Personalisation can only become reality if it is driven by customers

Image credit | AndreyPopov/

Personalisation – as Teresa Cottam rightly says – is nothing new. It just never happened at scale before. And the ‘new’ personalisation requires that we put many things behind us.

Before we even start, customers need to trust the service provider who is trying to personalise their requirements. Personalisation can only be achieved through customers opting into something they see as compelling.

There are many stories about how this could be done, from long ago. In the famous (again) Friends series, Rachel meets one of her boyfriends when she is a personal shopper at Bloomingdales. Her job was to identify his taste, analyse his shape, decide how ‘groovy’ or otherwise he was and find all manner of clothes to suit him.

Long before that, personalisation was a skill known technique and leveraged by many retailers. In the 1960s, a favourite grandmother moved into a house by the river of a large town. Before long, she settled into a routine and the shop on the corner began to recognise her needs. Before much longer, they would have conversations that went like this:

“Ah, good morning. I took the liberty of ordering in a pot of that jam you like. I thought you must be running out about now. And how are the cats today?”
“Well, how clever of you. I was about to ask for some. Thank you very much.”

If you take this one example of personalisation, it is clear that it is about much more than just stocking the jam she likes. It is about ‘just in time’ ordering. It is (as Cottam says) about proactive and empathetic customer service and it is about judging the trust level.

The trouble with trying to replicate this level of personalisation and service today is the scale of the problem. It is relatively easy for a corner shop to know its customers, to chat about the cats and the weather and to judge when jam needs to be ordered.

It is quite another to do that to a customer base of millions.

To do it, telcos (and any other service provider aiming to differentiate) need to invest, and not just in technology.

Telcos must invest in trust, which is now acknowledged as an asset for them, particularly now when they support the communications that are now critical in the pandemic. They must invest in proactive and empathetic customer service, and they must realise that personalisation is just about AI and chatbots and algorithms that serve up ‘recommended for you’ products.

And, ultimately, personalisation at the granular level of the corner shop, will only really work if your customers actively buy-in.

Right now, that is a real challenge because customers do not trust companies with their data. Because tech companies used and abused it for too long and so what service providers might think of as relevant adverts, customers probably think of as annoying. They do not ask for them.

It is a pity. If industries had taken a longer view about how to treat customers’ data and be more transparent, then we might be a lot further towards personalisation than we are now.


  1. We had a great panel on this at the Total Tele conference last month, in which we all violently agreed that personalisation is a cultural issue not a technological one. It has to start by understanding that it is a technique that is used to engage the customer. It can’t be done TO the customer; it has to be done WITH the customer. ie The customer must consent and be part of the process of personalisation. Technology can support it, but without having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, it just results in Bad personalisation and over-familiarity. Both of which are bad for customer experiences. There is no quick fix to this. You have to build a relationship first, like the shopkeeper did with your gran, and then gradually deepen the relationship over time.

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