Use Technology to Know Your Customers — But Not Too Well

Back in my college days, I got a call from a casual acquaintance who said she wanted to come over to my house to talk to me about something very important. While there was no way of knowing what the call was about, being the very socially awkward (if not backward) young man that I was, I was flattered at the prospect that this young woman might actually have a crush on me and was forward enough to make the first move.

She showed up at my house the next evening with a breifcase in-hand. As it turned out, she was working part time at her father's insurance agency, and called on me to sell me a life insurance policy. It could even be used to help settle my educational debts later on, she explained to me. While I had definitely misread the situation, I thought it may be a good idea to have such a policy — I signed on the dotted line.

That was in my days as a cash-strapped student, so I ended up making the first monthly premium payment, and that was about it. A few months later, my classmate called and asked to meet me again, this time in the college cafeteria, to discuss why I was falling behind on the policy. Her father actually joined us at the meeting as well, and rather than put me on the spot to catch up with the payments, he canceled the policy and scolded her — right in front of me — for attempting to sell policies to friends and classmates.

The lesson here, if there was one, was that it's often risky to get too personal with personal lines. There's a lot of chatter these days about insurers delving into people's lives via social media and getting to know them on another level. But sometimes, that may be too much.

Let me give you a more recent example of something that just happened with my bank. I deposited a check at my usual branch, and the teller, a man who I didn’t recognize, processed the transaction. Later on that day, we received a call at my house, from the same teller, who told my wife that he deposited my check, and upon looking at my statement, saw that I had recently wrote a check to a credit-card provider. He said his bank offered a credit card with much better terms. Checking into my personal transactions to extend me new offers? Way too invasive, way too creepy, frankly.

Yet my current insurers seem blissfully unaware of my existence. Sometimes, this behavior may actually may be a little too impersonal: As I recounted last year, my auto insurer, apparently oblivious to my long history with them, tripled my premiums when I attempted to add my daughter to the policy. It was only after a long series of phone calls in which I finally got them to move our account to a new system that the rates dropped to where the market said they should be.

So, there needs to be a middle ground, a balance to be attained — understanding customers, understanding where they are in their lives, what they need and what they don't need. Analytics and social network data mining can help with this process, as there are instances in which insurers are tracking customers closely via social media — without making things too personal.

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

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