To Personalize or to Be Authentic

You might ask what the difference is between personalization and authenticity in CRM, and the answer is subtle. For a long time I have felt — and said — that we overemphasize personalization when what customers really want is authenticity. However, examples are hard to find, especially with our current culture’s strong emphasis on personalization and the tendency to give authenticity quizzical looks. Perhaps you are feeling quizzical right now.

Nonetheless, a perfect example turned up The New Yorker’s August issue.

For reasons I don’t understand but am eternally grateful for, this magazine for many years has been an unofficial source of great material for the social CRM age. Malcolm Gladwell — author of many New Yorker articles and books like Outliers and The Tipping Point — is an editor there. So is James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

The article that impressed me comes almost literally out of left field. In “Learning to Speak Lingerie,” Peter Hessler takes us on a trip to visit Chinese lingerie entrepreneurs establishing a beachhead for their wares in upper Egypt.

Keeping a Respectful Distance

The Chinese are learning Arabic and have no familiarity with Islam. They sell lingerie to women who are dressed in traditional headscarves or more. Many of those women are accompanied by men — one is surrounded by a significant fraction of her whole family.

Despite the handicaps of language and culture, the Chinese are making inroads into the market. In fact, the article seems to illustrate how their handicaps sometimes work to their advantage, making Chinese men more effective than Egyptian men at selling lingerie to Egyptian women.

Consider the following comment by an Egyptian woman who spoke to the reporter through a translator: “I can’t describe how they (Chinese merchants) do it. But they can look at the item (of lingerie) and give it to the woman (i.e., a customer) and that’s it.”

That’s interesting — but what comes next is key: “An Egyptian man would look at the item, and then look at the woman, and then he might make a joke or laugh about it.”

Wow! It feels creepy just reading that last sentence. Talk about personalization gone bad.

The Chinese don’t have that problem — in part, because they’re still learning the language, but also because they are focused on being authentic. In this case, that means providing just enough service to help with selection and not trying to get into the mind space of the customer.

This is clear from another quote by the Egyptian woman: “When you buy something, you feel the thoughts of the person selling it. And with the Chinese their brains don’t go thinking about women’s bodies.”

That struck me as highly rational and to the point of good CRM. We make a big effort to personalize customer encounters — and truth be told, some of our efforts are really good and deserving of praise. Still, as in the example above, one person’s personalization can easily lead to another person’s feeling insulted, with a resultant no sale.

Keeping It Real

That’s why my position is to favor authenticity whenever possible. It’s never perfectly clear when a customer will feel the love or something else, so the question must be, why take the chance?

My suggestion to would-be personalizers is first to understand the moment of truth that your customer is in — it might not be what you think. Then work within the moment of truth to ensure that you are providing the authentic moment that customers want.

You can’t do that unless you turn your data-gathering and analytics toward metrics that tell you concretely how you’re doing. A man selling lingerie might be in particular danger of not understanding the customer’s moment of truth. Personalizing it with an off-base comment or offer will serve only to exacerbate an awkward moment.

Most products and services don’t meet intimate and private needs, but they still come with moments of truth, and customers still look for authenticity within them.

Personalization is a decision on the part of the customer — not the vendor. It often happens well past the halfway point of an encounter, when the customer decides,”Yes, this fits my need in this moment of truth.” That decision is often subliminal, but it’s certainly real.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, writer and speaker. His new book, Solve for the Customer, is now available on Amazon. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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