Use the ‘personal touch’ to fight ‘personalization’

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so the big retail outlets must be quite impressed by the smaller local stores that line the Main Streets and neighborhood commercial areas of American cities and towns.

When customers walk into a well-managed local store, there’s a good chance that the sales associates and counter clerks will recognize them, greet them, and even anticipate their needs.

There are a several ways tech developers are trying to bring personalization to larger retail outlets. However, I think that no matter what they develop and what becomes popular, there will always be a wide chasm between “personalization” and the “personal touch” – and as a small business owner, you need to understand the difference and make the most of it.

Using AI in retail

One of the latest schemes I’ve heard of is an earpiece that retail clerks would wear that pumps information to them about the customer they are serving. It might use facial recognition software to identify a customer, pull up purchase history, and artificial intelligence (AI) to make recommendations based on buying patterns.

We have all experienced similar systems when we shop at Amazon. However, I’m sure that each of us has also experienced how inappropriate these recommendations can be as well. A friend was telling me how he purchased a kayak online and then continued to receive kayak recommendations at ecommerce sites for months after he already had his boat.

“A guy doesn’t need more than one kayak,” he told me.

Had he bought his kayak at a local store, on subsequent visits employees could ask him how he was enjoying it, was it working out for him, or whether or not he had explored a nearby lake in his new kayak yet.

Those questions would represent “the personal touch” – not merely “personalization.”

Further, the employees at the local store would know that trying to sell him another kayak the day after he bought one would be pure lunacy.

The possible limits of AI

I understand that artificial intelligence is getting “smarter and smarter” and perhaps someday it will be able to mimic the dialog a local sales clerk would have with a regular customer…then again, maybe it will never get to that point. In either case, it’s not that good today and as a local merchant, you need to take advantage of this fact.

Further, no matter how sophisticated AI becomes it will never care about customers on a personal level. This is where your personal touch can always be leveraged as an advantage.

The software that powers Amazon doesn’t care about our families or the local economy. You and your customers do. When we talk about building relationships with our customers, this is something you can do when you run a local outlet. When a business is totally online, we can do a great job creating the trappings of a relationship, but real relationships happen face-to-face.

Strategies to beat AI

If you run a local business of any kind, don’t settle for the kind of personalization that can be achieved via online technology. Develop a personal touch that will set your business apart from online competitors and from the big global chains relying on AI. Here are a few strategies you can use.

  • Help employees learn names. Recognizing someone by name is a critical foundation to establishing a relationship. Some people are good with names, others aren’t. If you have employees who have trouble remembering names, introduce them to memory strategies and allow them to develop this important life skill.
  • As a group, go to the various accounts of different employees and see what Amazon is recommending for them. When does Amazon do it right, when does it do it wrong? What would you do differently with those buying histories? (The products are probably outside of what you sell, but the concepts you’ll discover will apply.)
  • Adopt a customer relationship management CRM system. A good CRM system allows you to make notes on customers. Make notes on preferences, birthdays, pets, and other unique customer traits. Even things such as, “likes to talk about kids” would be helpful. Employees should occasionally take time and use the CRM system to familiarize themselves with customers.

Becoming a local “personal touch” leader is your best insurance policy against any kind of tech-based “personalization” that national chain stores or online retailers adopt in the future.