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Intimate or Creepy? How to Prevent a Big Disappointment when Selling with Insights and Selling with Big Data

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I recently had the pleasure of re-connecting with an old acquaintance who is now an executive at a company called Lattice-Engines. The company helps sales and marketing organisations to transform customer data into deep, real-time insight about customer needs and behaviour to make better decisions on which accounts to target and how to engage with decision-makers. We have a common client, and are excited about helping our client incorporate these insights into their conversations to create value for their customers and win more business.

As consumers, we all know there is a fine line between an intimate customer experience and a creepy invasion of privacy. The Ritz-Carlton gets rave reviews for knowing its customers and anticipating their needs. They pay attention to details, such as knowing their favourite wine, restaurants or shops, and this drives immense customer loyalty. I don’t stay at the Ritz very often, but when I do, I really enjoy the experience. They make their customers feel special.

Contrast this with an experience I had at a branch of a large national bank in the suburban grocery store where I used to shop. My wife and I had just sold an investment property and had a larger than average cash balance in our checking account. I was at the bank making a routine transaction, when a young bank teller processing my order nervously asked me if I would like to make an appointment with an investment advisor. I asked him why he thought that would be a good idea, and he couldn’t answer my question. He couldn’t even tell me in an open and honest manner that the bank’s computer system collects information to help its customers get the most value from their relationship with the bank. Curiously, I stopped by two other of the bank’s branches that week and I got the same offer from two other tellers, both who couldn’t answer the same “why” question. Evidently the banks systems were smart enough to identify a cross-sell opportunity, but not smart enough to note that I declined the offer twice in the past week. The irony of all this was that I had a brokerage account with the bank and I had a financial advisor, but he apparently didn’t get the alert and never contacted me. So, in my bank’s attempt to leverage “big data”, they both annoyed me and disappointed me.

Companies implementing big data initiatives in sales must be extra sensitive to the customer experience

As buyers, we often give permission to the companies with whom we do business to collect sensitive data, but that permission is often given implicitly versus explicitly. This magnifies sensitivities. This insight derived from your customers’ habits, preferences and situations could create a Ritz-Carlton-like customer experience, but the strategy could also backfire in a big way if you’re not careful. The rise of social media has raised the bar forever on customer expectations, who expect vendors to invest financially, intellectually and emotionally in understanding and consistently meeting their evolving expectations. They expect a good experience, and when they don’t get it they can let the world know by posting on Twitter, Facebook or Yelp.

Add to all of this the recent events around Edward Snowden the NSA’s surveillance activity, and it should not be surprising that people are becoming even more sensitive about online privacy. A new study that was released earlier this week showed that more than half of all Americans believe that we really are in the era of “big brother.” A survey from the University of Southern California showed that Millennials – and an even larger percentage of users age 35 and older – are uncomfortable with others having access to their personal data online or information about their web behaviour. When asked about the statement, “No one should ever be allowed to have access to my personal data or web behaviour,” 70 percent of Millennials agreed, compared with 77 percent of users 35 and older.

What this means to big data initiatives in sales

If you want your people selling with big data, then we feel very strongly that you can’t just install a piece of software or send an email with instructions, and then be done. The risk of creating a creepy customer experience is just too high. And, if your people sense that customers are pulling back when they approach them with a big data-driven insight, then they will stop using the system and your big data initiative will turn into a big failure.

We believe you start by clearly defining the customer experience you expect your customer-facing people to deliver. This experience must be perceived by your customer as putting them at the centre of your world with a sincere desire to add value and delight them. You must ensure your people know what to say when approaching your customers with this insight, and ensure they have the skills to engage naturally in these conversations. Ritz-Carlton exceeds customer expectations because, among other things, they anticipate your needs. At a minimum, you should positioning big-data insights as anticipation of needs. However, the conversation needs to be authentic. This takes practise and coaching to perfect. Finally, you must identify the right metrics that drive the behaviours necessary to deliver the customer experience, and align rewards with expected behaviours and outcomes. All easier said than done, and I’ll drill deeper into this in a future post.

While this might sound a bit soft, it doesn’t have to be that way. Cross-selling and growth can be aligned with providing a great customer experience. Your big-data initiative should identify opportunities to help your customers make money, save money or manage risk. If your people take the time to know the customer and personalise a unique value proposition to the customer, then everyone can win and your big-data initiative has a better chance of success.

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