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Smart Marketing: The Privacy Policy—A Window into Your Customer-Centric Soul

I believe that customer care is the defining competitive differentiator of the future, beginning right now.

Let me take a step back. The world is absolutely flat. Everything appears on a two-dimensional screen. Touch, taste, and smell do not exist. Hearing is an elective. Options are endless. So what's the point of comparison? Coupons and promotions may drive an immediate sale, but are written in disappearing ink. They create turnstile relationships. Experience is indelible. Customer care leverages the long-term.

Some companies have the wiring in place—the DNA to deliver a differentiating customer experience—and some do not. The privacy policy is a bellwether.

Once upon a time, customers starting saying, "Hey, what are you doing with all the information I gave you?" Voila…the privacy policy was born. In some cases they are viewed as customer communications, in others as a legal firewall. If we want to understand how corporations really feel about their customers, I suggest looking at their privacy policy; it spells out rights and policies vis a vis this customer information, which is at the root of a relationship. It's like looking into someone’s eyes—a window to their soul.

In my experience, privacy policies fall into two categories:

Pro-business. The corporation owns your data and can do anything it wants. It can use it to bring you better products and services. It can aggregate and publish trend and research findings. It can share this data with third party entities it may call business partners and who, in turn, may do anything they wish.

The undercurrent is the corporation is in business to make money, and data is valuable. It has a high profit margin and a long tail (e.g., you can sell the exact same piece of data to many people over a period of time). The corporation defines the customer as a group and evolves its policies from that view. If an individual is aware and uncomfortable, they can opt out. Of course, opt-out puts the burden on the customer to say, "stop."

Pro-customer. The corporation collects and analyzes information from each customer with the goal of providing better products and more personalized service. If anything else comes up, the corporation asks each customer to opt in. Opt-in puts the burden on the corporation to provide sufficient value.

Both are viable business models. But again, in this flat, flat world where customers are faced with infinite choices, what’s the point of comparison? Without a differentiating customer experience, strategies gravitate to the short-term knee jerk and produce tactics that flirt with a commodity view.

Not many customers (or marketers, I expect) actually read these privacy policies, which is a shame. Mostly, I think people don’t read them because it would take another click, and that is so tiring. Customers have the expectation that if they click, what follows will be impenetrable B.S. Marketers, I think, do not read them because it falls under legal’s bailiwick, and legal trumps marketing.

Privacy policies may not be as easy to read as Dr. Seuss, but they are digestible, and it is really important to read them. The original intent was to build a strong fence with customers so everyone knew where they stood, which is equal parts marketing responsibility and legal. Because the policy talks in detail about how the company will respect the guts of a customer relationship—the data—I think we can look to these documents as reflective of the corporate view of the customer.

I suggest we, as customers, have an important point of comparison: to do business with companies that respect us as individuals and value the long-term potential of our relationship. Let us spend our money wisely.

I think we, as marketers, have a responsibility to ensure the corporate culture is rooted in and permeated with respect for the customer as an individual. Without this rock-solid basis, the customer experience will always be an annoying cost to be driven down.

And when you read their privacy policies, you'll find it's not hard to deduce which corporations define customer care as a strategic product, and which ones view the customer as chattel.

Scott Hornstein is the co-author of Opt-In Marketing and president of Hornstein Associates in Redding, Conn. He can be contacted at scott@hornsteinassociates.com.