Research Spotlight

ISB hosts two-day Symposium on Customer Engagement

Customer is king. Marketing scholars and practitioners are in perfect synchrony on this. No matter which way one looks at it, marketing is all about creating ‘compelling value propositions’ for customers. With customers taking centre stage, the need for greater collaboration between marketing academics and practitioners is at its highest. To address this need, Indian School of Business (ISB) conducted a two-day symposium at its Hyderabad campus, on 24-25 July 2017, in order to facilitate a deeper dialogue between academic scholars and industry peers on “Customer Engagement”.

Leading marketing journal editors, eminent scholars, promising young scholars, and seasoned practitioners participated in the symposium, and shared insights on the various facets of customer engagement. With academics presenting empirical findings of research studies, and industry participants highlighting real-life instances, the symposium served as a platform to discuss and analyse various customer engagement strategies for turning customers into co-creators and product evangelists.

Dr V Kumar, Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Marketing and Regents Professor, Richard and Susan Lenny Distinguished Chair Professor of Marketing, and Executive Director of the Center for Excellence in Brand and Customer Management at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, started by asking the million-dollar question: “What is customer engagement?”

Customer engagement, Dr Kumar noted, happens when customers experience satisfaction and emotional bonding with the firm. The example of the Indian ice-cream company Hokey Pokey was used to demonstrate how engaged customers tend to actively recommend products to prospective customers.
Scholars and industry peers agreed that customer engagement increases revenues and profits, and enhances customer loyalty. That said, several practitioners voiced concerns about the measurement of customer engagement by asking “How do we know if our customers are engaged or not?” Dr Kumar noted that the questionnaires and models developed by scholars could be used to examine and analyse the varying aspects of customer engagement. For instance, the survey on customer engagement could readily help firms to understand customers’ intentions to buy the product in the future and customers’ propensity to recommend the product to friends and family. Scholars and practitioners agreed to collaborate on the use and improvement of customer engagement measures in accordance with organisational needs.

The facet of customer engagement that received the most attention in the symposium was the linkage between customer engagement and employee engagement. Discussing field studies that he conducted to examine customer engagement, Dr Rajendra Srivastava, Dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB) and the Novartis Professor of Marketing Strategy and Innovation, explained that employee engagement was key to enhancing customer engagement and customer satisfaction. He pointed out that employee engagement in the form of dedicated and excellent provision of products and services provided the greatest impetus for customer engagement. Nonetheless, rating the employee engagement activities at their respective organisations most practitioners acknowledged that effective employee engagement continues to remain a huge challenge.

The symposium devoted an entire session and a roundtable discussion to the factors that enhance customer engagement. Dr S Arunachalam, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Indian School of Business, suggested that customer engagement can be amplified by inducing ‘creativity’ in products and services. Using the examples of latest iPhones, he argued that ‘meaningful novelty’, in particular, excites customers and induces strong emotional connections with the firm.

Dr Shaphali Gupta, Assistant Professor at the Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, presented a framework to help global companies measure customer engagement and devise effective engagement strategies against the backdrop of cultural differences. For example, Dr Gupta illustrated the need for varying engagement strategies in collectivist countries like India and China, in comparison with the United States that is an individualist culture. This cultural difference, in turn, determines the definitions and meanings of customer engagement.

Dr Anita Pansari, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Eli Board College of Business, Michigan State University, discussed the dynamic nature of customer experiences. Based on her research, Dr Pansari argued that customer engagement is related to customer experience, i.e. the extent to which the product is easy and convenient to use. She suggested that the cognitive, emotional, behavioural, sensorial and social aspects that constitute customer experiences are subject to constant change as customers hold varying experiences in the pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase stages.

Dr Sundar Bharadwaj, Professor of Marketing and Coca-Cola Company Chair, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia, and Visiting Professor and Research Scholar at the Indian School of Business (ISB), led the discussion on examining the role of real-time messages in enhancing customer engagement. Using the example of Amul’s advertising that uses current events in politics and games to design product messages, Dr Bharadwaj stressed on the use of planned rather than improvised real time messages. Using Oreo’s real-time message ‘You can still dunk in the dark’, Dr Bharadwaj shed light on the effects of real-time messages on consumer engagement in social media. He cautioned that the use of improvised real-time messages could have a negative impact on customer engagement, if customers believed that firms were manipulating special moments to achieve the firms’ own interests.

Industry participants at the roundtable discussion brought out a major issue to light: marketing academic contributions are slow to reach practitioners. They underlined the need for greater collaboration and dialogue to allow effective generation, timely dissemination and sharing of marketing knowledge between academe and practice. 

Catherine Xavier is a writer with the Centre for Learning and Management Practice, ISB

A longer version of this report will appear on the ISBInsight website.