Personalization has been a marketing buzzword over the past 15 years or so. And for good reason: 80% of consumers are more likely to make purchases from brands that offer personalized experiences, and a whopping 99% of marketers say personalization helps advance customer relations.

Yet despite continuous innovations in personalization technology and automation, something's missing. As marketing and customer experience (CX) leaders, we feel in our hearts that some essential yet undefined quality of personalization continues to evade our grasp. Adding to that feeling is the fact that customer expectations adjust with the times. The email blast with the customer’s first name auto-populated and a coupon for an item they recently viewed might check the right personalization boxes. But to the consumer who has come to expect and even perhaps become annoyed with such tactics, it’s just another email blast.

Unfortunately, the current solution to this quandary seems to be, “throw more marketing automation and artificial intelligence (AI) at it.” Case in point is a recent article here on CMSWire, “Using AI to Build More Personal Customer Connections.”

The author, Omer Artun, provides detailed and clear examples of how brands can use innovations in AI to their advantage when it comes to personalization. His vision of the promise of AI, where “each interaction generates more value for both the organization and the customer ... to grow deeper connections and foster customer loyalty in the long term” is exciting from my vantage point as a CMO.

However, the article is also indicative of a major blind spot in the eyes of the entire personalization industrial complex: the power of real human-to-human interactions when it comes to a customer’s relationship with a brand.

Your Brand Is How Customers See You

Customer service and support agent interactions is where a brand develops true personal connections with their customers. By their nature, these interactions occur when the customer is feeling most vulnerable or frustrated, or when they have a question they don’t trust automated or self-service means to answer. These moments are often when brand advocates or detractors are made: Consumers are 38% more likely to recommend a brand after a great customer service experience. On the flip side, customers are four times more likely to buy from a competitor if the problem is service-related rather than price- or product-related.

Your brand is how your customers see you, and advocates and detractors today influence that view to an unprecedented degree. So why do marketing and CX leaders fail to give customer service its proper due? Nowhere in Artun's article is supporting customer service mentioned. Every new investment in personalization, the article insinuates, should go to automation channels. The article defines empathy as when “brands tap into an individual customer's wants and motivations continually, connecting with them on a deeper level than just a one-off exchange.” But that’s not empathy. That is the simulation of empathy. No automation system (to my knowledge) can develop true empathy with a human customer.

Learning Opportunities

Real empathy can — and does — happen at the customer support and service level. I’m sure we can all recall a time when a great customer service agent inherently understood our needs as a human and delivered accordingly. Imagine if you could scale that experience across your entire support organization. Imagine the difference in your customers’ experiences if your support agents were enabled with the same data and power to personalize as your marketing automation software is. Imagine if every customer-facing employee was automatically given information about each customer such as prior purchases, where they are located, or personal events such as birthdays and anniversaries.

I guarantee a simple “Hey, I see it’s your anniversary next week. Congratulations. How long have you been married?” from a support agent makes a much larger impact in the mind of a customer than the best, most personalized coupon email. In fact, the numbers bear it out. Ninety percent of Americans use customer service as a factor in deciding whether or not to do business with a company and 89% of consumers are more likely to make another purchase after a positive customer service experience. Does your personalization engine produce that ROI?

Related Article: Customer Experience Needs Empathy Now More Than Ever

The 'Now' Customer

Artun’s article shows an obvious depth of knowledge about AI and personalization. But it also underscores the need for a sea change in how we think about our customers as people with human needs and desires.

Like many other areas of society, marketing has become defined by trying to find ways to live up to the promise of the powerful technology we now have. But sometimes, the answer is much more simple — and human — than that. Today’s customer, what I call the "now" customer, expects exceptional and empathetic experiences across every single touchpoint. Perhaps you can offer great experiences through AI and automation, and maybe you can even come close to simulating empathy. But to be exceptional, and to develop a real personal connection, today — and forever — requires a human touch.

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