Listen to customers… not just to customer data and research

There’s a lot more science to guide us these days in how best to connect with customers online or via mobile. Data analytics, behavioral research and even studies of the brain are providing insights into what motivates people, satisfies them as customers or drives them to make decisions one way or another.

Still, it’s important to remember that dealing with customers — that is, fellow human beings — is also part art, part common sense and part Golden Rule (i.e., treating others as you’d like to be treated).

So when customers say they don’t like certain things your business might do, even if the science and data say those things work, it pays to listen and adjust your actions accordingly.

Consider, for example, a new survey from the customer relationship management giant Salesforce, which found that most people still prefer shopping in brick-and-mortar stores over online shopping… largely because they find the customer service experience more rewarding in real life. Online retailers come out ahead when people are shopping simply for the lowest price, but shoppers don’t always like some of the Web-based practices supposedly designed to make that experience easier for them: 45 percent said they especially dislike being served online ads or social media promotions for products they’ve just searched for, which many find invasive or annoying.

Another thing people find annoying or worse are automated or algorithmic “solutions” they can’t adjust or control. Many users of Twitter, for instance, expressed dismay earlier this year when the company announced it would introduce an algorithmic timeline (much like Facebook uses) that would show more relevant tweets first rather than serving them in the standard reverse chronological order. Unlike Facebook, however, Twitter made the new timeline algorithm optional and enabled users to switch it off if they chose (though doing so isn’t exactly easy).

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing recently highlighted another feature supposedly aimed at improving the user experience that, in some instances, does the exact opposite: Gmail’s practice of putting frequent correspondents into a “speed-dial” sidebar. Unfortunately for at least one Gmail user, this meant she had to see someone who harassed her regularly via email show up on her speed-dial list… without any way to edit that list.

The lesson we can take from all of these examples is that it’s vital to always give your customers options and control. While automation, data analytics and artificial intelligence can make customer service better, faster and easier in many ways, the individual customer should always be able to choose the experience he or she wants.

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