Customer Interface: Do You Know Me?

Your visitors want to feel that you’re guiding them, not stalking them. How much information do you let them know you know?

Whether or not they’re carrying American Express cards, sophisticated business-to-business Web users and “screen-age” Net game players alike expect your site to remember them from one visit to the next. Whether you use cookies, embedded URLs, passwords or the new, server-based tools to retain information about your visitors, there’s no way to overestimate the value of recognizing them the next time around. Personalization allows you to pre-fill forms, dynamically select content and track visitors’ preferences and pathways. Users needn’t reintroduce themselves at the beginning of each session, and you can design programs that cater to their desires as well as capture valuable information about them for future reference.

While personalization’s value to your organization and your visitors is readily apparent, you must still wrestle with a few key issues to ensure that your efforts do, in fact, work in your favor. From a marketing perspective, the issue is less about invading privacy than creating barriers to sales and customer service.

Unearned Familiarity Breeds Contempt

American Express Co. learned years ago that people don’t like to be recognized too soon. Customer service representatives who used caller ID to answer the phone–“Hello, Mr. Smith, this is Sally at American Express. How can I help you?”–were repeatedly met with distaste and distrust. It didn’t take long for AmEx to change its approach, waiting for callers to identify themselves first. Once a customer has given his name, the company found, he doesn’t mind the agent using it. “Yes, Mr. Smith, I have your account records in front of me now” becomes perfectly acceptable, even to customers who notice that it took no time at all for the service rep to find those records. Such a response can even leave the positive impression that a company’s computers are blindingly fast. More important, it provides the customer with that all-important feeling of being in control of the conversation. Turns out the correct answer to “Do you know me?” is “Not until you introduce yourself.”

Anonymity Hath Its Privileges

When the Internet was young, we all got used to the idea of anonymous FTP. What a pleasure it was to wander from site to site, like a bee flitting from flower to flower, confident that those offering data did so with the most altruistic intentions. Internet culture developed with a strong expectation of anonymity. Then came commerce and its incessant desire to know all.

The marketing task is not just getting the message out to the masses, but also keeping an ever-vigilant ear open to them. Fully half of marketing is knowing what people might like to spend money on. For that knowledge, we must pay strict attention to what people are saying, what they are thinking and why they are–or are not–buying. To the customer under the microscope, such scrutiny can be a little unnerving.

We all prefer to shop without being hovered over. Nobody wants to walk into a store where the clerks follow your every move and note each item that catches your attention. At first blush, it seems that such standoffishness stems from the desire to be left alone to contemplate the merchandise. But it is more than that: The customer who shops in splendid isolation has the upper hand when it comes time to negotiate. Frankly, I don’t want the car salesman to know that I’ve already decided to buy a car and that this afternoon is the only time I have to do so. I don’t want the saleswoman in the antique store to know that I’m a meerschaum pipe fanatic. My goal is to sustain the illusion of being a savvy, aloof buyer for as long as possible. Bargaining is much more difficult when sellers know they have a live one on their hands. Furthermore, customers worry that personal information collected for one reason will be used by someone else for another reason entirely. And that someone else may not be someone they want to hear from.

Playing By The Rules

The fact is, a surfer’s every move can be recorded. But that doesn’t automatically turn site owners into nefarious violators of privacy. If your site gathers intelligence about your visitors but you want to ensure them that you have their best interests at heart, consider adopting the tenets of ETrust, a set of rules created by an eclectic group that includes CommerceNet Inc., Coopers & Lybrand LLP, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Firefly Network Inc. Predicated on the importance of protecting privacy, ETrust lays out some simple rules of engagement that–when obeyed–earn your site the right to wear an ETrust Trustmark.

The first and foremost ETrust rule is disclosure. You must candidly explain what information you are gathering and how you are going to use it. You must include a list of third parties with whom you are going to share the information and give visitors the right to update or correct their personal information. You must also give them the option and the ability to delete all references to themselves from your database.

Furthermore, under the ETrust rules, you must guarantee that you will not “monitor personal communications such as e-mail or instant messages” or “display or make available personally identifiable name or contact information unless it is publicly available.”

The ETrust effort is intended to make visitors comfortable with the fact that you are watching their every move. Full disclosure is good, but airlines, car rental agencies and even grocery stores have learned that some sort of members-only incentives are critical to preserving their customers’ willingness to be watched. But that’s not the only hurdle you have to clear as a data-gathering Web racer. You also have to overcome the temptation of getting to know your visitors too well.


Taking the train from London’s Waterloo station to the Gare du Nord in Paris via the Chunnel is great. You get there faster, you don’t have to switch from a train to a boat back to a train, and you don’t get seasick. You also don’t get to feel the wind in your hair, see the sights or smell the sea air. You are sealed in a metal tube that plunges beneath the English Channel, and you don’t see a thing until you hit the coast of France. Profiling your site visitors may help you guess what they will be interested in next. But, like the Chunnel train, it also puts them on a straight and narrow track with blinders on all sides. Adroit retailers place the staples at the back of the store, forcing customers to walk past aisles and aisles of impulse items. Web retailers who pitch according to profile may miss the chance to sell that staple buyer a set of artist’s charcoals or a Magnetic Poetry Kit.

Say you visit a Web department store and click on the latest fashions. The next day you return to the site to check out bicycles. The bright red racer may show up surrounded by stylish biking apparel. Did you stop at camping gear yesterday? In that case, the bike graphic will show up with an assortment of equipment trailers, water bottles and backpacks.

On its face, the prospect of such targeted pitches is enough to make a direct marketer salivate. But in time the practice of chunneling can backfire, thwarting efforts to upsell and cross-sell by limiting your customers’ exposure to your wares.

Robin Johnson, president and CEO of Infoseek Corp., says search engines should keep queries in context. “If you do a lot of business searches and type in ‘chicken stock,’ we’re not going to direct you to a bunch of gumbo recipes,” Johnson told Information Week.

But what if gumbo recipes were exactly what you had in mind? How can a computer decide you are either an investor or a chef but never both? Sometimes you go to the store as a mother of a sick child and sometimes as a plumber with a leaky faucet. The “milk” you’re looking for might be for breakfast, might be baby formula and might be coconut milk. What if you’re a husband trying to find a present for your wife? Will the Sears site not show you the softer side if you spend too much time looking at Craftsman tools? The trick, then, is to be specific without being exclusive, to make sure customers see not only what they do want but also what they might want. With an infinite number of Web pages collecting an infinite number of click-throughs, eventually your server will tell you what Shakespeare might want to buy. That’s the pot at the end of the rainbow for which we’re all striving.
A Fine Balance

The trick to personalization is to be knowledgeable about your guests without being overly familiar. Be attentive without fawning. Be helpful without pigeonholing people into such small categories that they have to fight your system to find the products or services they want.

Remember the song that Deborah Kerr, playing the role of Anna, sings to the Siamese school kids in The King and I?

Getting to know you.
Getting to know all about you
Getting to like you.
Getting to hope you like me.

Personalization is like that. It’s a mutual exchange of data. I don’t mind that the woman at the dry cleaner knows my name and phone number. I don’t mind that my bank knows my savings balance. I don’t mind that knows what kind of books I like to read. But if I am researching Web servers and the customer profile system at Infoseek has a cooperative customer profile discussion with databases at Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and UUNet Technologies Inc., Infoseek may show me only the software that runs on the particular equipment/operating system/network I have installed. Not only do I not get the broad spectrum of information I’m after, but the little hairs on the back of my neck start twitching and my eyes start to shift back and forth, looking for miniature cameras.