Ditch boring algorithms and treat customers as humans

stuart archibaldHumour me for a moment. How many emails have you deleted this morning? How many were not relevant? Did they make you smile like the ads on TV? Did you even notice? How long have you played Spotify before becoming bored with the selection? And, why is it when we go on holiday it’s somebody else’s Netflix account which seems interesting? If I may be so bold to say it’s because you are an algorithm. Sorry.

It’s because you are nothing but an algorithm any more. You’ve been broken down by brands into a target. You’re like Neo in the Matrix. But a shit one that can’t stop bullets or fly.

The reality is, even given the advancements in data and technology, our world has become more and more automated, templated and uniform. We’ve been robbed of the individuality and creativity that comes naturally to us as humans. It’s no longer just brands that are trying to fit us nicely into a few ‘target audience’ boxes; now we’re actually living them. We’ve entered a reality truly dominated by algorithms.

Customers are feeling it, too. Recent research conducted with Neilson shows that customers are bored, and clients are wasting half of their CX budget: 48% of respondents were completely dismissing emails (I think that’s kind), 53% want more inspiring content, 45% said they wouldn’t act and 29% said social media ads were boring.

A worrying trend was the overall declining interest in trading their data. Well-publicised leaks haven’t helped and I guess they don’t see the value exchange.

CRM is the fastest-growing software market in the world. The problem is that brands have bought into these costly platforms without knowing how to utilise them to their full potential – or in a way that enhances the relationship for the customer rather than just for the sake of process efficiency.

The go-to strategy has been mass communication reaching more customers with more comms, making use of only the simplest levels of personalisation. Marketers understand the opportunity of tracking data and utilising it for cut-through but are quickly bogged down.

Many brands seem content when the machine runs “business as usual” as long as it is hitting KPIs around the numbers of customers reached and their regularity. A simple audit of communications consistently uncovers customers being over-mailed or contacted.

This may seem like an efficiency story but it is only half of it. The race to treating customers as lines on a spreadsheet whilst enabling communication at scale, is missing the opportunity of seismic shifts in customer value and market share.

If I look back at some of my client success stories, they share an unswerving dedication to anthropology before thinking technology. Tesco Clubcard enabled an understanding of customers which hadn’t been seen since the days of Jack Cohen running his corner store, knowing every customer by name and what they liked. O2 rewarded customers for staying, not leaving. And, every time we undertook a customer communication for Virgin, it had to be written as if it came from a friend and not a company. They all became Number One in their market. Do the brands you interact with daily give you this treatment?

Taking an anthropological approach starts with not being treated as a customer but as a human. Humans are nuanced, unpredictable, emotional and complicated. They are our neighbours, sisters, grandparents, and friends. They want to be inspired, to discover, to have connection and be social.

An over-reliance on behavioural data poses a risk to customers being served the same narrow offering and not the bigger story. During the pandemic, we saw a shift to shopping online which is eliminating the natural elements of the in-store shopping experience-discovery, window shopping, unexpected inspiration-reducing the potential basket size, as well as the depth of the customer relationship with the brand.

Reliance on the algorithm has arguably steered Spotify off its own path. However, TikTok is a platform serving its users with unexpected content; they state their mission is to inspire ‘creativity and bring joy’, and that the For You feed is ’part of what enables connection and discovery’. Their growing numbers are proof of concept.

Creativity has become the oft-forgotten element in the CX equation. Many people ask why and I can only blame the reliance on technology over human understanding as the possible culprit.

Some marketers may say that personalised content is a far greater response generator than pretty pictures. However, I haven’t seen an instance whereby connecting emotionally hasn’t outpulled a rational communication. Why do we inspire and entertain customers with big budget TV ads but serve up stock shots and boring copy lines with one-to-one communication? Would you be deleting your emails if they were slightly more entertaining?

I have not met a client who doesn’t have a pain point with their customer marketing. Whether it is realising the potential of their data, a lack of brand tone, fragmented customer journeys or maximising their martech investment. These can easily be addressed.

However, real success is achieved when seasoned global practitioners are allowed to seek truth in the data and approach the problem from an anthropological view before thinking about technology. The discipline not to leap straight to a technological solution without first understanding the human behaviour. Asking the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ so that we can create human experiences and not customer experiences.

Stuart Archibald is founder of CA.5

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