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In the world of retail there is a common belief that is ingrained into the psyche of every employee: you learn the most about your customers when they are right there in front of you. And yes, I get it. Having a face-to-face conversation with someone should be a great way to get to know them and, most importantly, what they want to buy. But is it the best way?

Unfortunately, a bit of social engineering has crept slowly but surely into retail. We’ve all experienced it—you walk into a store, a sales associate walks up to you and says, “Is there anything I can help you with?” or a variant of the line that is supposed to illicit an honest response and some customer insights. But let’s face it, it usually ends with most people saying, “I’m good… just looking.”

Of course, after a few more passes in the aisles, the customer sometimes warms up and engages, then asks for help.

And that folks is how retail works today, Sad when it’s pointed out like that, huh?

So, what needs to change? First of all, technology is now at the forefront of all things customer-related. As digital tools continue to weave themselves into our social fabric, the information garnered about each customer—that they’ll share voluntarily—is at an all-time high.

This means that retailers of all types need to do a far better job engaging with their customers when they aren’t in-store, to create a more meaningful one-on-one experience when they are in-store. But how?

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it starts with data. Again, the more you know about a customer the better. The good news is that the beginnings of that data is something you already possess—it just happens to be distributed in places that are either hard to reach, or hard to combine.

Whether it’s Point-of-Sale, eCommerce, email distribution systems, loyalty programs, mobile apps, etc., you can create the baseline for every customer—today. From there, it’s about engaging through meaningful communication. From personal interest requests, to surveys, to semi-customized offers—the list goes on—all of these engage customers to build a highly detailed picture of who a person is and what they value.

Here’s an example. The data shows that a customer has purchased children’s clothing online through your eCommerce platform, and has done so multiple times. The size of the clothing, the type of clothing, and so on, all indicate the age range of the children, and potentially multiple kids at that. Therefore, the first touchpoint reveals that this person potentially has children in their life. Makes sense?

Now, let’s continue that experiment. Through various touchpoints—apps, point programs online, email, direct mail—you gather more information. This could include simple things like age, gender, marital status, postal code and address for demographic data, number of kids, hobbies, and so on.

Let’s be clear, all of the above mentioned information isn’t necessarily from one interaction, it’s from multiple channels and from different times and interactions, all building a single-user-profile over time. But a picture emerges. You find out that the customer is a male, 27 years old, lives in an affluent neighborhood, and is buying for his niece and nephew.

Here’s a question. Before you got to that descriptor, did you think it was a mother of two? This is the true reason that single-user-profiles exist. It presents details far beyond vague personas to deliver the true information of who a person is, and what they like.

Knowing who this person is also opens up a multitude of possibilities. You know who they are, who they shop for, what they buy, and so much more. The offers now made to that person through online, in-app, or in-store all based on that user profile become far more meaningful than the days of old that simply began with “Can I help you find anything?”

Unfortunately, it’s this exact scenario that scares off many retailers from starting a personalization project. The fear of making a misstep with a customer and damaging the relationship. I think this is exactly the wrong type of thinking. As I said earlier, this information was gleaned over a number, maybe even dozens, of interactions. Personalization doesn’t happen overnight. Smart marketers will evolve their interactions as their confidence grows—thus building a long-term relationship, step-by-step.

In all, there is a lot that you can learn long before someone walks into your store. And it only takes a few small steps to get there.

Andrew Armstrong

Andrew Armstrong

Chief Customer Officer

Andrew Armstrong is the Chief Customer Officer at omNovos – working globally with customers to design world-class customer engagement programs. He’s a prolific writer and speaker on topics including customer loyalty, personalization, and retail marketing technologies. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter - his open approach to all topics usually leads to a fun discussion and a few laughs.