Customerization: Making Service Their Way


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“It’s all about you!” the breathtaking Korean Air ad sings to us on television. And, we recall the Burger King’s successful “Have it your way” promotion. Personalization, or as Management guru Tom Peters called it, “customerization,’ is the new feature of successful customer experience outreach. Customers want it “their way” because more and more they can get it that way!

Personalization has always been a characteristic of face-to-face encounters. We enjoy it monogrammed when service providers use our name, recall our last purchase, or make some effort to find out the name of our granddaughter-in-tow. And, now it is even appearing on the Internet landscape. Case in point: Unique Fragrances.

Log onto Unique Fragrances and you are given a special opportunity in five clicks to create your own signature perfume. Once you identify yourself as a male or female, you chose the character (casual, sensual, natural, glamorous, etc.), the scent (fruity, citric, fresh, extravagant, etc.), the notes (50 aromas like orchid, white tea, violet leaf, cherry blossom, etc.) with detailed descriptions and photos, the bottle (20 different styles) and finally the label (name, design and font). Talk about a gift that keeps on giving; this one is a sure winner! So, what are the principles important to personalization?

Think Local; Act Local

Monogramming service requires time and care; it cannot be a knee-jerk or a fast-tracked response. It is unique to the customer and it must always be sincere and authentic. Customers know if your brand of service is a trick, an empty gesture, or a selfish ploy. When service is genuinely personalized, it reminds customers they are vitally present in an important service relationship. Having customers’ names on an offering or their needs embedded in it informs customers they are valued recipients, not just typical end users.

Order personalized award ribbons from the Award Company of America in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and your order comes with a thank-you note that contains the words “I am the machine operator who actually made your ribbons. I am very proud of my work. We want to give you highly personal service. If you are dissatisfied for any reason, please contact our customer service department. They will contact me and I will personally correct any problem. Thank you for your order. We look forward to receiving your next order.”

Celebration West, a Dallas restaurant famous for its lively ambiance and surprising frivolity, has waiters applaud when a repeat customer enters the restaurant. That might be an embarrassing gesture at a four-star fancy place but it fits well with their wildness.
Manheim, a large wholesale auto auction company, gets rave reviews from their non-native U.S. customers by flying a United Nations-like row of national flags at their auctions frequented by auto exporters—one for each country represented by the customers who frequent that auction.

Capture Real Time Intelligence

One evening at my desk, I was online ordering promotional visors from I had selected the visor color, style, and words to be stitched in a particular font and thread color. After loading in my credit card information, I sent the order into cyberspace. I was about to turn off my computer when I received a text message on my smart phone,

“Mr. Bell, are you available to talk? May I call you about the order you just placed?” I responded, “Yes.” Within less than a minute, the phone rang. “This is Tonya. Thanks so much for your order. I want to give you superfast turnaround, but I want to make sure you get exactly what you wanted.” I was thrilled! Someone cared about an online order. “The font size you have chosen will be too hard to read. May I suggest doubling it? I can send you a PDF photo showing the front of the visor in the actual size.” I agreed and hung up the phone.

When I turned on my computer early the next morning, there was the PDF from Tonya. With it came a short e-mail note, “As soon as you give me the word that this is the best-looking visor you have ever seen, I will get it into production.” Two days later I got an e-mail and text message from the production department that the visors were finished and being packaged for shipment. Later that day, I got an email with a photocopy of the tracking order. Two days later a follow-up e-mail came indicating that their system showed the order had been delivered. Then Tonya called again. “Are you totally thrilled with your order?” I totally was! And the StitchAmerica’s personalized service made me want to give up shopping centers forever.

Invite Customers to Help

“Dinner on the ground” was code for participation in small towns in the South when we were growing up. While this event went with all family reunions, its most special form of community occurred after certain church services. “Dinner on the ground” was a super event for little boys to run, holler and pull ponytails pretty much unsupervised since their caretakers were occupied with set-up and cleanup. For the women, it was a time to show off a new recipe; men told tales over sweet ice tea of the one that got away. Everyone went home after eating way too much fried chicken and peach pie.

But, this “everyone brings something” event brought people closer and enabled them to feel more interdependent. It was community in its purest form. And, it was surely a sad day when someone got the bright idea of “just calling Big Al and having him bring the barbecue with all the trimmings.”
Wise service providers attract customer loyalty by making the “dinner on the ground” side of service as inclusive, memorable and wholesome as a church picnic. As they do at Starbucks, repeat customers’ names often so you will know it when they return. Listen to learn; customers will indirectly tell you ways to personalize their experience. Thank customers like you really mean it. And never forget they have options. Customers feel valued when you show you never forget that fact either.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. Great post! Customer inclusion and personalization are essential to optimizing service (and, indeed, all experience elements). Prophets like Tom Peters, Peppers and Rogers (The One To One Future) and Pine and Gilmore (in their 1999 book, The Experience Economy) have foretold the reality of this coming from a distance. Like Korean Air, we see even push marketing oriented businesses,such as auto dealerships and banks, jumping on the bandwagon. In the Delaware Valley, we hear slogans like “It’s All About You At Rafferty Subaru” and “Bank Your Way Today.”

  2. Thanks for your comment, Michael! I always value your great insight! My business partner, the late Ron Zemke, published an article in 1990 in AMA’s Management Review (ten years before Gilmore and Pine’s classic The Experience Economy) called “Service as a Performing Art.” You remind us all again that the essence of service is much more like theatre than like factory!

  3. Hi Chip

    A very interesting post. I agree with much of what you say. But, your vision of personalisation is backward looking rather than forward looking.

    It is quite easy to conflate (mass) customisation and personalisation; they are not quite the same thing. As Joe Pine describes in his 1992 book on ‘Mass Customisation’, mass customisation is a combination of mass production and customisation. The Co produces a set of modular product components, business rules in how they can be combined and provides an interface to allow the customer to select permissible combinations. The Unique Fragrances case you describe is a classic example of mass customisation.

    Personalisation is rather different. At one extreme personalisation is providing individually-tailored interactions with customers, as you describe in Stitch America making making personal calls or Award Company of America writing personalised messages. Unfortunately, these ‘little acts of personalisation’ can easily become a millstone around a Co’s next as they become an unscalable expectation that reduces the Co’s profitability.

    At the other extreme, personalisation takes mass customisation to its limits using extremely modular products, propositions and messages, and mathematical algorithms to personalise interactions with customers. One Bank I worked with used information about customers, their product holdings and recent contacts to create almost 20,000 different personalised email newsletters for customers who had opted in to receive them.

    There will always be a place for human personal service. But this kind of personalisation is becoming increasingly expensive and untenable for the majority of companies (look at recent US, EU and UK proposals to hugely increase minimum wages). As the Economist wrote in an opinion piece on ‘Destination Unkown’ this will likely drive the replacement of people in low-paid, low-skill jobs by lower-cost machines. The future of personalisation is almost certainly extreme modularisation, self-learning algorithms and dynamic tailoring of experiences in real-time.

    Personalisation is dead. Long-live personalisation!

    Graham Hill

    Joe Pine
    Mass Customisation

    The Economist
    Destination Unknown

  4. Great points, Graham. Thank you for your comments. And, the scalability of tailored responses to customers (regardless of the label chosen) is indeed a challenge. I have a more optimistic view of the ingenuity of enterprises to find the proper balance between “neighbor serving neighbor” and “consumer/customer serving the bottom line.”

  5. Hi Chip

    I hope you are right.

    Most of my work involves developing complex service systems for clients undergoing transformation for one reason or another. As often as not they look to reduce costs by standardising, automating and centralising how interactions with customers are managed. Although this is frequently a legitimate part of the solution, there is usually a sweet spot where interactions are only partially-standardised, automated and centralised. At least for some interactions.

    As in so many things. The devil is in the detail.

    Graham Hill


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