Client engagement is an essential part of any successful client retention strategy. The concept of engagement can be applied to consumer brands, but it is even more crucial in business relationships for long-term success.

Then why is customer engagement so difficult to plan and execute?

In a surprising number of cases, client engagement isn't rational nor is it just about the physical product or tangible aspect of the service. Client engagement is emotional, intangible, and very personal. It is just as much an art as it is a science.

Moreover, there are many ways to understand, measure, and manage the motivational aspects of thousands (or even millions) of client interactions.

The more emotional and personal the bond between provider and client, the greater the potential engagement. However, establishing and maintaining such personal connections depends on the people who interact with clients. When engagement comes down to so many, managing it gets messy.

That's where good leadership comes in. Here's a look at what leaders who inspire customer engagement across their organizations regularly do.

1. They foster a positive relationship climate

After six years of cross-industry research, we've found that the motivation of clients is determined by the "relationship climate" they experience.

The practices of a company's client-facing people determine the relationship climate, and that climate is a good predictor of client engagement.

Fostering a positive relationship client must be deliberate. After testing with Fortune 500 companies, B2B startups, and service and manufacturing companies, my company developed the six dimensions for measuring an individual's relationship climate as a guide:

  1. Integrity—Acting professionally with courtesy and respect
  2. Competency—Thoroughly preparing before any interaction with a client
  3. Recognition—Conducting business around the client's schedule
  4. Proactivity—Ensuring that the client does not encounter any surprises
  5. Savvy—Seeing beyond immediate problems to identify patterns and connections
  6. Chemistry—Relating to the client on a personal level

2. They turn transactions into actions

Most new client relationships start out as "transactional." Engagement between the provider and client is low and typically limited to the client's perception of the tangible attributes and benefits of a specific product or service or transaction. Clients are "satisfied" with the product or service but passively shop around for a better deal. This is the trap of listening to "client satisfaction surveys." Clients are not engaged simply because you deliver what you were supposed to deliver.

Leaders must continually provide value beyond what their competitors are doing to ensure that engagement builds and takes hold. There are many ways (such as pricing, client service, or listening to what clients' needs are) to keep clients engaged. Take action to learn what makes your clients tick.

3. They make clients feel important

After a buyer and seller have proven themselves, the relationship evolves and strengthens into a reputation-driven relationship climate. A client becomes predisposed to buy a product and continue the relationship because of the client's own pattern of successful transactions with the company. The provider has earned a favorable reputation.

Clients look beyond a given transaction and are prone to trust the provider to offer other products or services that will satisfy their needs.

Many people feel this way about their professional service providers—accountants, lawyers, etc. Inspiring engagement at this stage requires making clients feel important, special, and appreciated. For example, a financial services representative who remembers a client's name, references the last correspondence with that client, and stays in touch to make sure there are no ongoing unmet needs will create greater client engagement.

4. They get emotional

The highest level of client engagement occurs when the relationship involves more of an emotional bond than a rational one.

Emotionally engaged clients limit their shopping to favorite providers and are far less price-sensitive. They tend to forgive any lapses by the company and are much more likely to speak positively of it and refer new clients, due to the growing emotional connection. In fact, our research has shown that clients who give providers high relationship climate scores talk positively about the provider 44% more than low climate clients do.

To move to the "emotionally engaged" level, companies and their representatives must see beyond immediate problems to identify patterns and relate to the client on a personal level. The best way to do this is to identify where you play on clients' value chain. Do they call you in when they have a problem and need to brainstorm solutions or only when they have a solution and need someone to implement it?

Providers that play early on earn descriptors like "valuable" and inspire greater engagement and emotional commitment to the relationship.

5. They lead with engagement

A company's leaders ultimately control commitment to the advice above. It can be difficult to secure budget or buy-in for client engagement initiatives, but these four leadership practices make leading with engagement more effective:

  • Demonstrate personal commitment to achieving goals
  • Clarify responsibilities within the organization
  • Encourage innovation and calculated risk-taking
  • Allow people to participate in decisions

When client engagement is an explicit goal, leaders must demonstrate their personal commitment and "walk the talk."

If client-facing personnel and their supervisors are free to solve client problems without falling back on a corporate bureaucracy, leaders must clarify responsibilities and emphasize innovation and risk taking. Relationship managers are in the best position to guide the company to be more responsive to clients, so companies need leaders who allow those managers to participate in decisions—especially ones that affect their clients.

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image of Tom Cates

Tom Cates is founder, CEO, and Chief Storyteller of salesEQUITY, a SaaS-based client engagement platform that uses a proven quantitative methodology to measure and assess the health of individual client relationships.

LinkedIn: Thomas Cates