Customer engagement and the commonwealth of self interest: Part one

Self interest is not only the major driver in human behavior -- the desire to live a happy life -- but is also the prime mover in all customer-business relationships, by definition really. What does that mean for your business? Check this out.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Note: This is the first in a series of articles based on the thinking and research I'm doing for my new book, The Commonwealth of Self-Interest: Customer Engagement, Business Benefit (Harvard Business Press 2017 or 2018, depending on when I finish writing it). I'm not plugging the book, I swear. But I am thinking about stuff that I'd like to throw out to you to think about when it comes to customer engagement strategy and programs. I pinky swear. This is one of the key psychological, social, and rational parts of the engagement framework -- how human beings act. And this is only the beginning. Part one is about self-interest. Part two, the next part (duh), is about the commonwealth and how it all works together.

Commonwealth of self-interest? What? That means...?

OK. OK. It's not that obvious, but it is something that I've been throwing out there for more than a decade. It's finally become meaningful. I'm hoping that the term is meaningful because customer engagement and personalization of responses by businesses to their customers is now meaningful, rather than if you say the time is 12 o'clock constantly -- you're right twice a day.

There is a lot to that title. As a business you are living in an era where personalization of an individual's experience overall and interactions in specific are part of what you need to offer. But if your business scales, you will reach the point that you can't tailor an individual offer to a single customer without significant cost. Yet, you are likely going to have to, because even though you have significant number of customers -- thousands, millions -- each doesn't care that you are constrained, nor do they care about each of the other customers you have. They care about the interactions they have with you, whether they get the kind of outcomes they are looking for from you, as well as the value they want from those outcomes and from their overall experience.

In other words, like it or not, the basic truth that drives your customers in not only their interactions with you, but all their actions in life, because they are human beings, and they are self-interested. That means your recognition of that and planning for it can be the difference between success or failure or at least growth or stagnation of your business.

When trying to engage customers, there is no getting around working with and on that self-interest. Given that the communications tools available to the empowered -- even entitled customers at times -- are powerful and easy to use, businesses must take heed, strategically, not just in response to an issue or to push a program. However, on the glass half-full side, the business benefit in doing that is substantial and potentially enormous.

There are ways to engage customers successfully around their self-interest without bankrupting yourselves. Hell, that's the whole idea of this book. In the next section of this tome, I'll start helping you think about engagement strategy, but first, we need to set up one final piece to complete the necessary engagement framework -- what I'm calling the commonwealth of self-interest. If we are successful at that, the rest flows, and the valuable congress of company/customer interactions over time can be planned and implemented.

But, like most things, we need to start at the beginning, at the meaning of self-interest.

Self-interest does not mean selfish

As of 2017, there are, by most counts, approximately 7.5 billion human beings on this planet. While it might be evident, I'll say it anyway: Each of those human beings is unique in most ways. They have different hopes, dreams, stresses, desires, paths in life, and relationships, and they each think with a set of different metaphors. But there is one thing that all of us have in common: We all want to be happy. What it takes to make us happy is different. How we get to what we consider happiness is different, and what happens when we get there is different. But, in common, we want to have a good life and be happy. Additionally, we don't want to be miserable as we take our journeys toward happiness. We want to be happy on that journey -- and having as much control over it as humanly possible is one of the things that makes us happy. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things and at the atomic level, that's what life is about.

This isn't a fact unknown or speculation from some cheerful, overly optimistic guy. The 2016 World Happiness Report (yes, there is really one), an authoritative annual source on what makes us happy, establishes the broad criteria for subjective well-being: Happiness, smiling or laughter, enjoyment, feeling safe at night, feeling well-rested, and feeling interested. The negatives are anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress, and pain. With all this, there is also a social "theme," as the authors of the previous year's 2015 World Happiness Report put it:

"There is a common social theme that emerges consistently from the World Happiness Report 2015. At both the individual and national levels, all measures of well-being, including emotions and life evaluations, are strongly influenced by the quality of the surrounding social norms and institutions. These include family and friendships at the individual level, the presence of trust and empathy at the neighborhood and community levels, and power and quality of the over-arching social norms that determine the quality of life within and among nations and generations."

In other words, while human beings are self-interested, they want to be happy individually; they are not isolated fortresses of solitude. The environment around them and their relationships among friends, neighbors, families, and even those they run across maybe once, but purposefully, the way they trust, who they trust, and the norms established by the world they live in, all impact their happiness. But, you, human person, knew that already. Didn't you? That's still where we should start.

That's all great, but the question remains: How does this translate to a business that, by its very nature, depends on interactions and transactions with people? Not so cocksure anymore are you?

Let's start with a simple value proposition when it comes to your relationship to customers -- one that I've stated thousands of times over the years. It takes the essence of customer relationships down to its most naked. It goes... "If a customer likes you -- and continues to like -- they will continue to do business with you. If they don't, they won't."

As basic as that statement is, there is a deeply complex problem that businesses must solve associated with it -- and that problem is the satisfaction of the self-interest of its individual customers without breaking the bank.

At the level of a few customers, that isn't that tough, but it's still not easy. It's why, in countless tomes about CRM or customer experience or customer engagement or anything that uses customer as an adjective, the paradigmatic example you continually see is the mom-and-pop shop owner who gave the writer the sugary thing that they knew he or she liked when they were little -- each time that you (yeah, I know it's you they are talking about) came to the store. For whatever reason, we all have memories of things like that, which not only give us fodder for explaining archetypal personalized customer engagement but also gave us tooth decay. The problems we face now with examples like that, which might be accurate in explaining the feeling you want your customers to have about you, are: It's not 1960, 1970, 1980, or 1990 anymore. The paradigms for engaging customers as well as the requirements for it have dramatically changed.

Additionally, it's not one or two or 30 customers. It's one or two or 30 million customers, each with their own self-interested agenda. We are now talking of personalized interactions, great engagement, interesting experiences, and a good-enough overall customer experience at scale.

The fundamental question a business should ask itself -- and it is fundamental -- is:

"How do I satisfy the self-interest of each of my (fill in the number) customers so that their experience with me is good enough to want to them to continue to do business with me?"


"What does that mean to an organization already constrained by multiple factors?"

Before we get a lot further, let's dive a little deeper into the idea of self-interest. Despite my allegation of "not selfish," isn't self-interest selfish? No, it isn't. What, then, is it?

Adam Smith, who I have some differences with generally, did understand self-interest. He wrote (in Wealth of Nations), "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest."

What he was saying is a matter of fact when it comes to people generally. They tend to act in the way that is most personally beneficial -- which means in a way that makes them the happiest they can be under whatever circumstances surround them (a.k.a. in 21st century-buzzwords-with-substance terms -- in context). In the case of the butcher, brewer, and the baker, they chose the livelihood they chose because it was one that A) Gave them some satisfaction and B) Earned them the living they needed to earn. They sold meat, made beer, and made baked goods, respectively, because they know that for them to make money, they had to. It satisfied their self interest in multiple ways.

The translation to contemporary business is straightforward. Do the things you do for those self-interested individual customers, which make the relationship valuable to them a little at a time, make those things habitual, which in technological terms is automate them, and you will have customers who are happy, masters of themselves, and who will continue to interact with you?

But to get to that point, self-interest needs to be more clearly defined, because it's not as simple as pure, economic self-interest. If it were, we could leave things at the level of transactions.

Enlightened self-interest vs. Just plain, ole self-interest

This is the world of Mother Teresa -- and that's not a flip statement. While she didn't create it, she lived "enlightened self-interest." What is that and are most people practitioners of that?

The answer to "are most people practitioners" is... kinda, sorta, maybe.

For example, the 2014 Millennial Impact Report has some interesting numbers on what motivates millennials to work at a particular company. Look at the breakdown (1,500 respondents):

  1. A company's involvement with causes influenced 55 percent of millennials to accept a job.
  2. Once in a position, the main factor in determining whether they remained at their company (beyond compensation and benefits) was having their passions used and fulfilled (53 percent).
  3. Following behind was a belief in the company's mission and purpose (20 percent) and bonds with coworkers (20 percent).

What drives millennials (and many others of other generations) to work at a company is the company's commitment to social good (a.k.a corporate social responsibility, in the parlance of buzz speak). But keep in mind that this is what is in the millennials' self-interest. Not only is the company doing good, but as it says, once they are working, they stay at the company if they are having their "passions used and fulfilled."

Self-interest when it comes to businesses and work goes beyond just making sure that companies satisfy the customers with the right products and services -- e.g. meets economic self-interest.

To highlight how important it is to understand what the idea of self-interest means both individually and at scale, ladies and gentlemen, I enter into the record the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study. For those of you not aware of what CSR means, it means corporate social responsibility -- what is the company doing to support the world/Earth that it resides in. The data that the study gathered shows how much deeper self-interest truly goes when it comes to your engagement with your customers. Here are some of the more meaningful numbers:

Companies that support social and environmental issues

  1. Have a more positive image to consumers (93 percent)
  2. Are more likely to be trusted by consumers (90 percent)
  3. Engender more customer loyalty (88 percent)

... than companies that don't.

This has a direct impact on the company's bottom and top lines:

  1. Customers would be more likely to pay more for an environmentally and/or socially responsible product (71 percent).
  2. Customers would be willing to reward a socially/environmentally responsible company by buying its products over others and/or speaking about it positively to others (31 percent).
  3. Customers would be willing to punish a company that was clearly operating counter to environmentally/socially responsible efforts (19 percent).
  4. Customers would be willing to buy a product from a relatively unknown company if it were shown to be operating socially/environmentally responsibly (80 percent).

I can go on with significantly more data supporting the obvious here -- that self-interest goes beyond economic need, and there is a lot more to how customers consider engagement thus. The complexity of that self-interest and your need to develop a customer-engaged culture that supports that customer self-interest in conjunction with a recognition of your own constraints is probably the most important problem you will have to solve in this age of the customer. But it can be solved.

So, I'll leave you hanging a bit. Bwahahaha! In the next part in a week or so, I'll talk about the commonwealth part of the idea - meaning how you begin to solve it).

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