Tuesday 06 March 2018
Traverse delivered a multi-strand public and stakeholder dialogue and engagement programme to gauge opinion on the introduction of new IVF-based techniques for the avoidance of mitochondrial disease.
11 May 2017
Earlier this year, a small team from Traverse ran three customer focus groups for Bristol Water, centred on customer priorities regarding their water supply. The quote above (paraphrased) demonstrates a conversation that happened across all three groups regarding customer’s wish to be informed, but their honest acknowledgement about their likelihood to engage with information sent their way.
In a time where we have access to more information than ever before, we are also demanding more information than ever before. We have higher expectations of organisations (and public individuals) to communicate effectively and transparently about everything from the diversity of their boards to the contributions they make the local community. In parallel to this, our capacity for absorbing information seems to be diminishing – “snackable” content is every more important – information we can quickly digest on the run, while juggling the 10 other things demanding our attention.
So how do organisations navigate a space where customers demand information but don’t engage with it?
Listening to Bristol Water customers this week underlined the value of face-to-face engagement as a way of providing a space for people to learn, share, and consider what information they value and why. In a safe, comfortable space, where people are encouraged to share their views with people like themselves, customers are able to think about what they don’t know, what they wish they did know, and what they really want out of a relationship with a company. It’s not a space for organisations to defend their decision making, or explain away difficulties. Rather, it’s a forum for customers to feel listened to, and to physically verbalise their experiences and opinions.
These spaces also give participants the opportunity to put their views in context. They are given the opportunity to relate their experiences with those of others, and to challenge others and be challenged themselves. This can serve to change the tone of discussion from an individual interacting with a company, to a discussion between members of a community. Seen in these terms, the idea of customer engagement is more naturally moved towards that of participation, in which both customer and company play a role in developing solutions to challenges that affect that both.
Of course, face-to-face engagement is limited in terms of the number of customers who can realistically be involved. Sending out a survey can certainly reach greater numbers. Ideally, however, face-to-face engagement can be used as a way of providing richness and context to larger scale engagement and research activities. Ofwat’s principles of engagement for the water industry for PR19 calls for “triangulation” of research, and it is here that face-to-face engagement can really bring value. Working with small groups of customers to test ideas, and understand opinions can give the rationale behind certain customer preferences that quantitative research can’t explain.
There also is pressure on companies to demonstrate innovative, digital engagement with their customers. Numbers of Twitter followers, post reach on Facebook, and a wish for something (anything!) to go “viral” can easily become an obsession, and, to be fair, handy metrics and customer-generated content are really useful tools for measuring success. However, it’s a challenge to get and keep people’s attention on digital media, and there are some issues that require more information exchange and opportunity for discussion. Face-to-face engagement provides the time, focus, and inter-personal interaction that is difficult to replicate online.
As stated by Ofwat, “engagement is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ process. A robust engagement strategy should have a range of different methodologies, appropriate and proportional to the subject matter in question. However there is no doubt that face-to-face engagement, whether using deliberative techniques or more traditional qualitative methods, should be a foundational part of any strategy. To return to the issue that prompted this blog post (customers demanding information but not then not reading anything they’re sent) – it might be that the information this type of engagement generates doesn’t give easy answers. In fact, the answers given may be frustrating in their complexity, but they are also often richer, and more human. As such, they demonstrate a genuine intention and authenticity on the part of the company seeking to learn from them.