Opinion | 20 April 2021

From hotels to digital: why personalisation is the Achilles heel of truly personalised experiences

Tags: UX/CX

Lit up sign saying hotel on top of a roof at night

Personalisation has long been seen as ‘the answer’ to driving personal experiences in digital spaces. But when we look at the best examples of personal customer experience, it’s often not the personalisation which makes the experience personal. So, is personalisation really the solution to our problems? We explore how, instead, it may be a hurdle to creating truly personal experiences.

Imagine this scenario. You’ve just booked the holiday of the lifetime. A surprise, let’s say, for your significant other. You’ve pulled out all the stops: first class flight and beautiful hotel with all the trimmings. You have high hopes for this trip, and it doesn’t disappoint.

It starts when you arrive at the airport and the airline assistant greets you warmly. Once they learn your name, they know that you’re celebrating a special occasion and wish you a fantastic trip. When you arrive at the first-class lounge, you’re treated like royalty. You could get used to this.

It continues at the hotel. The helpful security guard at the gate of the hotel takes your name and reservation and directs you to pull up at the front of the hotel. The bag attendant greets you and addresses you by name. Wow, that’s a classy touch, you think to yourself. The concierge also knows who you are, and they have you whisked away to your room which has been upgraded, with a personal note and bottle of wine for you to celebrate the special occasion. This feels different. It feels personal.

Close up of hand holding white envelope

Even though they are just words laid out on paper, handwritten letters organically feel far more personal, whatever their content. Personalisation should be seen the same way, it’s as much the ‘how’ as it is the ‘what’.

A similar scenario to this was recently discussed on an episode of the podcast Experience This! during which one of the hosts discussed their experience of a hotel by the name of Montage Los Cabos. It sounded wonderful, and intensely personal. What’s more the passion with which the host described the experience is something every customer experience expert is striving for: to create customers that are so enamored with your product or service, they do your marketing for you.

As someone interested in creating excellent customer experiences it’s easy to read of, or listen to, these kinds of experiences and think, the future is personalisation. The more we know about you, the better we can service you, or go above and beyond for you. That by making customers the centre of attention by sending them personalised emails or AI-driven curated content, or even direct postal mail with their name and address on it, that this ‘personalisation’ is going to get customers’ attention. That simply by creating personalised adverts or promotions we are being personal with our customers.

I think that this thought process is extremely wide of the mark.

Personalisation and performing personal acts are, to me, extremely different. There’s a passage from a blog by Mark Schaefer that draws attention to the differences between these two fantastically:

Personalised is cut and paste.
Personal is unique and custom.
Personalised doesn’t require any knowledge of the customer.
Personal reflects an understanding of a human being.
Personalised doesn’t elicit an emotion.
Personal creates an emotional bond that may lead to reciprocity and new business benefits.

When we reflect on the hotel scenario we imagined earlier, it isn’t necessarily the personalisation itself that is impressive by its own merit. It’s the communication between the team members of these companies that lets them know you’ve arrived before you’ve even stepped foot in the hotel that makes it feel special. And it’s that crucial word: feel. Personalisation by itself does not illicit an emotive connection unless it’s matched by an action that makes the customer feel like they’re being treated above and beyond their expectations.

The digital personalisation trap

It’s at this point that I admit it’s a little unfair to use a high-end luxury hotel stay as an example of fantastic personal customer experiences. It’s easier for brands which have a huge number of resources to throw at creating these experiences with a product or service that exposes their customers to them for a large amount of time, than those of, let’s say, a small eCommerce retailer. Where we measure average session duration in the span of minutes, a hotel may have 14 days of opportunity to impress guests with their excellent customer experience, and that’s before you consider the fact that customers on holiday are far more likely to feel relaxed and happy when unwinding in 5-star luxury…

Because of these limitations we, of course, turn to more cost-effective measures. And this is where personalisation has become a fantastic tool in the customer experience toolbox. Through simple data capture tools on a website, you can quickly personalise experiences or user interfaces with little effort and cost associated with it. Whereas previously a personalised mailshot would cost significant time and financial resources, tools like Mailchimp make this a simple task which can be setup within the hour.

But these tools can give us a false sense of what it is we’re actually achieving. By implementing this personalisation, we may be setting a good foundation for creating a personal experience, but this in isolation is not even close to delivering on this goal. Without the requisite ‘personal’ actions to back up personalisation it becomes a tokenistic attempt to appear emotive, without any of the hard work to turn it into something more. Unfortunately, it’s my feeling that most companies see this tokenistic personalisation as the way of delivering personal customer experiences digitally.

The fact that online personalisation is such a low-cost method of feeling like you’re ticking the ‘personal customer experience’ box is certainly a driver in this ubiquitous approach to trying to be personal. However, I think it shows a thorough lack of understanding of how to deliver a truly ‘personal’ customer experience and risks ignoring some of the negative connotations that are beginning to surround personalisation and data capture in digital environments.

The growing concern of privacy

I think there’s no greater example of the differentiation in personal and personalisation than in the growing awareness surrounding privacy amongst a broad range of customers.

To touch on one example, incredibly personalised and relevant advertising via social media channels is becoming an increasing area of toxicity for those who understand digital platforms and their privacy rights than the generation before. We are reaching an ‘uncanny valley’ of personalisation, where fully automated and increasingly impressive predictive models can foresee our actions with such unerring accuracy that we are creeped out by them.

For example, ask a random sample of Instagram users if they believe their conversations are being listened to, and you’re guaranteed get a knowing look and an ‘of course they are’ from more than one or two of them who have been spooked by the trainers they’ve been talking to their friends about ‘stalking’ them round the internet. Regardless of whether there’s any veracity to these thoughts, (Instagram has always denied this happens within the app), the truth is that customers’ understanding and passion for data privacy is gaining traction, and users are far less forgiving of mishaps or slip ups than they would have been previously. The Pandora’s box of poor data management has been opened, and both customers and governments are beginning to change their tune dramatically in their attitude towards this data management.

Other events and practices are also bringing attention to the dangers of automating ‘personal’ features of sites. The knowledge that algorithms have been intensely biased toward the white male experience of the world is finally coming to the foreground of the wider population’s attention. Services or systems which make personalisation suggestions based on ethnicity, gender or sexuality are therefore rightly becoming increasingly scrutinised because of this fact. Relying on these incredibly sophisticated but biased tools to automate your ‘personal touch’ brand is an increasingly fraught proposition. One false or offensive suggestion is likely to incur a massively negative reaction towards your company and your brand reputation is in tatters. You only need look at a list of #personalisationfails to see the danger that poorly executed automated personalisation can quickly become the least sensitive and personal method of interacting with your customers. It is prudent to remember that excellent customer experience does not have to be personal, but personal customer experience must be excellent.

Hand drawn diagram showing types of data points

Data capture and automated personalisation can easily result in #personalisationfails.

What would you do without personalisation?

Although it can feel somewhat infantile to ask a question like this, I think it’s a question that more brands should ask of themselves. If you stripped away your ability to personalise, what would your customer experience look like? We must constantly evaluate the tools that we’re using to construct our own customer experience worlds. It would not surprise me that many people reading this article have not stopped to ask why they are personalising their experience. We must continue validating our assumptions, and challenge whether some of our practices exclude a diverse range of customers.

Personalisation is certainly not a golden ticket to creating a truly personal experience. Personal experiences at their core make you feel something. If you look at somewhere such as Disney World, each member of their staff will try to make you feel like you are the most important part of their day, but they do not need to know your name to do so. On the flip side, your favourite dentist may know a lot about you, but it’s their understanding of your fear of the dentist which makes you feel like a treasured customer. Being able to recall something unique to you is not valuable if the action behind it is not meaningful. Brands that really analyse the ‘why’ of their personalisation experiences are the ones which will improve their customer retention, and in turn, grow successfully.

Tell us what you think at hello@distinction.co.uk.