Customer Experience vs. Customer Engagement — A Distinction Without a Difference?


Share on LinkedIn

In recent months I’ve been seeing and hearing the term “customer engagement” pop up more and more. Mostly from the technology community (vendors and analysts). I’ve wondered, is this another shades-of-Social-CRM attempt to rebrand CRM solutions? Is it just another term for customer experience?

For starters, “customer experience” seems consistently well understood. Bruce Temkin, co-founder of the CXPA puts it succinctly: “Customer experience is the perception that customers have of all their interactions with an organization.”

In business world, however, engagement can mean many different things. On the Internet, engaged visitors spend more time on a web site. With employees, engagement is a measure of how committed a worker is to the job and company. With customers, while there is no one definition, I think the common thread is that higher degrees of engagement mean a deeper commitment. More time. More emotion. More of a relationship.

But not everyone sees it this way. Epsilon President Andy Frawley, author of Igniting Customer Connections, has a different slant. He says customer experience is the emotional connection a customer has with a brand. Engagement, on the other hand, means “actions that the consumer can take include buying, posting, tweeting, liking, following, referring, and more.”

Attitudes and behaviors are, of course, the two main components of loyal customer relationships. If we provide experience customers like, they will have a positive feeling and will be more likely to spread positive word of mouth. And, they’re more likely to continue to be a customer and increase their purchases.

Over the years I’ve certainly seen terms come and go in popularity. CRM, for example, was introduced with great fanfare 20 years ago as a loyalty-building strategy. Now it’s more commonly used as a term for sales/marketing/service automation. Customer Experience (CX) has picked up the loyalty banner, with CX advocates using many of the same arguments as in those early CRM days.

Customer Engagement, though, is not used consistently. To illustrate, I asked a number of industry experts for their views.

“Customer engagement are the efforts that companies make to reach out and obtain some form of customer connection. The engagement may be limited to a purchase or a whole detailed discussion.
–Lior Arussy

Customer engagement is something different, it’s a behavior and attitude, an outcome of customer experience.
–Bruce Temkin

Customer engagement is how you engage with customers. By engaging with them you give them an experience.
–Colin Shaw

Customer engagement is what you hope customers will do for you; it’s either enticed or earned. Great CX earns it.
–Lynn Hunsaker

End-to-end customer engagement platforms enable companies to be proactively contextually relevant in real-time which lead to measurable revenue growth.
–Christine Crandell

Customer engagement (is) the representation of the relationship between your brand and your customer. A fully engaged customers should be engaged to the point of advocacy – i.e. they become a ‘fan’ of your brand.
–Ian Golding

Walker’s Leslie Pagel, writes that engagement as a metric with four elements: product usage, sentiment, involvement, and competitive activity. This strikes me as the most useful and meaningful way to described how, um, engaged a customer is with a company. But, it may get lost in the noise as the term is used for marketing fodder.

So you can see that industry thought leaders don’t agree. Some say engagement is what companies do, others say engagement is an outcome of experiences — essentially a synonym for loyalty.

What about the vendor community? Quite a few years ago, Allegiance was one of the first vendors, in what we now call the EFM or VoC space, to use “engagement” as a synonym for loyalty. We’ll have to see if the company’s messaging changes after the merger with Maritz to form MaritzCX.

One of the first CRM vendors to use Customer Experience in its positioning was RightNow, a cloud-based customer service provider. Oracle acquired RightNow and has continued with CX in its marketing. My Google search on “CXM” found this ad: “Oracle CXM Solutions – Sell More. Know More. Grow More‎.” That reads pretty much like a CRM ad circa 2000. Clicking through to the landing page found marketing, sales, service solutions (again, CRM) positioned as the way to “deliver consistent, personalized customer experiences with Oracle’s complete, integrated cloud solutions that connect every customer engagement with your brand.”

On a recent briefing, SAP’s Volker Hildebrand essentially positioned Customer Engagement as what the company does to deliver a Customer Experience. In addition to CRM, Engagement includes Commerce, which may explain why the company is now marketing CEC (Customer Engagement and Commerce) solutions.

There has been some gnashing of teeth in consulting circles that software vendors will hijack customer experience to mean systems and software like CRM. Despite lots of marketing and some of the usual hyperbole about offering a “complete” CX solution (no one vendor does or ever will), I’m finding that the market is not as confused as in the not-so-good old CRM days. Both experts and business leaders seem to “get it” that customer experiences shouldn’t be mistaken for tools.

In the past I’ve argued that to avoid conflating methodologies with tools, consultants should use CEM and vendors CXM. But that idea went nowhere. Instead, vendors like SDL and others are promoting CXM as an alternative to CEM.

Engagement shouldn’t be used as a synonym for experience

Experience is what the customer perceives. If it’s a positive experience, you should see the customer becoming more engaged, otherwise known as exhibiting loyalty behaviors and attitudes.

So I find myself in a somewhat unexpected agreement that “customer engagement” is actually a good and useful term for the vendor community. After all, they do provide the systems that help companies deliver at least some customer experiences, with the goal of creating more engaged (loyal) customer relationships.

I’d like to suggest a new industry category of CES — Customer Engagement Systems. The platforms, systems and applications that help deliver some of the experience that customers perceive. That would avoid confusion with CEM/CXM, which should be more about the strategy of delivering experiences that will build loyalty.

That might help us all not confuse inputs with outputs.

Further Reading:


  1. Thanks for exploring this, Bob. Great observations. I love your suggestion to use CES = Customer Engagement Systems for tools/platforms that enable engagement between an organization and its customers.

    I thought about CXS = Customer Experience Systems for the whole kit-and-kaboodle of tools/platforms surrounding/supporting the customer experience. In that case, CES would be a subset of CXS.

    I think that CEM and CXM are interchangeable. CE is more ambiguous than CX, because we’ve long had customer engineers using the CE acronym. I think CX has become well accepted in large part because of its use in the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s nickname for itself: CXPA. And #CX is a good hashtag, especially if you want a 2-letter tag.

    What we all need to keep in mind when making marketing claims, jockeying for attention and position, and when discussing things casually, is that a customers’ experience extends beyond interactions with people and technologies and places:
    (a) it’s influenced by the product/service itself, possibly for a long time after purchase / being serviced
    (b) it’s influenced by the company’s policies and processes both during and long after purchase / being serviced
    (c) it’s influenced by business models, conveniences, and the company’s ongoing affiliations and reputation

    I hope we can all collectively rise above the temptations to represent ourselves as providing end-to-end customer experience solutions — as I believe it’s impossible for any one consultancy or tool provider to make that claim. There’s no such thing as a silver bullet of a plug-play-and-ignore solution/technique for customer experience, just as it’s laughable to claim that there’s such a thing for employee experience. Yet, some practitioners buying a solution initially allow themselves to believe that “we are a full-service provider” means all their needs will be taken care of by that provider. “Full-service” means completeness in the scope of what they do, but not necessarily completeness in the scope of what a practitioner actually needs. It’s a disservice to our whole field when practitioners become disillusioned and skeptical, so let’s pull together to represent what we do accurately, transparently, and constructively.

    I often engage with a company when I’m frustrated: I call or visit them and try to get resolution. But that’s not what we mean typically by “customer engagement.” Companies often try to engage with me to get me to buy their stuff, but that’s actually marketing and sales, not what we mean typically by “customer engagement.” When we use this term, it’s definitely intended to be positive and celebratory.

    Engagement is a 2-way street, in any type of relationship. Therefore, customer engagement has 2 sides to it: what the company does to engage with the customer, and what the customer does to engage with the company. More of a dance. And certainly not an entitlement, but more of a celebration of a mutually valued experience.

  2. It feels like there’s a bit of what I’d define as “term annexation” and/or “term overlap” here. As you note, good explanations of the concepts of engagement and experience can comfortably be explained as follows: “Experience is what the customer perceives. If it’s a positive experience, you should see the customer becoming more engaged, otherwise known as exhibiting loyalty behaviors and attitudes.”

    The fact that there’s no consistent definition among the pros isn’t particularly surprising. We also see it in employee research and consulting – in engagement, which is principally about alignment and productivity, where the term is also applied to enhanced customer focus by employees, what I’ve defined as employee ambassadorship. To extend the point, we can see it, as well, in customer and brand advocacy, where the developers of the recommendation metric have endeavored to extend their concept to annex the concept of advocacy, which is a completely different approach (based largely on positive/negative word-of-mouth and brand favorability)..

    While, per your post, there are both broad and subtle differences, as well as key connections, between customer engagement and customer experience, the common threads between them are customer-centric processes and relationship, perceived value and trust:

  3. Hello Bob,

    Interesting that you should talk about this subject now. Why? I spent 2.5 days as a guest of a software platform/apps vendor. The focus of the sessions was marketing: listening, publishing, engaging ….. At one point I noticed myself getting annoyed with the frequent use of the term customer engagement. Why? Because it occured to me that the software vendor folks were talking about interactions: clicking on an add, viewing a youtube video, liking a facebook page, sharing some brand published content with their ‘friends’ etc. Engagement = interaction with a brands content / marketing messages via digital channels and touchpoints.

    So I decided to look up the definition of engage, here is what I found:

    occupy or attract (someone’s interest or attention).
    “he ploughed on, trying to outline his plans and engage Sutton’s attention”
    synonyms: capture, catch, arrest, grab, seize, draw, attract, gain, win, captivate, hold, grip, engross, absorb, occupy
    “the tasks must engage the children’s interest”
    antonyms: lose
    involve someone in (a conversation or discussion).
    “they attempted to engage Anthony in conversation”

    2.participate or become involved in.
    “organizations engage in a variety of activities”
    synonyms: participate in, take part in, join in, become involved in, go in for, partake in/of, occupy oneself with, throw oneself into;

    Looks like the software vendors folks that I listened to are using the correct term for what they are talking about. And it occurs to me that what they were talking about and are selling is advertising in the digital age; advertising that allows interaction and feedback in real time.

    The vendor folks I was listening to were smart enough to get Customer Experience. They pointed out that brands and marketers had to do stuff that improved the customer experience. And their particular marketing platform would allow marketers to go about engaging with customers in a way that improved the customer experience.

    Summing up it occurs to me that:

    1) When selling to marketer use the term customer engagement to point to that which involves communicating and/or interacting with customers;
    2) When selling to sales folks then use the term CRM to refer to salesforce automation systems; and
    3) When talking to customer service folks use the term customer experience as it is a lot sexier than ‘call centre’ or customer service.

    Where does this leave Customer Experience? That is a good question.

  4. Nice observations, Maz. Just one concern, though. I caution against “When talking to customer service folks, use the term customer experience as it is a lot sexier than ‘call centre’ or customer service” because customer service is typically a day late and a dollar short when it comes to getting customer experience right the first time — which is what customer excellence is, from a customer’s viewpoint.

    Customer service is certainly important, and essential to get right. And first contact resolution is definitely important. Customer service typically comes into play post-sale when something is unclear or frustrating to a customer, so it plays a vital role for the company. In fact, compensation and clout should be increased exponentially for this important role.

    What I’m pointing out is that the rest of the company needs to listen to what customer service hears and create a closed-loop in systemic eradication of the majority of issues that find their way to the customer service organization, especially the issues that are severe hassles to customers.

    And the rest of the company needs to anticipate and proactively manage the ripple effect of what they do as it impacts customer experience. This is a more accurate use of “customer experience” because it encompasses product, service, policies, processes, business models, handoffs, attitudes, interactions throughout the customer life cycle and customer experience journey.

    I point this out because we’re discussing labels here, and I caution against labeling something just to make it sexy, when the application of that label misleads people into believing they’ve got their heads around the whole enchilada whereas it’s maybe the tortilla only.

  5. Hello Lynn
    I thank you for making the time to share that which you have shared. Totally get the point that you make on customer service v customer experience – you and I get the distinction and are in agreement.

    It occurs to me that in sharing that which I shared (through commenting on Bob’s post) I took my British sense of sarcasm for granted. So allow me to spell out clearly what I am saying:

    What we have going on under all the labels is what Harry Frankfurt called “bullshitting”. That is to say the use of whichever label is found to most useful by the author/speaker irrespective of the relevance-accuracy-fit of the term in that particular conversation. So we have:

    Customer Experience being used to talk about ‘call centres’ and customer service. Why? Because it is a lot sexier than ‘call centre’ or ‘customer service’. After all there is not much prestige paid to those doing customer service or managing call-centres. There is so much more prestige in Customer Experience.

    CRM being used to refer to what are mostly salesforce automation systems. Or perhaps simply a jumble of disconnected systems used by the folks in the call-centre.

    Customer Engagement being used by the marketing community when what they are talking about is digital advertising through banner ads, social sites (twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube..), mobile and mobile apps. The only difference is that this form of advertising (message pushing) is that it can be tracked: opening, sharing, commenting, responding….

    Put differently, it is the same old same old business as usual under new labels. Whichever label ‘sells’.

    All the best to you Lynn.

  6. A recent Gartner report on “Digital Customer Engagement” says “CIOs and e-commerce leaders can use personalization to heighten the four components of customer engagement to build loyalty, increase retention and improve sales results.”

    The four components:
    * Active Engagement – the customer’s willingness to participate.
    * Emotional Engagement – includes aspects such as trusting and defending the brand or the associated enjoyment of owning/using the product or service, and the the feel good factor associated with the interactions they have with the organization and the empathy they have for the company
    * Rational Engagement – logical aspects such as value, quality, detail and innovation, plus participation like helping other customers in self-service community
    * Ethical Engagement – e.g. manufacturer doesn’t test on animals, sourcing,

    E-commerce sellers therefore should “Use personalization to drive all four dimensions of customer engagement by:

    • Active — knowing your customers and offering them solutions (versus products)
    • Emotional — developing customer advocates
    • Rational — providing content that resonates and is easily searchable and findable
    • Ethical — determining what’s important to your customer and demonstrating this knowledge”

    What do you think of this?

  7. In a recent briefing with Verint, Marketing VP Scott Hays defined Customer Engagement as a superset of Customer Experience. Only customers can have customer experiences, while engagement takes into account the complete customer lifecycle and can involve employees, too.

    Verint’s vision for “Customer Engagement Optimization” involves orchestrating omni-channel experiences to improve efficiency, reduce risk, increase customer loyalty, and grow revenue.

    I’d say overall that Verint is using the term somewhat consistently with other tech vendors. “Engagement” means managing the experiences that the company controls, such as the contact center, web sites, stores, etc.

    Looking at it this way, it seems like Engagement and Experience are two sides of the same Interactions coin. The differentiation is mainly the company can manage engagement (input) while experience are what the customers get (output).

  8. Just for the record: I’m a bit surprised to read that customer engagement is called something new here. Already in 2006 Econsultancy and cScape published a report on the state of customer engagement. Richard Sedley, who wrote the foreword, was a speaker at one of our events in 2011 about exactly that topic. He had a clear definition, still the same as in the report, that was based on a definition by Ron Shevlin who gave it in a reaction to the definition the ARF gave earlier that year in an effort to find another way to measure advertising than GRP. However, it is true that it seems there are many definitions around that seem to stem from different disciplines. That’s too bad of course. A lot of work regarding customer engagement has been done in Europe and also in Academic circles in New Zealand by an originally Dutch lecturer. She launches a book on it in 2016 but the papers go back to 2011 and build upon the same definitions. I thought that might have been the reason of all the different answers you received but then again, as said it was defined first by the ARF and that’s American 🙂 Happend to stumble upon this piece as I planned a piece on the topic too because I indeed noticed that everyone uses the word differently. But guess we have that issue in many other areas too 🙂 Thanks for the article, will certainly refer!


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here