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In SaaS, everyone owns customer engagement

One of the most common (and existential) questions I get when it comes to customer engagement as it relates to a SaaS business is: “Who owns customer engagement?”

What the asker means by this is: “What department owns customer engagement?” Is it product? Is it customer success? Is it product marketing? Is it growth? These questions make us all feel like this guy.

People get quite passionate about it, actually. And it all stems from a common management practice which demands that all major metrics must be owned by a specific person or department:

  • Marketing owns leads
  • Sales owns revenue
  • Customer Success owns churn
  • Finance owns profitability

While I don’t like to subscribe to this maxim in general, it becomes particularly problematic when it comes to a metric like customer engagement. In fact, this question reminds me of a quote Stephen Daldry, one of the world’s top film and theater directors, gave in an interview several years ago. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but when talking about the collaborative nature of making a film, one of the things Daldry said was:

“I get really upset when I work with actors and they say to me, ‘My character wouldn’t do this or my character wouldn’t do that.’ I don’t know where they get this. Maybe they learn it in some acting class, but my response is always the same - ‘That’s ok. But it’s not your character. It’s OUR character.'"

The point Mr. Daldry is making here is that when producing a film—a highly collaborative art—no one person or one department owns the major elements that contribute to its success. No one person or department owns any of the pieces that add up to the ultimate goal of telling a great story. No one owns the characters, no one owns the plot, no one owns the look and feel, no one person owns the emotional impact. In fact, quite the opposite. In a collaborative art, everyone owns some piece of each of these. Ultimately, everyone owns the story.

In the production of a film, there are many people, many departments, many roles whose work must come together in order to build something great. To try to manage this complex organism by creating artificial ‘ownership walls’ would be a disaster.

I feel the same way about the ownership of high-level, output metrics in a business, of which customer engagement is certainly one.

Ask a different question

Instead of focusing on the question, “Who owns customer engagement?”, a better question to ask is: “What contributes to customer engagement?”

By going beyond the who and looking at the what, you can start to unpack the truth of this matter. So, what does contribute to customer engagement? Let’s have a look:

  • The concept: Let’s start right at the beginning. If you are building a business on top of a concept that just doesn’t provide much value - or one that doesn’t solve a problem - while you may be able to market your way to some signups and trials, it’s going to be awful tough to drive sustainable engagement.
  • Initial expectations: Mismatched expectations can be a killer for user engagement. If users expect something different than what your product delivers, it’s going to be very hard to keep them engaged (even if your product does provide some value).
  • The product: Obviously, if you build a crap product - your engagement will follow. Even if you are solving a clear pain, if the product doesn’t deliver with key, valuable features If the product doesn’t deliver on key, valuable features, then users, well, won’t use it.
  • Usability: Not only does the product need to deliver on key features, but it needs to do so in a way that allows users to easily derive consistent value. And the more delightful the experience, the better. If the product is simply too hard to use, you aren’t going to see good engagement numbers.
  • Onboarding: More and more, good onboarding is becoming essential for laying a good foundation for engagement. If you can’t quickly and efficiently get users to the value of your product, you’re going to have a hard time keeping them engaged for longer than a week or two.
  • Integrations: The more your app is integrated into the normal workflow and experience of your users, the more engaged they will be. And this includes both technical and non-technical integration. The technical integration makes sense. If you have an email support app and it integrates with Gmail, you’re going to see more engagement from Gmail users than if you don’t. If you have a sales-related app and don’t integrate with Salesforce…good luck. Offline, if your product works very naturally into the regular flow of someone’s work/activity/behaviors, you will see stronger engagement.
  • Education: Keeping users educated of ways to continuously drive value from your product is essential to driving engagement. This can take on the form of in-app help/support assets, marketing messages, training webinars, certification programs, user conferences, etc. Education is a big deal for driving long-term engagement.
  • Social connection: This is not something that fits in many engagement checklists, but it should not be ignored. Products that build communities around themselves, ones that offer ways to socially connect with other users, can reach major heights in engagement.
  • Trust: Yes, more of the soft stuff. But again, don’t underestimate its importance to engagement. In this case, let’s look at the opposite of trust -“lack of trust”. If users DON’T trust your app (ie- they don’t think their data is secure; or they don’t trust the output of your reports; or the product is generally unreliable) or they don’t trust your team (i.e., support requests go unanswered for days; the CEO is caught lying in the press; management is under indictment, and so on) you are going to lose engagement. Trust is a cost of entry in most cases. It’s when you lose trust that you have a problem.
  • Pricing: I know this sounds strange, but one could argue that pricing can also play a role in engagement as well. There are some pricing models that actually dissuade more usage, so it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
  • Continuous awareness: This is super important in today’s world. With short attention spans and a zillion apps competing for that attention, simply keeping users aware- let alone engaged- with your product is a huge challenge. But be sure, without awareness, there is no engagement.

This is just a few of the things that go into overall customer engagement. But the point is this: There are many things that contribute to proper customer engagement.

Instead of focusing on the question, "Who owns customer engagement?", a better question to ask is: "What contributes to customer engagement?"

So how does this map back to the original question:

It’s quite clear to see by looking at the above list that the things that contribute to strong customer engagement do not live in a silo—and therefore can’t be managed in a silo. If you were to translate this list of things that contribute to customer engagement into the departments that impact these things, you would have a diagram that looks something like this:

Customer engagement graphic

As you can see it’s impossible to assign responsibility for customer engagement to one specific group. One could argue that everyone in the organization is responsible for customer engagement.

Now, ask a better question

I know it’s extremely difficult for some to let go of the idea of “ownership” and “accountability.” And that’s okay.

If you’re not quite there yet, then you can stop reading now and spend some more time with it (who are we kidding, you probably stopped reading a long time ago, if that’s the case).

But for those who are okay with this holistic point-of-view, then this next part should be easy. It’s now time to make the shift from the original question around ownership to: How can we actually drive better customer engagement?

This is the real question we should all be asking. We should be focusing, not on who, specifically, is responsible for customer engagement, but how we can improve it. This question leads to the right conversations. It leads to actionable strategies and takeaways. It helps bring the team together around a common goal and to attack a part of your business that demands an “all-hands-on-deck” approach.

It's now time to make the shift from the original question around ownership to: How can we actually drive better customer engagement?

As you transition away from the question of who to the question of how, there are a few basic tips that can help you be

1. Measure it. First and foremost, you simply can’t manage customer engagement if you aren’t continuously measuring it. This is an important starting point. Whether or not you use a solution like Sherlock for this, it’s essential that you find a meaningful way to quantify your customer engagement with your product or service before you can think about improving it.

2. Treat it as a KPI. Again, customer engagement is the lifeblood of your entire SaaS business, so you need to treat it with the appropriate level of priority. Customer engagement should be a KPI of which everyone in the company is acutely aware. It’s a metric that should be discussed at every executive and board meeting and treated like a true indicator of the current and future health of the business.

3. Make sure everyone is aware of their part. Make sure that everyone on the team is aware that this is a metric that no one group owns. Have that discussion as soon as possible. More importantly, as part of this discussion, help everyone understand the part they play in driving engagement. Come to an agreement on clear and specific initiatives that each group can contribute to driving great engagement.

4. Treat it as a lifelong pursuit. Customer engagement is not something you solve once and move on. For as long as you have a product—for as long as you have a SaaS business with customers—you are going to be fighting this battle. Approach customer engagement with a long-term mindset and manage this metric like your business is riding on it. Because it is...

Success begins and ends with engagement

Bottom line: customer engagement is the lifeblood of your SaaS business. If you have a highly engaged user base getting value from your product, most of the time, things will work out well for you. Sure, you need good sales, good marketing, strong cash flow, and so on. But generally, all of this can fall into line if you first have great customer engagement—achieved through a unified, holistic, “all hands on deck” approach. As Stephen Daldry might say: It’s our customer engagement.

Derek Skaletsky is CEO of Sherlock, a product engagement scoring solution.