4 Golden Rules for Knowing and Honoring Thy Customer


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If I read another blog post saying that what customers want is brands to use their data gathering and customer analytics powers to intimately know their every need, want, and desire, I’m going to leap out of my home office window.   The good news (assuming you enjoy my articles) is it’s on the first floor.
customer data

As a consumer, do you want your grocery store, bank, or antiperspirant provider for that matter to intimately know you?  I doubt it. 

So, let’s discuss some golden rules predicated on one overarching principle: gather knowledge about your customers as you would have them do unto you.

Consumers expect brands to deliver great service and personalized experience but that doesn’t mean they want them to perform a Vulcan mind-meld.  Customers’ expectations differ depending on the products and services offered.  For example, from a grocer, I’d expect very little actually.  I want a clean store, helpful staff, well-stocked products at a fair price, and fast checkout.  It’s a bonus if someone remembers my name.  In terms of learning about my shopping behavior and preferences, an app or loyalty card that preloads promotions, or better yet one that learns things I tend to buy repeatedly and automatically applies applicable discounts – that’s not a bad thing.  Yet I expect the grocer to hold that data in confidence, and if they use it to make predictions that are wrong, they ask me for feedback and learn from it.

And there are things a grocer doesn’t need to know.  Like how much money I have in my savings account and whether I’m investing wisely, or whether I sweat a lot.   My bank and preferred antiperspirant provider can worry about those things.

Pundits loosely write about what customers want, show pictures of them happily surrounded by surveillance technology, but rarely about what they don’t want.  They don’t appreciate being:

  • Stalked and secretly surveilled
  • Treated like a number or exploitable asset
  • Discriminated against
  • Ignored when giving feedback

The so-called CX gurus professing that the holy grail of customer experience is knowing thy customer to the nth degree have it wrong.  To get to the CX promised land, they say, collect every bit of customer data possible and get to know them intimately.  But if they put on their consumer hat, do they want companies stalking and tracking their every move?  I doubt that. 

What should you do?  Here are four rules to apply when making decisions about customer data and analytics that can help fuel a great customer experience.

Golden rule #1: Wear the customer’s shoes

There’s a lot of talk about empathy these days.  We certainly could use more in the world.  If you want to practice empathy with your customers, put yourself into their shoes and walk through their experiences.  Be one of them and do some shopping.

To do this, experience your products and services from the customer’s vantage point.  So be the customer.  Directly experience various brand journeys and then ask, “Is this a customer-obsessed company?  Did I feel appreciated along the way and delighted in the end?  Was the personalization tasteful and useful?  What could have been done to provide a better experience?”

To illustrate, if you work for a bank, go through the process of opening a new checking or savings account.  But as you do that mix it up.  For example, start the process on the website, then pause and pick it up half a day later – on a different channel like mobile, chat, or by calling.  Redeem a promotion, such as getting bonus points, and then follow-up by asking a question about the offer.  Do you get a quick response?  Was the response acceptable?

Take note of what didn’t go smoothly and information your firm should have collected and saved to lessen disfunction.  Compile a list of what would have made that process easier, quicker, and more convenient.  When you interacted with human agents, did they have the information needed?

There is no substitute for the pain or pleasure of the actual journey.  Once you experience things first hand, you will not only understand them better but also be more passionate about acting to address issues.

Golden rule #2: Track and act on what improves CX 

What information are you collecting?  Why are you collecting it?  No one today is surprised that brands are tracking them, and provided they get some value in return they accept it.  What customers expect in return, however, are things like convenience and efficiency, not a psychologist or a new best friend.

Consumers especially want speed and efficiency.  Speed buys time, a precious commodity these days, and who said money can’t buy time and happiness?  In the study, “Buying Time Promotes Happiness,[i]”  Ashley Whillans concludes it can.  For brands, that means winning over time-strapped consumers by making routine tasks fast and frictionless, not laughably slow and painful.

To this end, collect small data and little details that are signals of unresolved situations or dissatisfaction behavior.  For instance, when a customer asks about their bill and doesn’t get a satisfactory answer, flag it and use that to trigger follow-on actions.  Spawn a case that stays open until the customer gets a satisfactory answer.  If a customer visits a web page housing service cancellation terms (signaling intent to defect), use that customer data to feed a churn model.  The churn score passing a threshold should be the catalyst that triggers a retention prescription. 

Be proactive in administering the remedy, but make sure the offer is compelling and tailored to the customer’s needs.  If the real problem is the product or service is terrible, to put it in Bernie-like terms, “fix the damn service.”  Notice that in both the above cases, the collected data has a specific purpose: to drive actions aimed at improving customer experience, helping both parties.

Customers expect respect and empathy, but sadly many brands don’t deliver this.  To change that, actively listen, record useful facts, and take reasonable actions.  Treating someone as a person doesn’t require troves of historic data, but instead an appreciation for the customer’s plight and the context of the situation.  For example, train service personnel to let customers vent, be sincerely apologetic, and then empower them with leeway to offer creative yet reasonable solutions.  Assist those customer-facing agents by equipping them with a system that serves up next-best-action recommendations, which are arbitrated in real-time to ensure relevance.

Treat consumers as people, not numbers, yet remember that doesn’t grant permission to probe intimate details and indiscriminately sock away customer data.  Gather data that solve actual problems and prevent new ones.  If you take this approach, customer satisfaction will improve.

Golden rule #3: Be genuine, transparent, and fair

History shows consumers are willing to share treasure troves of data under certain conditions.  For instance, they will gladly share their location data with insurers when they get value in exchange such as a safe driving discount.  Yet when brands vacuum up customer data with no reciprocity, consumer trust falls.  And with trust for businesses already low (less than half trust institutions[ii]) and customers worried about brands misusing collected data (97% in this survey[iii]), it’s crucial for companies to rebuild trust not erode it further.   

In that spirit, be judicious and calculated in the information you scoop up in the name of better outcomes.  Always ask for permission and make it easy for customers to see what you’ve collected, why you’ve collected it, and how you intend to use it.  Above all, ensure all the information you collect is secure.  If you intend to share it, get consumer consent, and make it easy and clear for consumers to understand how you are using it and how that helps them.

If you collect and store it, you’re responsible for it.  You must be able to explain why you collected it, where it came from, and how it’s used.  Consumers increasingly have legal rights associated with their data (such as GDPR and CCPA), so make sure you understand them and adhere to them.

Golden rule #4: Ask for actionable data and use it to supply value

Lately, I refuse to answer one-question NPS surveys.  Why?  Because mostly it’s a waste of time, even if it would have taken just 15 seconds.  The answer tells brands nothing about how to fix or improve the experience and consumers get no direct value in return.  The company just gets a feel-good (or feel-bad) score – nothing meaningful that evolves the experience.  Too many brands want to take the easy way out and collect one answer rather than do the hard work to get detailed feedback from customers. 

Want to know who customers really are and how they think?  Ask for it in a meaningful way that makes it a fun and engaging experience that returns value to both parties.  If your questions are well-formulated, concise, and clear on how you’ll use the answers, customers will take the time.  Jebbit, a startup focused on declared customer data collection, does this by crafting questions into immersive experiences that offer value in return – routinely resulting in 90% completion rates[iv].  

Because consumers are busy and easily distracted, collecting data incrementally makes sense.  But regardless of how you collect it, you must act on it and in doing so return value.  Four years ago, my post, Incremental contextual marketing for the distracted consumer, advocated for longitudinal marketing tactics with an overarching goal.   Incremental profiling makes sense for similar reasons, and when marketers combine these, they become a powerful way to gather data and act on it.


To survive and thrive, organizations must personalize experiences and evolve their offerings.  To do that, they need the right customer data.  Like it or not, ever-evolving and proliferating technology creates a world rich with devices and channels that spew copious quantities of behavior data as exhaust eagerly inhaled by businesses that want to “know customers.”  Those deciding how much of it to suck up, pair with other sources, and refine into insights have both great opportunity and responsibility.

The adage that if you aren’t paying for the product you are the product reminds us that consumers constantly face key decisions about how much data to surrender in return for something – ostensibly in an equitable exchange of value.  As such, when organizations ask for customer data, they make those decisions easier when providing clear and present value.

Like cars and phones, new personalization models are born from the latest tech, run their course, and eventually become obsolete – replaced by new, evolved models.   And just like those cars and phones, personalization engines need the latest modern power sources, designed in lockstep with the machines they power.

Just because something is inexpensive upfront doesn’t mean it’s cost-effective in the long run.  Often you pay later in ways not initially obvious.  Customer data is no different.  Even though the cost to store it continues to fall, some of the hidden costs are rising such as the cost of securing it or cleaning up after a breach.  And no different than the entire process of sourcing, storing, and refining oil or electricity, those responsible for customer data must first carefully weigh the tangible and immediate benefits of its use with the long-term ramifications of its extraction, distribution, and residual effects.

Data can be like gold.  But to ensure it’s real and not fool’s gold, apply these 4 golden rules when you mine it, store it, and use it.  It’s only worth something when both parties get value from it.

[i] PNAS, https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/07/18/1706541114.full#ref-3, 2017

[ii] Edelman Trust Barometer, https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer, 2019

[iii] HBR, https://hbr.org/2015/05/customer-data-designing-for-transparency-and-trust, 2015

[iv] Jebbit.com, https://www.jebbit.com/blog/11-stats-that-show-the-power-of-declared-data-in-marketing, 2019


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