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Customer data: Helping you serve your customers better – or just creeping them out?

Companies have to walk a fine line when using the information they collect about their customers, even when they’re clearly trying to use the data to benefit those customers. Using information about a person’s habits and preferences to better serve their needs can be a great way to make them feel known and appreciated. But there are drawbacks to this approach, as highlighted in a Harvard Business Review post last week. Author Michael Schrage outlined how Qantas, Australia’s flagship airline, discovered how difficult it can be to use customer data effectively.

Schrage describes how flight attendants for the airline are equipped with tablets on board, which they can use to call up details about frequent flyers’ preferences and backgrounds. The difficulty arose when these flight attendants attempted to speak to the customers using the data displayed on the tablets. The staff had difficulty making the information sound like natural human conversation. “Instead of making their best customers feel special,” writes Schrage, “the data-driven app too often creeped them out.”

Another article, “The Right Way to Collect and Use Customer Data,” suggests that transparency about what kind of information you’re collecting (and how) goes a long way toward reassuring customers. It sets the expectation that your company will have certain information, so that customers won’t be surprised. But that doesn’t help the hapless customer service rep who is tasked with translating this kind of data into everyday conversation. In his post, Schrage even asks whether customer service reps should get training in improvisation or acting techniques to make them sound more sincere when they are integrating hard facts into customer interactions.

With the enormous amount of information companies can now collect on their customers, through social media, e-commerce, etc., these types of interesting complications will continue to arise. As with social media, the challenge remains to communicate in a way that sounds like one human being talking to another.

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