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I have been researching the psychology of customer and consumer behaviour for years. Yet, partnering with customer engagement specialists Affinion on their latest project, I did not appreciate the challenges I would encounter in mapping the customer engagement journey.  Affinion was keen to explore the psychological journey that consumers go on when building relationships with companies and commissioned me to work with them on an international multi-market research study into customer engagement.

We all agree achieving engaged customers is critical to business success. The problem is that customer engagement is so often misunderstood by organisations. It is something we ‘do’, but we struggle to articulate what it is. If we do not really know what it is, how do we know we are doing it, and doing it really well?

Reviewing business examples and academic theory wasn’t very helpful; actually the theory was pretty bad. It felt like I was in a small boat in the middle of an ocean in a very big storm. Fortunately, the research that I do often leaves me feeling like this. Not because I don’t know how to explain customer behaviour, rather because I spend my research time navigating misunderstood and complex behaviours.

As Thomas More notes in Utopia, “You wouldn’t abandon ship in a storm just because you couldn’t control the winds.” 

Stormy waters?

Bring it on!

Developing the customer engagement relationship model

The question to ask is not ‘what is customer engagement?’, but rather ‘how does it work?’. This reverse engineering led me to conceptualise customer engagement in a more novel and advanced way.  I identified the psychological building blocks of its DNA. From this I built the customer engagement relationship model to expose the multitude of emotions and rational thinking that sit within this customer journey.

In its simplest form the model looks like this:

Does it work?

Releasing the chaos of statistical testing, the data was turned inside-out, dissected and reconstituted to see what ‘truth’ it told. Satisfied at last, yes I can confirm the model “works” in 3 markets – banking, telecommunications and retail, across 13 countries.

The model establishes that building on customer’s interest by giving a highly positive experience, will increase customers evaluation of their relationships with the companies they interact with. From here their emotions, thought-processes and behavioural intentions are heightened. Becoming loyal entails a feeling of connection with their companies – they intend to stay with them, purchase more and act as their ambassadors.  This relationship showcases emotion and logic in action. Logic plays a bigger role at the start, typically expressed as a problem-solving task. Emotions soon join in though to jointly direct customer interactions. Inevitably the engagement challenge increases with each step that a customer takes. For example, think about the difference in effort required to stimulate interest compared with gaining customer emotional and calculative trust deeper in the relationship.

Which “works” best to engage customers – emotion or logic?

I get asked this question a lot.

It is the wrong question!

It perplexes me why any organisation would want to connect with only one half of the human brain. Humans are not designed to “work” that way. Neither is customer engagement.

A better question is “how do the emotions and thought-processes of customers work together to generate engagement and loyalty?”

To recap, the model shows a dynamic relationship that is a rich mix of motives, experiences, trust, satisfaction, emotions, problem-solving and behavioural actions working together towards the holy grail of customer loyalty.

So, consider the emotions and thoughts of customers towards their favourite companies:

Interest – ‘How am I going to solve this problem?’ What does this company have to offer; do I want it?’ Logic dominates, emotions are less active.

Experience – ‘How easily can I interact with this company?’  Will this company deliver on its promises?  Reason is working alongside emotions of security and peace of mind.

Evaluation – ‘I feel this company is trustworthy.’ ‘I am always satisfied when I buy from this company.’ Emotions and logic that underpin the quality of this relationship are working in unison.

Immersion – ‘I love this company.’ ‘I want to learn more about this company.’ I want to share my ideas with this company to help it improve its services.’ Intensive logic-emotion connectivity is taking place including enthusiasm, enjoyment, attention, absorption, sharing, learning and endorsement.  These represent significant gains in engagement and customer advocacy. They cannot be bought, they can only be earned.

Loyalty – ‘I will stay with this company’. ‘I recommend this company to others’. Emotions of attachment and liking are proactively working together with behavioural intentions. A relationship with strength and longevity is ripening, but it can never be taken for granted.

The water is calming. The psychological energy in emotions and reason is revealed as it entwines to enable companies to forge strong and authentic engagement relationships with their customers.

To find out more about this research, visit http://www.affinion.co.uk/insight/the-connected-customer/

Janine Dermody

Professor in Marketing & Consumer Psychology

Oxford Brookes University

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