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Are You Creeping Out Customers? 4 Ways To Stay Cool With Technology

Retailers have long understood the value of hearing the consumer’s voice; now it’s time to recognize the sound of it as well. But please, don’t recognize the face.

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Voice, fingertips and vision are all personal features the U.S. shopper is willing to share with retailers without being creeped out, according to the third annual “Creepy or Cool” technologies report by RichRelevance, a provider of customer personalization services. Yet consumers rated facial recognition as one of the top creepy technologies.

Merchants should be accustomed to the mixed message. Shoppers have long surprised, and occasionally confused, marketers with the bits of personal information they are willing to share in exchange for better retail experiences. But the new research, combined with older findings, provides some unexpected lessons.

Take My Data — But Nothing Artificial, Please

A confounding finding of the RichRelevance report is that the creepy factor may rise with better customer understanding. It’s the Big Brother effect. Yet 63% of those surveyed by RichRelevance said they would give retailers more data if it improved the customer experience.

As explained by Diane Kegley, chief marketing officer at RichRelevance: “Creepy can simply mean that something is too relevant or hits too close to home … this may indicate areas that will be valuable in the near future as consumers grow accustomed to new technologies.”

Some of the findings bear this out. Among the creepy/cool ratings:

  • Voice recognition, when used to search and order products, is ranked as the coolest technology overall, at 46% (22% find it creepy). It’s matched by fingerprint scanning to pay for items and get automatic home delivery (46% say “cool,” while 34% find it creepy).
  • Interactive mirrors and virtual reality glasses get a 41% cool rating when used to suggest products that complement what a shopper is trying on (52% of millennials give it the green light).
  • Robots, when used to guide shoppers to specific products within a store upon request, got a 40% cool rating overall and a 51% cool rating among millennials.
  • However, facial recognition is frowned upon if used to send customer preferences to a sales associate — 69% of respondents find that creepy, while just 12% think it is cool. That creepy score is up from RichRelevance’s 2012 survey when 67% found it creepy.
  • Respondents also bristled at artificial intelligence. Seven in 10 (69%) think it’s creepy for a merchant to know a shopper so well it can use artificial intelligence to order products for him or her. Half think using artificial intelligence rather than a real person to answer service questions is creepy, while 23% think it’s cool.

What A Difference Five Years Makes

But ah, how attitudes change. Back in 2012, customers were still wrestling with the idea of location-based technology on their mobile devices.

Back then, consumers told us they’d rather share mental health information (26%) than give their exact locations via smartphone (15%). Nearly three-quarters said it was creepy to receive offers on mobile devices when near a retailer.

But perhaps the most eye-opening finding from that research: More than three-quarters of survey respondents (78%) did not feel they received any benefit at all from sharing information. That was up from 74% in 2011, indicating that shoppers were getting wise to the use and value of their personal data.

With so many new options to cater to them, or creep them out, that figure may not have changed.

Four Ways To Be Cool

How can retailers be cool with their customers? Based on our research and insights gleaned from the RichRelevance results, here are a few suggestions.

Be an open book: It’s evident from the research that while shoppers like the benefits of data analytics, they want to understand it as much as it understands them. This means explaining in simple language what information is collected, why it is collected and how the customer will benefit. But purpose comes first — the merchant should identify its goals and then collect only the data needed to reach them.

Give them a choice: The “creepy” factor hinges on mistrust, which arises when a shopper is surprised by what a merchant knows about her. However, if she is given the choice of what information to share, that distrust is more likely to transform into acceptance. Choice puts power at her fingertips — literally — and that’s cool: Fingerprint technology, which requires user approval, received high “cool” ratings.

Treat them with respect: If 63% of consumers are willing to share information in exchange for a better experience, then the onus is on retailers to follow through. This extends beyond the retail experience, however, and into how the data is cared for and applied. Retailers should use it only as promised, and not see it as a license to barrage the customer with daily communications that are impersonal and irrelevant. Retailers should ask: Are we offering real value?

Don’t rush it: Attitudes have changed a lot since 2012. It will take longer for consumers to accept certain technologies over others, and age certainly makes a difference. The best retailers can do to accommodate these shifts in acceptance is to focus on why their shoppers choose to spend time and money with them and to cater to those preferences.

Mastering consumer technology is like developing face-to-face relationships. First, the customers share a little and then, with trust, they will offer more. But retailers have to share as well. How else will the shopper recognize the value of merchants knowing her fingers, voice and face?

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.

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