“Personalization” At 30,000 Feet

Dec 15, 2017


My colleague, Michelle Thomas, and I are members of the same airline rewards program at an elite status. This particular airline makes sure to say “Thank you for your loyalty, Mr. Hanham. What can I get you to drink today?” I’ve always found this to be particularly annoying because it often doesn’t come across as genuine, leads to the mispronunciation of my name, and takes up valuable time. Since not everyone gets greeted by their name, it actually makes me feel self-conscious around the other travelers. I do not enjoy standing out in this way.

Michelle and I recently travelled on the same flight, so I asked her what she thought of this “service offering.”

“I love it!” she said.


“It’s a nice personal touch,” she added.

We then compared experiences: Michelle has an easy last name to pronounce and skews a lot more F on the Myers-Briggs personality type than I do, so the personal touch means more to her. Does this minor annoyance affect my loyalty to this airline? No. The other benefits far outweigh this miss. This annoyance is directed more toward the marketing world and the director who is forcing all of these flight attendants to deliver this message.

I’d imagine the initiative started because this particular airline rightfully wanted to add more personalization to their elite member experience. The initiative was in turn supported by technology where every agent has a smart phone with passenger information organized on a seat map. There’s even a little icon in the seats with elite members like me. It’s a step toward providing customer-level data to the frontline of the airline experience. Almost every airline is dealing with this in a different way, but the desired end goal is the same—personalized experiences for their most important customers.

So, is this “personal touch” by this airline actually personalization? I think my quotes around “personal touch” tip my hand. In my opinion, it’s a mistake that all too many organizations/brands make. Adding my name to the start of an email is not enough to personalize that email, nor does saying my name when one of the agents speaks to me in person. What makes something personal is speaking to my personal needs.

I fear that marketers around the world see the trend of adding a name to an email as personalization. In some cases, companies are taking name data from places they shouldn’t, like billing address information, which opens up a whole can of potential problems. Recently, Lauren Drexler, another colleague, wrote about asking your customers for data. This type of progressive data acquisition is where I would love to see companies go. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for data we need to deliver the best experience, and when we get that information we have to be very careful about using it well, as Brooke Niemiec points out in her article, The Hole in the Donut. Asking for more information and messing up the delivery is a huge miss.

This brings me back to my airline. As an elite member, I am entitled to a salted caramel chocolate, as opposed to the standard airline snack. This is a seemingly small treat for my loyalty and isn’t really personalized to my taste. In fact, I would say I only eat them about 25% of the time. However, that other 75% of the time I save this treat to give to my wife when I return home. It’s a way to show her I’m thinking of her while I’m away, and she’s a much bigger fan of chocolate than I am. So why am I telling you about my sweet, sweet chocolate treat? Well, my airline only seems to remember to give me one about 20% of the time I travel. Arg!

Personalization is about knowing the needs of your customer, not about adding data fields to an email. It’s important to understand that different customers have different preferences, so they are going to want different forms of personalization. The future of personalization has already been determined. What has yet to be seen is which companies will master it, and which ones will keep mispronouncing my last name.