It’s every company’s responsibility to ensure that any customer data that is collected is used ethically and correctly, writes Wynand Smit.

Conversations, transactions, interactions and searches: these do not happen in a private vacuum. The choices you make are being used to predict the choices you may want to make, for companies using your interaction history data to build a profile on you.

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As technology develops, companies are storing more and more data about you and your preferences, which could be used to your advantage when streamlining customer relations. File picture: Kacper Pempel. Credit: REUTERS

This can be helpful or intrusive, depending on your circumstances or points of view as a customer.

People using the web to book flights or other travel services are unaware that all their actions are being monitored by the very sites they visit.

That is why you will find the flight you were searching for had gone up in cost when you went back a day later. That’s because travel websites use cookies to track your behaviour and, once it is known you want a specific flight or destination, the prices can automatically increase.

But any consumer can pick up clues that their habits are influencing what they see and hear: if you apply for a loan (or even browse loans on Google) you may suddenly receive offers for loans (or debt reconciliation) from other companies via online advertising.

It’s easy to make the assumption that some company has sold a list with your details on it, and, while this may be true, it’s also possible that your search history or social media activity or telephone calls can all be linked to creating a profile on you.

That’s how Big Data works, but it’s every company’s responsibility to ensure that any customer data that is collected is used ethically and correctly. While it may enable companies to send consumers more targeted offers, this is not necessarily a negative thing – it also makes it easier for customers to make more informed decisions according to their preferences.

For example, if a grocery retailer sends you coupons or discount offers for your most frequently purchased groceries (according to your loyalty card data), you could argue that this is far more useful than if they were to send you random coupons for products you never buy.

In this case,the relationship is reciprocal – you agree to sign up for the retailer’s loyalty programme, they in turn are benefiting by being able to monitor your purchasing patterns and you ultimately receive relevant special discounts that result in direct savings for you.

On the customer service side, the data can also be used to offer an improved customer experience.

As a retail store card holder, for example, you could call their customer support line to query something related to your account.

If your number is listed on their database and linked to your name and account, this could be instantly recognised and as a Xhosa-speaking customer (for example), you could be routed directly to a contact centre agent who speaks Xhosa proficiently and who manages all queries related to store cards.

This would bypass any lengthy telephonic language and product menus, resulting in a significantly improved and less frustrating customer service experience.

Can I opt out?

In a digital environment, it’s possible to receive many e-mails or SMSes every day, despite high privacy settings, manually unsubscribing from databases and reporting those contacting you.

Consumers may register with the Direct Marketing Association’s National Opt Out Database which ensures DMA members companies won’t contact you, although, once registered, it means that you may not be contacted by businesses or charities you may benefit hearing from.

Non-Dmasa members may still have your details and contact you, and businesses have no means of cross-referencing their databases with the opt-out database.

Your information is private, according to the Protection of Personal Information Act of 2013, only it isn’t – the rollout of the legislation enforcing the act has not yet happened, so companies are able to act with relative impunity.

It doesn’t make sense, though, for companies to jeopardise their customer experience and relationship by using Big Data badly. Bearing in mind that companies can store immense quantities of information, far more than with human efforts alone, and as tech develops this will become even more sophisticated.

Where contact centre agents are involved, scripting is also contributing to improved service; rather than rigid scripts from which the agent cannot deviate, scripting has become linked to known customer data, and offers prompts that help to generate a more natural conversation. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the companies and their contact centres to ensure they are acting ethically with a view to developing better customer relationships and experiences.

The processes, software, data and system integration behind this should be optimised to keep up with tech developments and to be in line with the business strategy of the company.

This article was first published in IOL on 26 August 2016.