Is Technology Making it Easier for Consumers to Play Hide and Seek With Their Data?

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We have written much about what we term the ‘relationship revolution’, that organic evolution of consumer control fueled by our hyper-connected behavior. It is a seismic shift in who has the upper hand in the customer-company relationship. But a few new trends percolating on the outskirts of the customer engagement industry could signal even greater power in the hands of consumers.

The first is Tor, a kind of web browser aims to make your internet activity stealth; unseen and undetected. Tor does this by routing traffic through a number of other connected internet users, making it very hard for governments or private companies to track internet usage. Over a million people use Tor, which became legendary after Edward Snowden clandestinely leaked information revealing that the NSA was eavesdropping on average citizens. Before Snowden, Tor was popular with drugs and hitmen trying to keep their illicit activities hidden from the law. Already sounds scary, huh?

So why should a company be concerned about Tor? Law abiding consumers, attempting to anonymously post negative comments on Yelp, may try to avoid creating a data trail that customer service departments can tap into. Stealth internet use makes it difficult for companies to engage their customers intelligently. Most consumers would not have a real need to conduct anonymous interactions with the companies they do business with but if more companies use or misuse that data to the annoyance of their customers, more people may feel the need to avoid data sharing altogether.man-hiding-inside-closet

The solution of course is making sure consumer data is used to the benefit of the customer. An Aspect survey earlier this year found that 47% of consumers felt like the information companies had on them rarely resolves their issue but more than half of them are willing to provide personal information if those companies deliver  targeted, relevant offers to them.

The other trend is consumer data protection in Internet of Things (IoT) applications. Customer service, relative to Machine-to-Machine communications is still in its very early infancy but as the ability for appliances and automobiles to communicate directly to manufacturers through cloud-driven service  without the need for human intervention begins to take shape, the question arises as to what data are people willing to share. Or better, what are they willing to let their machines share. In the just-published piece in CIO, author Raman Mehta asks just who will the consumer be willing to give their appliance/machine data to. How long will that information exist in a public/private cloud? And who exactly will have access to that data?

Why should a company care? Much like how consumers have become ubersensitive about handing out credit card information to even the most trusted retailers, the theory that personal machine usage history could be used against them, or at least used to annoy them is only going to inch closer to reality.

  • Will their furnaces be deluged with promotional spam emails for discount filters?
  • Will their hatchbacks accept performance-improving application downloads that perhaps they don’t really don’t want?
  • Could the warranty on that hatchback be voided if they miss an oil change?
  • Do they need to place their ovens on no-call lists?

Companies looking at IoT-driven service need to have the same data sensitivity and create the same data protection trust they have when a customer talks to an agent or provides information through a web chat. Much like the trust consumers have that the buying and search history data they share will be used to present customized, relevant offers by the companies they do business with and not be used to annoy them, so should the data they choose to share from their connected machines. I’m going out on a limb here but I don’t think thermostats will like spam any more that humans do.

The relationship revolution was born out of consumer dissatisfaction.  After years of tolerating having to repeat themselves and being treated like strangers, they have taken control of the conversation, and are more vocal and less tolerant than ever before. Machine-produced data presents incredible opportunities for proactive customer service but if companies squander those opportunities, the last thing we want is for the machines to join in the revolution.