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The Sales Ethics of Personalization

What do you think of sales ethics of personalization? Have you used personalization in your business? With all the consumer data now available, you could potentially know almost everything about the next person who walks into your store or visits your website. But should you use that information?

Strangely enough, that last question is one you rarely see. You get info on just how effective personalization can be — McKinsey’s safe estimate is that personalization can lift sales by 10 percent or more — and you get info on how to do it. You’ll sometimes see the word “creepy” pop up in discussions about personalization, but instead of being a critique of ethics, these discussions are about how the consumer perceives your efforts. Synopsis: you don’t want to go overboard and come off as creepy. Well, duh.

What you do want to do as a salesperson is find ways to gain an upper hand over the competition. You want to find a way to give the customer what they really want and what they really need. Sales personalization can help you do that. One example is beacon tech, which can give you data on the following:

  • Customer behavior while they’re in store, including product preferences and location preferences.
  • The most popular locations in the store.
  • Info on individuals, such as their preferred brands, their birthdays, and shopping habits.

For beacon tech to work, the customer has to download an app, let the app know their location, and enable notifications. Seems ethical, because the customer is giving you permission. However, the customer may not be aware of the extent of personalization. They might know they’ll receive some coupons, but they haven’t read the fine print that tells them just how much data about them the app will gather.

Geomarketing points out that “beacons can provide an additional form of virtual sales assistance, directing consumers exactly to the products they want. In essence, by reducing the frustration shoppers have in finding desired purchases, beacons can be said to provide a clear solution based on personalized service.”

These things work; Geomarketing cites numbers from Swirl Networks on beacon efficacy, including the case of a mall retailer that saw customers increase their basket size by 41 percent, ultimately earning the store a 36 percent conversion rate. And hotel SaaS company StayNTouch points out that people want personalization. About 78 percent of consumers desire personalization to some extent, and 74 percent are flustered when ads and promotions don’t have anything to do with their interests.

Despite consumers’ willingness to trade privacy for convenience and good deals, European Union regulators are putting a clampdown on companies’ free rein with consumer data by implementing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The “right to be forgotten” portion of GDPR makes it apparent that there have been one too many cases of individuals who want to renege on the entire Big Data apparatus as it stands.

People go in for the convenience, but they aren’t too happy when the same ad follows them around everywhere they go. Nor are they happy when they find out organizations are using their data in ways that weren’t quite clear to them.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is set to face congress over the Cambridge Analytica scandal — a situation in which people had no idea their data was being harvested by an organization for the sake of selling a politician to the public. This showdown could be the beginning of a referendum on data harvesting.

Data mining for personalized marketing and sales isn’t unethical in and of itself. When people aren’t aware it’s happening, that’s when you’re crossing the ethics boundary. You’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that doesn’t inform consumers about its data practices, but chances are consumers aren’t reading through the disclaimer, and if they are, the information is buried, and there’s a lot of legalese to dig through.

Before the internet, when salespeople got to know their customers on an intimate level, it was a warm, consensual exchange. It wasn’t one-sided. The customer got to know the salesperson too. Now, a salesperson can find out a customer’s spouse’s name, or the customer’s nickname, without asking. Granted, it’s a bad salesperson who finds that information and uses it as if they know the customer already. Imagine the awkwardness and failure of such an exchange.

But if you’re able to use software to discover a person’s typical schedule, so you know they’ll be home at such and such time, then you call, and bingo, there they are, is that okay? Again, it depends on what the customer knows about the data collection policies of the apps they use. As a salesperson, or a manager, or whatever your role is in your organization, you don’t know the extent of a customer’s knowledge on data collection.

You would love to be able to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume people are intelligent enough to pay attention to what’s happening with their data. As a salesperson, you consistently rely on the intelligence of your prospects. You sell to their emotionally intelligent and logical mind. But let’s face it — there are so many apps, and people spend so much time online, they don’t know everything about what’s happening with their data.

Personalization in sales and marketing has become an inevitable, and for most people, welcome part of the modern experience. Call it the Amazon/Netflix effect; people are used to seeing personalized recommendations, and they like them. For the salesperson, personalization is necessary … just avoid the creepy kind and trust your gut instinct. If you have some info on an individual in front of you and it feels slimy to use it, don’t. In the end, the individual is more important than the sale.

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