should include senior executives and other internal stakeholders in the program as speakers, facilitators, relationship stewards, and so on. Finally, all program outputs, including quantitative metrics, qualitative feedback, and IP developed, should be shared via a formal internal communications program with senior management, sales account managers, and more widely via multiple delivery channels. Read Build Successful Customer Satisfaction and Loyalty Programs.

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