Know Thyself
In the age of demographics, psychographics and technographics, can there be any surprises?
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The other day my friend was describing her experience of ordering groceries for home delivery. She tried out a local service, homegrocer.com, on a lark. Another friend told me how the same service saves her time and money, and how thrilled she is that they deliver her groceries right to her refrigerator door. Both friends really like the service.

But I could have told them that they were destined to hit "send order." I can even tell them what they will try next and why they will like it. Am I psychic? No. Did I cast their runes? No, even better: I know their demographics. One friend has a cable modem, a cell phone and a Palm Pilot, the other has an infant and a toddler. And after reading a Netquity Report, "A New Channel for Old Brands," I knew that my friends were the perfect early candidates for the online replenishment business: a high-tech user and someone who orders diapers in bulk.

I am supposed to follow them soon, graduating from buying books (Amazon and I are like this) and researching purchases online, to on-demand delivery of groceries and personal services such as dry cleaning and videos. And that convenience does sound good to me. I'm thinking, will they return overdue library books?

Technology has served as the tool of information gathering and translation, its busy fingers both peeling back and assessing layers of knowledge as it pokes through physical and psychological human experience. Gathering such data and its interpretations, analysts can give marketers statistical reports on purchasing behavior. These forecasts, the I Ching of business, seem to know me better than I do myself. Or do they?

I know that I do leave, in my material transactions, vast trails of intent and curiosity as I move through daily exigencies and desires. I know that in many of these interactions, I am hardly unique. But these are the tracks of choices. My desire to have ever more choices, I think, defines me more than the actual individual choices I make.

By keeping track of the choices made by a consumer, many businesses try to streamline the process of shopping as a convenience. At homegrocer.com, a list of staples is created after enough purchases indicate a repeating pattern. At Amazon.com, I am greeted with buying suggestions of books similar to those I have purchased.

In one case, reminding me of discrete staples I need to replenish is very helpful. In another case, an attempt to reduce into a narrow category something that I enjoy as a personally expanding experience is not. Saving time on mundane tasks is important to me. It is also important to me to be able to explore as I try to broaden my knowledge and experience in the world. I still love to see rows of colorful fruit, smell bread baking and wander through bookstore aisles. Believe it or not, I also enjoy interacting with many of the people I deal with in brick-and-mortar situations. OK, sometimes.

The key to personalization in business is to remember that, as important as convenience is, people are usually trying to save time in order to spend it savoring the experience of life. I may represent some cohort that would not choose, as Joris-Karl Huysmans' effete character, Des Esseintes did, to retreat to a life of simulated experience reduced to the thought: "What is the good of moving, when a fellow could travel so magnificently sitting in a chair?" Perhaps there already is a study out there to support this.

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