Customer engagement: digital and physical

Customer engagement isn't only a digital "thing". It's got a lot more to it. Rich Toohey, Vice President of Marriott Rewards, speaks to us on what more there is.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

As we head toward Monday's announcement of the CRM Watchlist 2015 winners and we travel more deeply into an era defined by customer engagement, it becomes important to find the practitioners who are creating the engagement initiatives in different venues. There is a group of vertical industries that I call "emotional verticals." These are the industries that individuals have a strong emotional involvement with, the industries that are in the forefront of defining many engagement initiatives. Think retail, sports, entertainment, health services/wellness, financial services, travel, and of course, hospitality as a good solid group of those kinds of vertical industries.

In my never ending quest for truth in strategy, I spoke with a great friend of mine, Rich Toohey about these matters. Rich is a practitioner who has reached the level of subject matter expert, and is well versed in how to think about engagement. This guy has been active speaking around the CRM world on this very subject.

The industry he works in? Hospitality. Rich is the Vice President of Marriott Rewards, responsible for the Marriott Hotels Loyalty program. That program has been called the Top Hotel Loyalty Program in the first-ever Fortune and Travel + Leisure Best in Business Travel Survey done in 2014.

I asked Rich to tell us how he saw engagement going forward. What should companies be thinking about when it comes to engagement? Take a look at this good man's perspective on why digital engagement isn't the only engagement that has to be taken into account when planning engagement strategy.

He is so right about that.

Take it away Rich.


There's no doubt we are in the era of the "connected customer", a digitally-fueled development with significant customer engagement implications. Digital engagement adds immeasurably to the customer experience, creates new means of connecting, and brings scale to interactions where that wasn't possible before.

That said, customer engagement efforts must be designed considering both digital and physical execution. A simple and straightforward premise, right? Perhaps so, but a recent encounter reminded me that while obvious, it's often overlooked.

My family has used the same wireless provider for 10+ years. During this time, there have been many new phone purchases, our service bundle has expanded, and service needs have effectively been resolved online, at stores and with call center assistance. I'd call myself an engaged customer, to say the least.

This past holiday season, our provider sent numerous emails offering great deals on new smartphones; as my son wanted to upgrade, I was receptive. Using our online account, I compared the iPhone 6 to his current device and to other new smartphone options; confirmed all costs to upgrade; and decided to buy.

However, an activation question was not addressed in online FAQs so I called customer service. I explained that this iPhone 6 was a Christmas gift for my son and would not be activated for 2+ weeks; the rep confirmed how to do the activation and that my son could even do so on Christmas day ... perfect! I confidently placed the order with her. All was set for what I imagined would be an awesome surprise gift.

Not quite. My son received a "thanks for your new phone order" confirmation text the next day. The surprise was no more.

I certainly appreciate the use of "triggered" confirmation communications. For instance, Marriott Rewards automatically sends emails to confirm point redemption award transactions or when members achieve a new Elite status level. What peeved me about this instance was that I explicitly told the rep that this purchase was a Christmas surprise for my son. The digital portion of this engagement effort likely worked as planned; however, the design was not informed by information from an offline service interaction. The provider did not consider digital and physical execution in their customer engagement design.

As customer engagement is a term that is widely used (perhaps overused?), it's important to clarify the usage here. Perhaps not surprisingly, the clearest definition for customer engagement that I've seen comes from Paul Greenberg: "The ongoing interactions between company and customer, offered by the company, chosen by the customer." Beyond acknowledging the two-way nature of engagement between customer and company, this definition enables a broad interpretation of "interactions" that accommodates online and offline contacts rather than placing digital-only 'shackles' on the notion of engagement.

Businesses with physical assets have little choice but to consider "offline" as they create engagement programs; the fact that people are social beings who crave contact can be used to advantage when designing offline interactions. The offline challenge is consistency: interactions with a human service element (compared to digital-only engagement interactions) are more difficult to execute reliably. That said, real engagement power comes from programs informed by digital and physical execution elements -- a true "digi-cal" engagement design. More importantly, customers now thread together all of their experiences -- digital and physical -- as they interact with a company; why wouldn't a company do the same to engage customers?

Here's an example:

Marriott Rewards is currently testing Local Perks, a new means of delivering geo-targeted information and offers to interested members during their hotel stay using the member's smartphone and Marriott's mobile app. At the core of Local Perks is a thoughtful digital design that leverages Beacon technology installed at various locations inside the hotel to deliver relevant content and offers. Offers and content are tailored to take advantage of the individual features and outlets available at each hotel.

The first Local Perks interactions were piloted at the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina and customers reported that the digital experience was seamless. More impressive, perhaps, was the knowledge, enthusiasm, and support demonstrated by hotel associates as they encouraged app downloads, promoted offer trial, and answered "how to" questions. The integration of a physical execution component in the form of Marriott's signature service to these digital interactions created a hybrid "digi-cal" program, a holistic hotel experience, and a platform for effective customer engagement.

Digital engagement has the potential to deliver material value for customers and the organizations who serve them. However, if the aim of an effort is to maximize customer engagement, that's not enough. To maximize the value of any engagement program, the design must successfully fuse digital and physical interactions.


Thanks, Rich. That should be food for thought for those of you out there starting to think about engagement with all its simplicity and all its nuances.

On to the Watchlist. See you Monday for the announcements!

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