One of the most common (and existential) questions I get when it comes to product engagement in 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 are questions around which passionate discussions are had, but they don’t do your business any good. They all stem from a common management practice demanding that all major metrics be owned by a specific person or department:

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

Why does one department need to own a metric? (Hint: It’s rhetorical, they don’t) Especially in collaborative environments (just ask filmmaker Stephen Daldry).

Like film, customer engagement is a collaborative exercise. Do you know what makes collaborative endeavors successful? When EVERYONE owns a piece of EVERYTHING.

In the production of a film, there are many people, and many departments, 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.

Ownership of high-level, output metrics in a SaaS business is the same. We’re looking at you, customer engagement.

The better question: What contributes to customer engagement?

Stop asking “Who owns customer engagement?” Seriously, stop it.

Go beyond the who and look at the what and you can start to unravel the truth of this matter. So, what does contribute to customer engagement:

  • 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 — it will be awful tough to drive sustainable engagement.
  • Initial expectations: Mismatched expectations can be a killer for customer 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 then users — well — they 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 customer 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 higher customer 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 customer engagement.
  • Education: Keeping users educated with ways to continuously drive value from your product is essential to driving customer 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 customer engagement.
  • Social connection: This is not something that fits in many engagement checklists, but don’t ignore it. Products that build communities around themselves, ones that offer ways to socially connect with other users, can reach major heights in customer engagement.
  • Trust: Yes, more of the soft stuff. But again, don’t underestimate its importance to customer engagement. In this case, let’s look at the opposite of trust — that’s lack of trust. If users don’t trust your app (e.g. 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 your team (e.g. support requests go unanswered for days; the CEO is caught lying in the press; management is under indictment), you are going to lose customer engagement.
  • Pricing: Hear me out. Pricing does play a (small) role in customer engagement. 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. Be sure, without awareness, there is no engagement.

Those are just a few of the things that go into overall customer engagement. But the point is this — there are MANY things that contribute to customer engagement.

So how does this map back to the original question – Who owns customer engagement?

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 cannot be managed in a silo. If you were to translate the 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:

It’s impossible to assign responsibility for customer engagement to one specific group. Everyone in the organization is responsible for it.

The best question: How can we actually drive better customer engagement?

Not ready to let go of the ideas of ownership and accountability? That’s ok.

For the rest of us, this next part should be easy. It’s now time to make the shift from the original question of who owns customer engagement to the more important question: How can we drive better customer engagement?

We should be focusing, not on who, specifically, is responsible for customer engagement, but how we can be improving 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 attack a part of your business that demands an “all-hands-on-deck” approach.

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 more successful in your efforts.

  • 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 you use Sherlock for this or not, it’s essential that you find some way to quantify your customer engagement before you can think about improving it. 
  • 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 exec and board meeting and treated like a true indicator of the current and future health of the business.
  • 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 customer engagement. Come to an agreement on clear and specific initiatives that each group can contribute to driving great customer engagement.
  • Treat it as a life-long 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. Treat customer engagement with a long-term mindset and manage this metric like your business is riding on it (because it is).

It’s our customer engagement

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, etc. But generally, all of this will fall into line if you have great customer engagement.

But you can’t achieve high levels of customer engagement by unnaturally forcing it into some management silo. It’s an element of your business that requires a unified, holistic approach. All hands on deck.

As Stephen Daldry might say: it’s OUR customer engagement.

A version of this post on customer engagement was originally published on the Zendesk Relate blog.