The Privacy Paradox: The Right to Be Forgotten, But the Wish to Be Remembered

Opinion: Would you want to be your own customer?

Digital personalization must be tempered by human respect for the customer and for their privacy
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“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Forgive the 1980s sitcom nostalgia (and possible earworm), but it’s such a lovely sentiment. Who wouldn’t want to be like Cheers’ Norm Peterson—hailed warmly by both patrons and bar staff each time he walks through the door?

But in the here and now, traversing a digitalized world where it does seem like “everybody knows your name” often results in more aggravation than camaraderie. Rampant robocalling has made people stop answering their phones. Our email inboxes are flooded with spam. We’re harassed by repetitive programmatic advertising if we dare to peruse the web. And as businesses venture into popular messaging apps, a new deluge of unwanted contact is upon us.

The desire to digitally personalize the customer experience—using technology to treat customers the way Sam and the gang at Cheers treat Norm—is a huge concern and top differentiator for modern businesses. A CX report from analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers notes that “the payoffs for valued, great experiences are tangible: up to a 16 percent price premium on products and services.”

It’s also the top source of current business value derived from artificial intelligence technologies, which research firm Gartner sets at $1.2 trillion globally this year, an increase of 70 percent from 2017. Personalization is one reason why Gartner predicts that by 2020, more than 40 percent of all data analytics projects will relate to an aspect of CX.

Conversely, this drive is also what fuels all of the aforementioned technological aggravations. Digital personalization requires lots of data, which is not always acquired and used the way people think it is going to be—there’s a line where personalization morphs into persecution.

Drawing that distinction is the impetus for regulations like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and California’s recently passed Consumer Privacy Act.

We’ve arrived at what famed venture capitalist Mary Meeker dubbed the “privacy paradox” in her annual Internet Trends report this year. She noted, “When you have rising monetization, rising growth and rising data collection, it drives a lot of regulatory scrutiny, whether it’s related to data privacy, competition or safety in content.” Essentially, personalization is a profitable technological process dependent on data collection. Everyone is doing it now, and that draws the attention of lawmakers.

I’d go one step further and say that personalization is the way of the future. There’s big money at stake, but unchecked data collection and negligence and/or abuse in implementation is what leads to regulation. People do have a right to be forgotten and to know what’s being done with personal information, so GDPR actually provides an opportunity for businesses to provide better service.
Consumers have been largely amenable to sharing their data for better service in the “freemium” economy, but it’s a two-way contract. That “better service” part hasn’t always come to pass—and what we sometimes get in its place is pretty inept handling of our personal information and an onslaught of digital marketing.

Management consultancy Accenture found that 87 percent of consumers believe it is important for companies to safeguard the privacy of their information, 73 percent say being unable to trust a company with the personal information that’s been provided is a top source of frustration and 58 percent would switch one-half or more of their spending to a provider that excels at personalizing experiences without compromising trust.

Trust is key. We expect companies to use our data to personalize things that have meaning and value, and to do so responsibly. If I buy a pair of shoes, by all means, remember my shoe size. But don’t pester me to buy another pair immediately and everywhere I turn for the next three months of my life. Just because I looked at something online today doesn’t mean I want to be looking at it again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

I’m also not interested in hearing from the dozens of “partners” with whom your company has shared my contact information. And oh, by the way, please try not to give hackers and fraudsters access to information I only intended to share with you, like my credit card number. Is that too much to ask?

It’s the misuse of technology that ruins the digital customer experience. We have made enormous leaps in technological capability in a very short period of time, and companies are wise to want to apply it. But in the rush to do so, it isn’t always intelligently applied.

In customer experience, as with all things, fantastic technology can do great good, and it can also often do great harm. Consider interactive voice response technology: Automated phone trees are now pretty universally hated by everyone. Is that because the technology was bad? No: It’s because of the way it was widely implemented without consideration for the people who would actually be using it—myriad systems thoughtlessly designed to make it difficult to get to a human on the other end of the line.

The technology was never intended to replace human contact, only to add self-service capabilities and better routing. But too many implementations deployed IVR systems as a digital stand-in for customer support—which it could never supply—and naturally resulting in mass antipathy. Like Cheers, stand-alone IVR peaked in the 1980s, but doesn’t its deployment description sound a bit like a chat bot or two you may have encountered recently?

For all of our technological advancement, personalization requires a lot more machine intelligence than we have at the moment. We’re all excited about the pace of AI breakthroughs, such as digital assistants like Google’s recent Duplex demonstration. But we should be looking at these innovations as enhancements for real people, not replacements. Technology cannot solve for the nuance humanity requires.

At a recent marketing conference, a technologist explained that current AI capabilities are about at the level of a three-month-old baby. I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect great customer service from babies.

On the bright side, babies do grow up. AI promises to improve CX immensely, ease frustration and better connect us at mass scale. We’re at the edge of the ability to go back to what marketing was like when the guy at the corner shop knew his customer well enough to have her order ready and waiting for her when she walked in the door. Our technology is quickly maturing so that we can make the digital experience truly this genuine.

As we chart that course, GDPR and similar regulations (and believe me, there will be more) might arguably be viewed as an opportunity for companies to recalibrate their aims in the personalization quest. A little self-reflection never hurt anyone. The digitalization of business and the rapid integration of AI into business to consumer interactions demands a watchful human eye: Do you need all of that data? Are you safeguarding it properly? Have you sought permission? Do you have a legitimate reason for contact? But the most important one to me is: Would you want to be your own customer?

Digital personalization must be tempered by human respect for the customer and for their privacy. Respect engenders trust and affinity, and that’s what has always created great customer experience—and always will.

Merijn te Booij is chief marketing officer at customer experience platform Genesys.

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