Big Data: Big Win?

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

If you work in the digital/marketing world today, “big data” is the expression du jour, that fancy term your clever friends throw around on Twitter, this phenomenon that keynote speakers are mentioning off-hand at the conferences you go to. 

I’ve noticed myself that even those not necessarily “in the know” on big data are still encountering it in some form or another. Today, for example, my mother complained about how she was shopping for shoes one day, and the next day she was bombarded by advertisements for the same shoe website on every website she visited. My uncle then remarked on how “the airlines are the worst, because they change their fares depending on the income of the customer who is browsing them." 

They’re both right – businesses are getting smarter about how they operate, from the way that they can target consumers (less television, radio, and billboards, and much more online re-targeting), all the way down to how they set their prices. How are they getting smarter? It’s simple: by learning more about the people who buy their products, their customers.

It raises questions on how much is "too much.” Is it an invasion of privacy for businesses to know so much? The creators of “South Park” would say no – they satirized fear over the NSA by pointing out how willingly people share data about themselves on social media websites. 

Certainly, we may not rely on “South Park” for answers, but the creators do have a point: we live in a world where sharing is the norm. And while sharing pictures of yourself at college frat parties may come back to haunt you, does the sharing of other information really hurt you when it comes to doing business?

Most thought leadership today would argue that this dip into our personal lives in fact helps us to gain better service from the brands we love. If you have not seen Dudley Larus’s blog post about big data and the customer experience, read the Genesys blog now. He gives a terrific example of predictive IVR (see the last post), and how businesses can essentially use what they know about the customer in order to create a better experience for that individual, rather than routing them through the same general process any customer would go through. When customers become less anonymous through the data that businesses obtain about them, the businesses can return the favor by treating said customers less anonymously. It makes sense.

McKinsey & Company points out that businesses are also automating more services for customers – seeing your utility bill in real time, or not having to repeat your name and address over the phone. It reminds me of one of my own favorite examples, UPS MyChoice. This feature allows customers to adjust delivery dates and give specific delivery instructions for packages so that less errors (or returns to sender) will be made. It’s a feature I enjoy in my personal life quite a bit.

It raises the simple question: don’t businesses deserve to know more about us if it helps them to automate processes for us? If it is for our benefit, if it solves all the problems we used to complain about, if it eliminates all the stigmas we used to associate with customer service, is it as scary as we thought it was?

It’s a give and take, I’d say. We should be leery of the brands who gather the customer data but use it for their own good and not our own. My advice to consumers? Watch how brands are using customer data. Are they using it to help you, or are they using it to help themselves?