When does personalisation work, and when doesn't it?

Paul - 8 th September 2016

Over the past five years, conversations surrounding the personalisation of an individual customer’s experience have increased in frequency. Instead of a faceless, generic, 'everyone gets treated in the same way' kind of approach, personalisation feels like the magic bullet to creating a long lasting, two way relationship between an individual and a business. If a business gets to know a customer well, they can tailor that person’s experience so that they optimise the benefits or value for them whilst in return the business increases its tenure, repurchase rates, value and advocacy. It’s all good news and common sense. BUT, it’s really hard to achieve.

At a simple level, personalisation works brilliantly for small family run businesses. Your local plumber, the garden handymen, the high street butcher; all generate business through providing a brilliant product in a personal way. They meet you face to face, get to know a bit about you, your likes and dislikes and then make recommendations and tailor what they can do for you each time you use them. You build a two way rapport and understanding of each other that makes you want to go back. Of course they have to be very good at what they do (their brand basics) otherwise they lose business quickly and don’t last long. However, assuming they do, their opportunity for personalising the experience and gaining the rewards is large.

What about big businesses? How do they personalise? Personalisation at an individual level is still totally achievable. Let’s take coffee chains. It’s well known that I am a fan of Costa. It’s a very successful national chain and the product is spot on for my tastes, however, my local Costa (run by Emma) feels like a local friendly coffee house. Emma knows what drink I want when I’m still in the car park. When I pop in she is very open and will chat about all sorts. She lives in the local village and went to school here. Ronnie her deputy manager loans a horse for her daughter at the local stable where we keep our horse. We’ve built a good rapport over the years and despite it being a concession in a Tesco, I prefer to go there than the one in town as we’ve built such rapport. A recent Harvard Business Review article talked about the ‘sense of belonging’ driving value to the bottom line of any business in any sector. I’m not sure this is a sense of belonging, but it’s close.

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Let’s keep with the coffee theme and move to Starbucks. Starbucks try to personalise using their name on a cup technique. Rather than shouting out the name of your coffee when it’s ready (skinny vanilla latte in my case and sometimes decaf), they ask for your name when they take your order and write it on the cup. They then shout your name. I have seen hilarious consequences as a result of this approach. A good friend of mine is called Chi-Hong Teo. They never get his name right. It’s fun going in there with him to see what they write next. Mr Too has been the funniest to date and everyone in the office took the micky for months afterwards. I’m not sure he’s as keen to go there anymore. Moving away from coffee, I always get an email from a company that starts “Hi, p”. Exactly like that. Lower case, my first initial. They are trying to show me that they know me, but in reality it looks ridiculous and just exposes their poor internal systems and data quality and makes you wonder about the rest of what they do. It has the opposite to what they are after.

Step personalisation up to businesses you never meet face to face and who have millions of customers and it becomes even more challenging. They can only get to know you through the way you interact with them at each brand touch point and by the products you buy. They need to find ways to learn about your habits, behaviours, patterns and tap into them, and then represent themselves in a way that really resonates with you.

Four years ago, when I worked at Virgin Media, I looked at how we could personalise the experience. We were having brilliant conversations at the point of sale where we were learning loads about why customers wanted our products but then once the sale had been made, we lost the info. We didn’t capture anything about the discussion, just the package they were buying. I wanted to capture these discussions and then make the experience more tailored further down the customer journey. So when our installers arrived they demonstrated the products using the information. E.g. we know you love sports and you have bought our XL package, did you know you got Sentanta Sports channels for free (many didn’t realise) and by the way let’s show you where the sports channels are on the TV Guide and show you how to record the Chelsea match that is on tomorrow (as we know that’s your team). Immediately, although completing thousands of installations per month, that experience at that moment in time would be absolutely tailored to that individual. How brilliant would that experience be versus a generic, “this is how the remote control works sir and here are some channels” standard demonstration?!

Unfortunately, this is where big businesses start to suffer. We didn’t have the technology in place that would have enabled us to capture the level of detail we needed, we couldn’t then pass the information down the chain to the PDAs in the field as there were character restrictions on the PDAs and not everyone had them anyway. We found a technical solution, but it was cost prohibitive versus the perceived return on the investment and due to some challenges during the quarter, the money was diverted. So we never did it. Instead we encouraged an active listening and observational approach to tailoring individual interactions, but it wasn’t as good.

There are solutions that enable your business to personalise an experience ‘en mass’. In essence learning about the behaviours of certain customer types, or behavioural patterns and then putting interventions into place through your technology or human interactions that enable you to make the experience feel as though it is bespoke, even though it isn’t.

If a customer does X it is highly likely they will need Y and therefore it’s worth highlighting Z to them. 

So personalisation ambitions can be delivered really well but should always be reviewed on a business by business basis, taking into consideration the restraints versus the reward for both customers and the business. I believe it’s worth the ongoing battle to find the right way. With personalisation there should be no losers. The customer will optimise what they get from the company and vice versa. You should no longer see “it is poor value for money” comments in your customer feedback surveys.  

Paul has a customer experience and operational leadership background. Prior to joining Brand Vista Paul was Head of Customer Experience Design at Virgin Media and is a specialist in designing and implementing brand enhancing customer journeys that deliver commercial results.
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