Predictive service: Are you a butler or a stalker?

6th Jul 2017
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Imagine you’re walking down the High Street, minding your own business, when a stranger comes along and taps you on the shoulder.

“Hello, [insert name]”, says the stranger. You’re instantly perturbed. Do you know this person?

“I see you logged onto our website yesterday and looked at a pair of orange running shoes. Did you know that they’re on offer in our store today?”

You look up to see the store ahead of you. “We’ll give you 20% off at the till”. As well as confused you’re a little bit annoyed, because you have already bought the shoes – without 20% off.

Your mood darkens as you walk past the shop. Another stranger runs up to you and taps you on the shoulder.

“[Insert name], we have a voucher available for you today – 2 meals for the price of one”.

You’re clearly on your own, so that offer isn’t really that tempting (although you are feeling hungry). You walk on and into a different retail outlet whose app you happen to have on your phone. The screen at the end of the store lights up. “Hello [insert name] – welcome back”. At this point you swiftly about-turn and run back to the peace and privacy of your home.  

At least it used to be peace and privacy; until your smart speaker arrived. The mere mention of its name sparks it into life, as it eavesdrops in the background waiting for you to ask it for the latest weather forecast. It has a camera attached to it, so it might also be watching you too, ready to reassure you that you look fabulous in your new trainers, oblivious to the fact that they now represent something of a sore subject.

The me-conomy

Is this all a bit creepy? Some would say it is. Is technology turning into a creepy stalker that follows us around wherever we go?  Or is it becoming your new BFF? Your digital butler?

Smart technologies, wearable devices, smart buildings, the Internet of Things, social media, and machine learning are all contributing to an explosion of “big data” to mine about your lifestyle, shopping habits, and location.

You may be happy to share that data – but only if there is some advantage for you to do it. This is why personal data is becoming a “me”-conomy. You may be willing to trade some of your privacy, if there is some advantage to you doing it. If you get better, faster, easier, more personalised service it may be worth it, but it will depend on the WIIFMs (What’s In It For Me?)

If you know that they have that data, you gave permission to use it, and there are distinct WIIFMs, you may well welcome companies that personalise and make your service proactive.

Of course, insurance companies have been doing this for a while with telematics boxes in cars. In return for giving them data about the way you drive, the insurer can better assess risk. You may well be very happy to do this if it means your premiums go down.

Similarly, in healthcare, you may be willing for your doctor to monitor aspects of your health remotely using wearable technologies, or through smart homes – especially if it helps you avoid the inconvenience of a hospital admission.

Supermarkets have also been at the forefront of data collection and personalisation. They can track your (and everyone else’s) shopping habits, and understand more about you than you may ever know. Their analytics tools can start to spot patterns that indicate that you’re getting divorced, having a baby, or going on holiday. Of course, knowing this and doing something with it are two very different things. You probably wouldn’t mind if your best friend sent you a card and a box of chocolates to celebrate a special occasion – but would you react the same way if a brand did it?

Be a butler

It probably depends on the brand concerned, your relationship with them, and whether you trust them or not. If you know that they have that data, you gave permission to use it, and there are distinct WIIFMs, you may well welcome companies that personalise and make your service proactive. But, from that data, becoming predictive of your next move might stray back into the creepy stalker zone.

Of course, regulation is starting to catch up with this trend. The forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) places close scrutiny on companies that are using the personal data of European Union citizens. This means that companies will need to explicitly ask customers permission to use any data that could potentially be used to personally identify them. This will also challenge companies to make the “me”conomy more attractive to consumers.

There’s a fine line between a butler and a stalker. A butler is someone you’ve disclosed your likes and dislikes, and crucially, given permission for them to make helpful suggestions. A stalker is a stranger who follows you around tapping you on the shoulder trying to guess your next move. The former is something we would probably embrace. The latter will cause us to deliver the ultimate digital slaps in the face – disconnection, disengagement and deletion.

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