Fourteen: Personalization or Personification

Customers are genuinely delighted when those who provide service to them recall their preferences: the waiter who sets aside your usual table, the bartender who sets up your customary drink, the hotel that stocks an extra pillow. It demonstrates that they are attentive to your needs and care about your experiences.

(EN: I recall a mention of this in the context of generational marketing - some customers, namely the silent generation and early baby boomers, actually take offense and believe that everyone should get the same service, and actually get a bit crabby when you go the extra mile for them. Previous and following generations don't have this idiosyncrasy, so it can be taken as a general truth, though any firm whose customer base is people of that particular generation would do well to be cautioned.)

This is generally the charm of the small business, which was lost in the era of mass-marketing: customers seem to be served by a different employee every time, and employees serve so many customers they can't keep track of everyone. Service is made even less personal by machines: the ATM that replaced the teller doesn't recognize the customer, much less remember them, and the best efforts of Web sites to recognize and serve the preferences of individual users have been superficial and campy.

Too Personal?

Concerns about privacy are often an obstacle to personalization: while 80% of customers say they would be delighted by a personalized experience, 63% of them do not want to provide the personal information that is necessary to personalize the experience.

There is also some expectation of impersonal experience from machines that forms a dual standard. When a waiter predicts a customer's preferences, it's completely understandable, but when a Web site does so, there is a chilled reaction of "how do they know that about me?" When a customer receives a handwritten note that begins "Dear Mr. Smith" he feels he is gratified to receive a personal communication rather than a form-letter, but when a mass-market email addresses him as such, he realizes it's a database operation and feels that the sender is trying to trick him into thinking the form letter is personal.

This is even true in personal interaction, when a salesman who regularly serves a customer asks about their child by name, it's inoffensive because the customer mentioned the child to him in a previous conversation. If another employee does the same, the customer is ill-at-ease, apprehensive that he is being spied upon and the company is keeping files on him.

As such, the broad statement that "personalization is delightful" should be taken with some reservations, as it is entirely possible to be too personal, particularly when the customer does not expect it.

Customization vs. Personalization

Customization is related to personalization, but is a different process. In customization, the customer controls the experience of the brand by modifying parameters you have provided for his manipulation. That is, he indicated at some point that he would prefer your Web site to load with large type each time he visits.

Personalization occurs when the brand takes the lead. That is, the customer at some point provides information about their age and the vendor decides that he would be better served by a large type format for the Web site. There is more risk of getting it wrong by being too proactive.

These two approaches can be used in tandem - to personalize based on your assumption, but let the customer then customize according to their preferences. Naturally, vendors should take care than any personalization they decide to implement does not override customization preferences that were previously set by the customer - or at least, not without warning.

Personalization Overkill

It's suggested that personalization can be overdone, to the point it loses its value. It is most valuable when a customer has frequent transactions with a firm, and least valuable when a person has an infrequent or one-time interaction with a vendor.

(EN: From the perspective of a business, there is likely no harm in personalizing an infrequent experience, but no benefit either. My sense is it only becomes objectionable when some effort is required of the customer to personalize - to provide information about themselves to a site they will use very seldom adds to the difficulty of doing business with a firm.)

Be aware that human relationships develop slowly and over time - a business that demands too much too soon is seen as intrusive, and is likened to a complete stranger asking intensely personal questions.

Personification Delivers

A difference between personalization and personification is that the latter is not truly one-to-one, but creates "personas" to represent market segments. Each persona is a fictional character who has the qualities and behavioral traits believed to be common to a large number of customers, and can be used as stand-ins to enable you to consider the specific perspectives of the customer.

Businesses that attempt to provide a personalized experience to thousands or millions of customers often end up getting it very wrong because they consider what parts of the experience might be varied rather than considering what groups of customers might actually want.

(EN: A few "duh" examples are provided to illustrate bad segmentation, such as considering age rather than gender when marketing certain products.)

The Segment Game

Not all customers are created equal, and critical to successful marketing is the ability to identify the attributes of a person who will become a frequent customer, as opposed to one who will provide a one-time or occasional sale.

It then follows that a business should not attempt to be everything to everyone and instead identify those customers who will provide the greatest value, customize the product and the experience to their specific needs, and let other firms serve the rest of the market - you should be particularly happy when the customers who cost more to serve than they provide in revenue decide to patronize your competition.

(EN: An excellent example of this practice is Progressive Insurance, which offered customers the ability to get quotes from several insurance companies. The firm considered claims history and readily identified customers who were "losers" who routinely filed claims in excess of premiums, and suggested they'd get a better rate with another insurance company.)