The Problem with ‘Activation’, ‘Engagement’, and Talking about Customer Success like a Robot Image

The Problem with ‘Activation’, ‘Engagement’, and Talking about Customer Success like a Robot

By Benjamin Brandall

When was the last time you felt ‘activated’ by a product?

This is going to sound silly at first, and like internal language couldn’t have a meaningful effect on the way we look at approaching customer success for SaaS companies, but I’m going to argue that it can.

When you say that you need to increase activation, the term puts you in the mindset that a customer is something that can be activated, like pulling the cord to fire up a lawnmower. Thinking within the bounds of activation as a metric forces you to think mechanically about how, exactly, you activate a human being.

This leads to robotic solutions. Impersonal emailing, and the vague idea of retention, as if users are binary objects which are either in a 0 state of churned or a 1 state of retained. What it should lead to is a move towards empathy in the way we speak about customer success.

Empathy in Customer Success

Customer Success is a more empathic movement than most business functions. Terms like success, customer happiness, and satisfaction are used often, because it’s a human-centric way of thinking. There is, however, an analytical side to it that could get in the way of the success if it influences the way we see customers.

Instead of activating your customer, how about fascinating them? I’m not talking about this from a perspective that customers are mistreated, but from a perspective that it could lead to better results if it was considered:

What does activation mean to a human?

Personally, it makes it easier for me to think about how to improve activation if I don’t consider it in mechanical terms. What might your customers find fascinating? That’s much easier. I can imagine feeling fascinated, but feeling activated is a pretty abstract state of being.

Is there any evidence this makes a difference?

Outside of the realm of CS-speak there’s a lot of research to suggest that the way we speak affects the way we think and act.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff devotes his life to the study of metaphors, and argues that metaphors limit the way we think. For a long time it was thought that metaphors (‘activation’ being one of them) were purely a linguistic construction, but Lakoff argues otherwise.

Instead of accepting metaphors as simply an element of the language we use, Lakoff says they are central to the development of thought.

Example: What’s a better word for tax?

To change the way you react to a word or phrase, it needs to be reframed in your mind. Tax, for example, is something that gets people all riled up.

In a feat of heroic copywriting, George W. Bush reframed the term “tax cuts” to “tax relief” in his early speeches, positioning himself as a hero relieving the people of America, while casting aside any the aggressive implications of the word ‘cut’.

In terms of a data-driven explanation, the repulsive power of the word “tax” is shown in an experiment which tested a sample’s willingness to pay a surcharge labelled “carbon tax” vs. one labelled “carbon offset”. As a result of this rewording, participants were 5 times more willing to pay the surcharge when it was labelled as an “offset” than when labelled as “tax”.

Making a change to the way you think, not the way you analyze

Of course, I understand that you can’t graph ‘customer fascination’, and that it’s easy to bring tangible metrics into the way you think and speak about customer success. But, it could be harmful.

Along with the fact that we’re looking for the next definitive set of 50 hacks we can use to rewrite our user’s braincode, it’s an impersonal way to treat something human. Think about it this way:

Why might a user leave their account unactivated?

Because they got bored. Because they think the product is worthless, frustrating, and doesn’t make their life easier. By thinking about the issue in human terms instead of hiding it behind several layers of abstraction, it helps us empathize, make connections and understand the reasons behind the issue.

Delight vs Success

Terminology in tech-land is always evolving. When the Customer Success movement started, the name was a deliberate, calculated choice. The 2010 Harvard Business Review article “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers” argues that delighting customers has little bearing on loyalty, whereas keeping your basic promise does.

Meeting your customers needs — even in an unremarkable, undelightful way — is the prime function of Customer Success.

The HBR article sums it up perfectly:

“How often does someone patronize a company specifically because of its over-the-top service?”

There’s similar resistance to manufacturing delight over success in design circles. In the article “”Delightful” Interaction Design Needs to Die”, the writer John Pavlus criticises design time spent on tiny, insignificant app elements. Time, he argues, that could have been spent on creating a sustainable experience, not a flashy one.

“If I imagine teams of interaction designers all scheming about how to repeatedly extract a positive emotion out of me, I get queasy. Delight is a fleeting, idiosyncratic, irreducibly personal experience.”

The same goes for Customer Success. While delight is a quick endorphin high, true loyalty comes from long-term success.

We don’t remember function, we remember emotion

Being responsible for Customer Success means being a part of the overall experience that’s centered around your app. The way customers interact with your app follows the same principle as the way they interact with you. Daniel Ecker’s essay Design for Humanity makes a point about how our brains are wired to remember emotional experiences over facts:

The first time you meet someone, your first thought isn’t “How do they function?” it’s “How do they make me feel?” And when you’re asked about that person later, you describe their personality: “She’s relaxed, smart, witty. She makes me laugh.”

Compare this to a customer describing their feelings about interacting with your product. Their thoughts won’t be “I feel activated, engaged and 85% certain I’d recommend this to a friend and/or family member”. They’d connect the experience to how it solved their problems, made their life easier and helped them stop wasting time on things they hated doing.

When designing experiences for humans, it’s no use to talk in terms of robots.

Benjamin Brandall is a writer at Process Street. Find him on Twitter here.

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Benjamin Brandall

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