Each Customer Is A Unique Individual – But When Do They Really Want To Be Treated As Such?

Compound Maven
| April 15, 2021
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Last weekend I celebrated a special birthday over brunch. One of the attendees had a unique career among those in the group: she has served as an FBI agent for over 25 years. As we got to know one another a little bit the conversation turned toward how the Bay Area has become less safe since early 2020, with property damage and robbery rates going through the roof.

She has called Oakland home for many years and is sad to share it has felt the least safe than any other time she can recall. I asked how her professional training as a field agent has prepared her for this kind of change. How confident are you to walk outside at night? Do you take extra precautions that you didn’t used to feel were necessary?  What would you do if you were walking alone, and a stranger was tracing your steps or walking closely behind you?

Her answer made a real impression and I thought might bring value to readers:

The #1 tip is to make eye contact and say “hello”, or even just “hi”. “It instantly shifts you from being a victim to a person, someone who’s actually human and might be harmed.”

Apparently, this is “unequivocally shown by (government) data”.

This answer struck me on three levels:

  • It was simpler than I would have predicted (apparently not even a question is needed)
  • There’s something within this finding that makes me think it has the ability to break the almost instinctual reaction for our minds to categorize individuals into groups (queue my disdain for identity politics, but I’ll save that for another time)
  • There must also be power to this action, with its forward-leaning intent, that is recognized at some level by the perpetrator to the extent that it can serve as a deterrent

Hopefully this quick tip is beneficial to readers no matter where you live.

From a business perspective, I then started to think through how this concept can be leveraged in entrepreneurship – with clients, customers, suppliers and maybe even competitors.

What kind of action can be taken to shift understanding of your customer base from being a number (i.e. readers, page views, subscriber counts, repeat purchaser rate, etc.) to human? And how can this be advanced to an understanding of each person on an individual level?

These kinds of questions are exactly what has pushed mega tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google into the spotlight as of late for attempting to do so at scale. This list has one underlying theme in common: a drive to map an “addressable universe” of customers, collecting as much data as possible at an individual level to then leverage analytics insights, natural language processing and machine language programming to translate this data into readily accessible marketing and offer targeting recommendations.

Some of the questions we’re working through as a society in 2021 are: is this much trust worth personalized, targeted promotions? Do we trust private and public companies to mine and leverage our data in this way? And, assuming we do, how safe will we be as a result?

I think where (and how) these lines get drawn are incredibly complicated. On the one hand, there is a desire for personalized, efficient customer service: some of the strongest brands in the world have this in common, whereas companies with poor customer service experiences can be considered necessary annoyances (queue cable/Internet providers or low-quality banking or auto service experiences).

But is this something we want to see at scale? (i.e. major tech companies as this requires expensive robot intervention and cannot be done 100% manually)

We also see this with marketing: when polled Americans agree they’d rather receive offers that are applicable to the types of products and price ranges they prefer. But when advertisements are served on our smartphones just minutes after discussing a potential product purchase that hasn’t been researched yet, has the combination of Apple, Instagram (owned by Facebook) and the company actually selling the product going too far? Maybe more importantly, where should the fine line be drawn?

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