It's time to start listening to customers - things are about to get personal

Are you listening to your customers, or are you just waiting to speak? To really personalise the customer experience, you need to pay attention to who customers are and what they need... right now.

These few posts are about personalisation. Why and how businesses do it, the need for vast amounts of personal data and the challenges it brings. Plus what this all means for our customer future.

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I want to talk about why personalisation needs context, and why businesses need to really start listening.

In my last post I wrote about Joe Pine’s idea that we can create new value by customising goods, products, services and experiences. And I wrote about how I believe we’re starting to do the next logical thing: we are customising experiences to create personalised ‘Moments’.

Today I want to look at how companies differentiate themselves — and why so many organisations get it so wrong when it comes to customising services and experiences. And what this means for this idea of Moments.

The guessing game

Let’s start with an example.

I was recently travelling into work when I received an SMS from my mobile phone company telling me about a new loyalty offer from one of their ‘trusted partners’. It was a coupon to use that day at a local coffee shop.

The problem was that the coupon had been sent to me based on where I was at the time. Which was on a train travelling about 50mph through a village.

It was a waste of a SMS.

A waste of my time and attention.

And a waste of money for the trusted partner, who I’m sure had been sold a ‘targeted loyalty solution’ as part of a ‘customer engagement service’ from the mobile operator.

Even if they could have predicted that I wanted a coffee at that moment — ignoring the fact that I’d bought one before getting on the train — they’d failed to understand the meaning of my location.

It’s was just guesswork.

“Send enough of these offers,” they say, “to enough people… and surely some of them will respond?”

Maybe they spent $5000 on sending targeted SMSs that day. And maybe, just maybe they saw more coffee bought that morning.

But really? Is this the best we - and well the entire advertising industry - can do?

“Get more data about where people are, and what they’re doing, and we can be even more precise!” they holler to each other when devising these schemes.

I’ve just looked through the other ‘loyalty’ offers texted to me by my mobile operator. Some insight here if you bother to look:

  • A cider offer - I expect based on my demographic profile;

  • Some very expensive headphones - again, my demographic?

  • An invitation to visit a newly-decorated department store (based on location);

  • A beer offer (I don’t drink that much beer);

  • A discount sofa range (who knows);

  • Lottery tickets (don’t play);

  • A lunch offer - the closest match, sent at lunch time; and

  • A deal for an ice lolly

All waste.

All diluting the market message.

And all reminding me of Don Marti’s brilliant writing about ads and signalling here.

“For targeted advertising, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If it fails, it’s a waste of time. If it works, it’s worse, a violation of the Internet/brain barrier. The Facebook emotion experiment is making the second possibility more realistic.”

We need to start think about this more generally.

Why do so many organisations make these assumptions, and waste time, effort, money and the relationship with the customer?

Why is guesswork considered the smartest way to engage with customers?

A reality check

Looking back at Joe Pine’s ideas about Mass Customisation, he describes how companies are able to differentiate.

With products, it’s mainly about price. With services, he believes it’s about improving quality. And with experiences, it’s all about being authentic.

But specifically, two types of authenticity:

  1. Being true to others — doing what you say you will

  2. Being true to yourself — being consistent about who you are

It feels quite simple really. But let’s dig in a little deeper.

Joe maps these two types against each others, and suggests there are four possible types of experience.

Here they are, with some of my own examples:

Top right: It’s an authentically ‘real’ experience. They are completely themselves, and do what they say they will. It’s REAL REAL.

Example: it’s like going to a traditional Italian family restaurant. They take a very real pride in serving you, and discussing the freshness of the ingredients. They insist that you sample their home-made tiramisu, and give you a limoncello on the house. Just because.

Top left: It’s kind of authentic, but there’s something missing. They do what they promise but they really aren’t truly being themselves. It’s FAKE REAL.

Example: it’s like being served by the clichéd Fast Food Burger Guy. Yes, he sells you a burger, but he doesn’t really care. Did he wash his hands today? The“have a nice day” as you leave feels empty.

Bottom right: It’s an authentic experience, but a manufactured one. Everyone knows it’s a show, and that’s OK because it’s heartfelt. It’s a REAL FAKE.

Example: it’s like going to DisneyLand. Every little detail is designed for magic and family entertainment. But you’re not really in the Magic Kingdom.

Bottom left: It’s a completely fake experience. It smells of deceit and shiftiness. It’s FAKE FAKE.

Example: it’s like being targeted by an online phishing scam. It’s not really an official from the bank getting in touch with you, and there is no immediate payment needed. They are lying about needing your password, and you will never see your money again.


Getting to know the real you

So this all got me thinking about customised experiences from the last post — my idea of ‘Customer Moments’ — in the same way.

How can companies differentiate themselves when it comes to personalisation?

Well, there are two things:

First, they need to know who I am.

This doesn’t mean my identity generally… it has to be who I am right now. They’ll need to understand my persona, who I want to be seen as at any one time. It’s because who I am changes over time: at some times of day I’m a parent, at other times I’m a sports fan. Sometimes I’m an employee and at other times a shopper.

Second, they need to know what matters to me.

But again, this doesn’t just mean ‘my preferences’. It means what I want or need right now. Am I looking for advice and help? Am I in a rush? Am I shopping or just browsing? Or do I just want to be left alone to watch the match?

So like Pine’s view of experiences, I’ve had a go at mapping out these ‘personalised moments’ in the same way.

Here’s my view of the four outcomes:

Top left: When the organisation asks me who I am, but then guesses what matters right now: it’s Facebook (and other ‘social commerce’).

  • Them: “Please sign in and let us know exactly who you are.”

  • Me: “Hi, it’s me again.”

  • Them: “Hey! We’ve been following your activities online (and in some places offline too), and what your friends have been saying recently, and we thought you might be interested in this Expensive Car. And an ‘Ice Watch’. And a ‘Dream holiday in Northern Europe”.*

(*these are not random examples — I just logged into Facebook to see what ads were being shown to me)

Top right: When the organisation asks me who I am, but asks me about what matters right now: it’s

  • Them: “Hi, how can I help you?”

  • Me: “I’m looking for a new mobile deal.

  • Them: “Ah, what kind of deal are you looking for? We can help you look through all the options on the market right now, but if you let us know how you use your phone we can find you the best fit.”

  • Me: “Well here’s how I’ve used my phone for the last few months….”

Bottom right: When they don’t know who I really am, but go some way to asking what I want: it’s price comparison sites like

  • Them: “Hi, what are you looking for today.”

  • Me: “Here’s some basic information about what I need.”

  • Them: “Great! Here’s a list of things you might be interested in, but because we don’t really know who you are (and can’t verify any of the stuff you just told us) you’ll have to speak to the providers directly.”

Bottom left: When they don’t know who I am and completely guess what I want: it’s spam.

  • Them: “Would you like to buy this car?”

  • Me: “How did you get this address? Please delete me from your database.”

  • Them (8 minutes later): “Would you like to buy this car? Or this one? Or this one?”

But back to my SMS-coupon-on-a-train example.

I wrote earlier that the mobile operator and so-called loyalty company had failed to understand the meaning of my location. Or more specifically, the context of my location.

Put simply, personalisation goes wrong when no-one’s asking about the customer’s context. Or rather, no-one’s listening.

It’s being sent a ‘targeted’ advert for a car, not knowing you just joined a car club.

It’s being recommended a book on Amazon based on your shopping history, not knowing you actually don’t like the genre (your previous purchase was for a friend’s birthday).

It’s being sent coupons for pregnancy products based on your shopping history, when you haven’t yet told your family you are expecting a baby (sidebar: that story is from 2012… now throw in some social media profiles, sensors from your smartwatch, artificial intelligence and it’s mind blowing to think about what companies know about their customers now, and yet don’t reveal).

Ok, listen up folks…

The opportunity here is to help organisations understand their customers better. To help businesses listen to customers: who they are and what matters to them at that moment.

And to do so without being creepy.

The biggest challenge is that this is nearly impossibly to do at Internet Scale.

Either a) you build a massive centralised body of information about all customers everywhere (I’m looking at you, Facebook).

Or b) you fall back to guesswork and hope that you can categorise and target increasingly smaller micro segments of the population. Individuals who are similar enough to look alike, but different enough to get given their own ‘demographic grouping’.

It’s why most organisations still rely on standardising processes, service models and customer experiences.

And why we never feel really listened to as customers.

To be fair, it’s the easiest answer when all your customers look the same, and you’ve had a 150 years of practice. It’s also terribly sad that this same standardisation is killing innovation.

So, what’s the path forward?

What was started with the ideas around Vendor Relationship Management has now become a global movement around Self Sovereign Identity (SSI).

It’s a shift towards helping organisations build direct, and peer-to-peer relationships with individuals.

Where individuals can control what data they share with companies - perhaps details about their identity, their needs and their context.

And where those companies can build more trusted, digital relationships with customers - to really start listening, not just talking.

For the first time in decades businesses will be able to actually connect with, listen to, and better understand their customer’s situations and needs.

With ‘SSI’ now on the move - just look at the IATA Travel Pass being used for international travel - we’re about to enter a very interesting few years where customers will have tools to express who they are, and what they want — when it matters.

And the idea of ‘active listening’ is going to be relevant: Are you really listening to your customers? Or are you just waiting to speak?

When the time comes to start talking with customers with these new sophisticated engagement tools, businesses are going to have to think deeply about how they listen. They won’t be able to fake it by just having smarter ‘customer engagement’ channels, but then blast offers at customers over email and SMS.

The age of the guessing game will be over soon.

It’s time to stop being tone deaf. And to start listening.