OPINION

CE: Our Next Great Customer-Focused Buzzword

CRM is not itself a technology — it’s a discipline enabled by a technology. Butthe ideas are so completely enmeshed with technology today that it’s almostimpossible to talk CRM without lapsing into jargon.

That’s led to the abduction, abuse and expropriation of technical terms, which oftenresults in confusion over what they actually mean. Just look at how terms like “thecloud,” “customer experience” and “social CRM” have been loosely handled.

At this stage, the definitions of these terms are cloudy at best, and thatcan only hamper the understanding of these important concepts in the minds of thebusiness leaders who could benefit from them the most.

Another term is currently being loaded into the barrel: “customerengagement.” You’ll see it attached to a swath of new products in the next18 months. Some of the applications will be accurate, while others will beinappropriate and misleading.

What It Means

Customer engagement (CE) refers to the engagement of customers withone another, with a company or a brand, according to Wikipedia, that great font of collective — and, at times, accurate — information.

The initiative for engagement can be either consumer- or company-led, and the medium of engagement can be on or offline.

There is a lot of wiggle room in that definition. My fear is that the phrase “customerengagement” will be redefined according to what’s useful to various vendors andend up being another term without meaning.

That would be bad, because takenaway from its status as jargon, customer experience — minus the quotes — is theprincipal reason we have customer relationship management solutions in place.

If we hope to have return customers — and if we hope to create customers who areadvocates for our businesses — we need to ensure that the experiences they have with us are as pleasant and rewarding as possible.

Yet it’s inevitable that CE will become a term that varies based on the job description of the person dropping it into conversation. As that happens, be aware of it — and don’t fall for three misconceptions about CE that you’re bound to be confronted by in the very near future.

Don’t Confuse CE With CRM

By now, CRM has been well defined as the discipline of acquiring and retainingcustomers and building customer relationships. CRM technology, by applyingconcepts of data management and organization, allows that discipline to scale.

However, there’s long been a stigma around the acronym “CRM,” stemming from the generation of products from the early 1990s. CRM implementationsfailed at a staggering rate, for reasons that were sometimes technological, but more often organizational.

Automating processes that don’t work effectively only makes themfail faster — but it’s always easier to blame the technology than to look inward atsystemic failures of our own creation.

Don’t be shocked to see CRM vendors embrace the “CE” acronym in order to get past the legacy of old-timey CRM. “Customer engagement” sounds new and certainly more human than “CRM,” but you can’t effectively engage with a large customer base without the data management and distribution capabilities provided by CRM.

Don’t Think That ‘CE’ Means Software

You’ll hear a ton of vendors tell you about new technologies you can buy to allowyou to engage better with your customers. There’s no doubt that we’ll see a wealthof great new technologies that address an aspect of customer experience.

However, as with social CRM, engagement is a broad concept that will take on various shades, depending on the context of each business. For that reason, expecting a one-size-fits-all customer engagement technology to appear is as dubious an idea as expecting one brand of CRM application to work for every business.

Although life would be simpler, it just doesn’t work that way.

Customer engagement depends on many of the same underpinnings as CRM,starting with the people you hire and the policies your management puts in placeto deal directly with customers and translate the data your technology collects intoinformation your employees can use.

For your customers, engagement will have a face — and it’ll be the face of your employees.

Don’t Allow CE to Be Tactical and Not Strategic

Customer engagement is not about creating communities. It’s not about providingbetter service. It’s not about gamification of the customer relationship, or aboutmore effective marketing automation, or about establishing channels for co-creationof products or services. It’s about all those things, and a lot more.

The new productsthat emerge in the field of customer engagement, if they follow the patterns set bymarketing automation, social CRM and sales enablement tools, will initially solvespecific sets of related problems. Using these tactical tools to get past pain points isa smart idea — but take care not to solve these pain points without an idea of howto integrate these tools to create a unified engagement strategy.

You have to decide consciously what a customer engagement strategy will look like– and you can’t allow the technology to drive that strategy.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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