Smart, creative thinking using data and technology is allowing big business to overcome customers' perceptions that the human touch has been lost, according to two experts.
Rob Limb is managing director and Andy Bell general manager of TRACK, an Auckland-based practice that aims to grow businesses by improving the way they connect with customers using data, technology and creativity. They say data and technology can actually lead the return to personal, individual service.
"Who would have associated data and technology with building trust in relationships?" Bell says. "But if you're using these things in the right way you can say, 'we've got your interests at heart'."
Limb adds: "Data can also help reduce the fear of the unknown."
Bell says many companies turn to technology to automate their marketing activity: "What we're finding is these platforms are deployed by technologists and IT departments and if there's a conversation about the benefits, it's more about efficiency: how do we remove costs?
"It's a laudable goal but more is possible - we can actually improve the experiences delivered to customers," he says. "If we're brought into the process earlier it is a far more effective way to help shape the requirements than being engaged after the fact."
Businesses should be asking: how can we use data to help our customers take control of their lives and reach their goals?
The pair cite Westpac's First 100 Days campaign, designed to welcome customers and set up their relationship with the bank.
Bell says they looked at what was really important when engaging with the bank during that 100 days.
"There were several things a customer needed to do to set up the relationship so it would be a success - for example activating their products and setting up online banking.
"Historically, welcome programmes are very formulaic. Using technology and data [looking at what people had already done and what they hadn't], Westpac created a more relevant experience that was much more personalised.
"The communications acknowledged what the customers had done and suggested the next thing they might do. If the customer went off and did something on their own volition, we acknowledged that.
Communication continued through the 100-day honeymoon. Limb: "Westpac's solution was technology-led but it was backed by human beings.
"After 45 days, someone from the 100 Days team would call the customer and say, 'I see you're set up for this and this, but you haven't done this. Is there anything we can help you with'?
"It was a conversation with a real person based on the data we understood about them, to help them get the best out of banking and technology."
"You had customers saying, 'this is not what I expected from a bank', or, 'this was lovely - I felt like a person not a number'," Bell says. "It felt like Westpac cared for them and taken care of them through the process. You don't associate data and technology with taking care of people."
Limb adds: "Instead of saying, 'we are going to use your behaviours and the data we have to sell you a credit card', it is saying: 'We at Westpac focus on following your behaviour to help you get the most out of your banking services'."
Both suggest experiences like this reduce public suspicion about companies' access to data: "If my data's being used to help me, I'm probably going to want you to have more. If you're using it in the right way, if you're protecting it, if you're helping me, as a customer, I feel that's a good thing," Bell says.
Limb uses another Kiwi innovation to back the case that data can reduce fear of the unknown: Air New Zealand's Airband, a Fitbit-style wristband for children travelling unaccompanied.
"It's a smart piece of technology containing all the data about that person - where they are in the airport, when they're on the plane, when they get off the plane, when they come out of the landing area. It takes the worry out of it for parents.
"People whose children use the Airband are the most wonderful advocates for Air New Zealand as a result."
Bell says organisations marrying data with customer needs also have an R&D tool to see where new products or opportunities lie. But the old rule still applies: put the customer at the centre.
"Our starting point is the customer. We don't start with data and technology. That is just a way of understanding the customer and their behaviour."