My wife and I recently spent a weekend in Houston. We had a great weekend, but one thing bugged me. It was small, but it made me think about data-driven customer experiences.

The hotel chain where I have a lifetime status — a sure sign of a career of too much time on the road — had recently converted an old downtown historic building into one of their more upscale brand establishments. As we were only going to be in town for one night, we decided to treat ourselves and stay there.

As we were checking in, the front desk agent asked us, “Have you stayed at this location before?”

Defining 'Just Enough' Data

The interaction made me think about my many previous stays with this chain. The company has data about every stay I’ve made in one of its properties for at least the last 16 years, as detailed in the company’s app, which tracks my status. I can look at all my activities — yet it seems like the hotels' front desks doesn’t have access to that same data. They know my status level and the benefits that come with it. They know my room preference. They know that if my wife is traveling with me, we need a feather-free room. Yet for some reason, they never seem to know if I’ve stayed at that hotel before.

Doesn’t “Welcome back, Mr. Porter” sound a lot better than “Thank you for your loyalty”?

I’m not suggesting the front desk needs access to every detail of my transactions. But it might be valuable for those employees to know just a little more than they do — just enough that it would add the right amount of personalization to enhance the experience and make me feel even more valued as a customer.

Related Article: Data-Driven Decisions Need Context

The Ongoing Balancing Act Between Personalization and the Creep Factor

But what is “just enough” personal data? There is a fine line between delivering a data-driven experience and provoking what I’ve heard called the “creep factor.” When I was doing some consulting for a large pharmaceutical company, I saw just how much data the company had about the patients that used some of its products. I can’t say exactly how much, but it was a lot.

Learning Opportunities

The firm also had done some interesting research on how much of the customer data they could repeat back to a customer to enable personalization. Even though patients had willingly provided all of the data the company had collected, the same patients had a fairly low tolerance for any sign the company knew so much about them.

Some of the reluctance came from the patients having provided that information piecemeal during different interactions. At no point was it explained that this information would be stored alongside any other data previously supplied. Customers are OK with having information about themselves repeated back, provided it fits a purpose — i.e., it's in connection to the service for which they originally supplied it. But any additional data points provoked a “how did they know that?” reaction, even when the customer had originally supplied the information.

The research also showed that most people had a tolerance of about five pieces of personal information being exposed during a transaction. Anything above that veered into the creep factor zone.

So if our customers only have a tolerance for a limited data set, why do we collect so much about them? Do we really need to know so much to deliver on the promise of a personalized experience? I suspect that in many cases, that customer data is used — if at all — solely for internal purposes like market segmentation. Yet the information that could make a difference to the customer experience is overlooked or ignored because it doesn’t drive internal processes.

Are you using your data for you, or your customers? Surely the best answer is both: use the data to drive an optimized experience.

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