Perhaps not recently, given current social distancing guidelines as a result of COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic, but for the sake of imagination: Have you ever walked into a clothing store and had an associate immediately offer help, accurately guess your size, and pull some items together that met your needs?
On the occasions when I have, it’s been fantastic. What seemed tedious became enjoyable. It took less time than I’d anticipated while also feeling far more relaxed. And, I undoubtedly spent more money than I would have on my own—happily. I’ve sought out those stores and those associates again. I’ve sometimes even made a new friend.
All of us have had similar experiences from time to time, regardless of the type of purchase involved. When they happen, everybody wins. As customers, we feel like we’ve spent our money well. The companies that we’re doing business with have sold us more than they might have otherwise, successfully winning our goodwill in the process. We come back. We tell our friends.
From in-person to digital personalization
In many ways, “personalization”—whether it’s personalized marketing or personalized customer experiences more broadly—is attempting to replicate in the digital world the same capabilities we had when customer interactions took place in person or over the phone.
Yet for all the talk of personalization—and there’s a lot of it—all too often the conversation focuses on systems, tools, and generalizations.
In many cases, personalization is defined as using first names in email salutations or tailoring ads and recommendations to identifiable characteristics. Those are important elements of personalization, and areas that are increasingly being done well, but only part of the equation.
Some describe personalization as an infinite number of tailored interactions. That’s a frightening prospect. Who’s figured out how to manage infinity well?
It’s impossible to come anywhere close to doing without automation. That only works well with a defined set of parameters to tailor. As the parameters narrow, “infinite” possibilities look a lot more like contextually appropriate responses or suggestions. That’s much more manageable, but again, only one aspect of personalization.
What’s missing from both of these perspectives is, notably, people. None of the elements of personalization make much sense without clearly understanding the objective: creating interactions that are driven by the people on both sides of them.
In any form, personalization depends on consistent communications. This is partly a question of being clear on the objectives. It also hinges on the ability to interact with customers in real-time through whatever channels they prefer at a given moment in time.
There are many great examples of aspects of personalization done well today, but exceedingly few that demonstrate it consistently, across all types of customer interactions. In order to get it right, we must start with a clear vision of what personalization really means.
Regardless of the venue, personalization has four key components:
- Addressing the individual;
- Inferring and anticipating their needs—customer understanding;
- Testing that understanding;
- Remembering—across the whole organization.
This definition applies equally to interactions that take place face to face and digitally. To create experiences that feel personal, consistently and regardless of channel, it’s crucial for brands to master all four components and apply them to all channels equally.
Addressing the individual
Addressing customers by name if you know them and asking to be introduced if not seems to be a well-understood aspect of personalization. There are still issues here and there—the name on my credit card may not be the name I prefer to use—but for the most part, companies are getting this right.
If everyone in the seller’s organization knows the customer’s name, they can use it, whether they’re communicating in real life or through digital channels. Make sure everyone in the organization who needs to know the customer’s name. Even better, ask customers how they would like to be addressed and make that the default.
Anticipating needs without knowing more than is necessary
A big part of addressing the individual is connecting the name with preferences and expectations. The shop associate has the ability to observe the customer walking through the door and, based on experience, make some assumptions.
In the digital world, we increasingly have the same ability. The combination of first-hand information (first-party data) we already have about that individual and external, anonymous (third-party) data gives us some hints about whether the individual we’re meeting might be similar to other customers we know more about. That’s the basis for assuming what may be of interest.
Consolidating all channels of communication into a single platform makes gathering and managing these insights far easier and more effective.
Taking these assumptions too far or communicating them too directly is where things get creepy. An algorithm may be equally as accurate as the shop associate in anticipating what interests the customer, but the shop associate avoids creepiness by testing that assumption with questions rather than acting on assumption or inference alone. These questions also help cater to the expectations of that specific instance—not just presuming that all interactions will be the same.
Enabling customers to dictate the experience by testing understanding
The insight, inferences, and assumptions you have about your customers are most valuable when they frame the questions and choices you offer them. Carefully testing an understanding of your customer’s preferences or priorities avoids interactions that feel invasive or overly personal. More importantly, they put customers in charge of determining how interactions, conversations, and transactions unfold.
Testing assumptions isn’t a one-time action. It should be an ongoing effort, across any communication channel and every interaction.
On some days, I’m open to suggestions that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Some I like, others I might not. But on other occasions, I’m laser-focused on the one thing that I really need and don’t want to waste time on anything else. My favorite associates can tell which mode I’m in—typically because they ask. I answer because it benefits me.
Creating organizational memory
While I’ve been lucky enough to have real humans, who know me and my needs, the real magic is when their colleagues have that same knowledge. Not only do the associates I see most often know me well enough to help me better and more quickly, but the whole team also seems to. They have a sort of shared organizational memory with the right communication tools to share it widely.
Remembering a customer—not just by name, but by their preferences and priorities—is a foundation of personalization. It’s even more important in the digital world, where many different employees (as well as a few algorithms and even some chatbots) are involved in supporting my journey.
People who know a customer personally from working directly with them—whether they’re brick-and-mortar shop associates, salespeople or agents who work primarily by phone, or account managers who spend time on-site with customers—have the advantage of remembering those interactions. Getting the continuity of experiences right requires extending that memory to any other person in the organization.
Increasing the scale of personalization across a larger number of customers requires the same capability. Communication tools can provide appropriate guidance to any employee or automated system to ‘remember’ the relevant points about that customer to serve them well in any given moment or context.
Putting people back into the interaction
The technology tools and capabilities exist today to enable all of the components of good personalization—including consistency across channels, modes, interlocutors, and over time. Critical success factors hinge more on intuitive systems and appropriate guidance to employees than the technology itself. Focusing on individual customers and thinking of them holistically improves the potential for using communication and other tools correctly.
But that’s only the beginning. Once we overcome the challenges of getting fundamental personalization right, then we can tackle the more interesting stuff. The kinds of things that are truly personality-driven—and can only really be done by people.
When the associate I’m buying from makes an effort to know me well, they are in a much better position to get me to consider purchases I wouldn’t otherwise. Now imagine the parallels in the digital world.
Consider all of the information and insights we provide about ourselves on social media—willingly and publicly. What if we used our digital tools to identify the individuals it makes the most sense to invest our people’s time in getting to know and connect with them directly? That opens up the potential to focus on putting personal interactions—between real people—at the forefront of creating durable customer relationships, through digital channels, using the right communication and message.
This creates a direct extension of the personal relationship building that already happens face to face and over the phone. It’s merely using a different set of communication channels to do it. Importantly, it leverages the raft of technologies we already use to help us determine where to focus those investments. It can only be done effectively where technology and communication platforms are enablers rather than obstacles.
This is a question of quality, not quantity. It requires breaking down organizational silos, recognizing that the employees responsible for building those relationships may be called on by their customers to operate in multiple modes, from selling to supporting to introducing (read: marketing) new things. It means recognizing that social media channels are not simple broadcast channels, nor are they strictly one-to-one. They are part of a spectrum of communication channels that may be more or less appropriate depending on the individual and their needs at any given moment.
Building personal relationships this way requires experimentation. There’s no prescribed handbook for getting it right. It’s largely unexplored territory. As with all experimentation, start small. Get the quality first, then go for quantity.
It’s all about people and personality
Although it can be replicated at a large scale, personalization is always about the one individual customer in question. Generalizing based on a group of individual customers is a useful approach; making inferences about individuals based on generalizations isn’t. This is where attempts at personalization often go wrong.
The people and personality of the seller play a central role in every aspect of personalization. Regardless of how much is automated, whether interactions are self-service or person-to-person, no matter the channel, people make the decisions that shape all of those interactions. The people and personality of a brand shine through in everything from what they sell to the way they interact. And well they should. Generic interactions are anything but personal.
Conveying and capturing personality, whether the customer’s or the seller’s, benefits greatly from the right tools. A consistent communication platform that functions across various channels allows everyone involved to focus on the substance and tone of the message. With the right infrastructure, employees can concentrate on the intent and context of what is being conveyed rather than the mechanics of which channel to use or how best to use it.
The challenge is finding the most intuitive tools and using them effectively. Creating truly personalized experiences that resonate requires some creative thinking, a clear definition of the objective, and new ways of working.
When we get it right, personalization feels, well, personal—in a good way. When we master personalization, it feels almost like magic.
And who doesn’t want a little more magic in their lives?
Read past posts in this customer engagement series, from Paul Greenberg, Brent Leary, Maribel Lopez, Dan Miller, Neil Raden, Esteban Kolsky, and a roundup of everything that's been published, and yet to come.