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Ethical technology – why it’s still about the people, not the bots

Organisations, and particularly marketing professionals, are getting to grips with using data to personalise communications and get to know their customers’ needs better. It just makes sense. If you can use what you know about someone to do something better for them, that’s a good deed and an ethical choice, right?

Well, when it comes to AI, and using technology to make decisions about what’s better for people, and what they really want, there are still more questions than answers on that score.

Organisations are increasingly using less intrusive ways of collecting behavioural insights – and when used ethically this data can be useful to provide people with information and services which will be of benefit to them. It’s about serving up solutions at just the right time that they are needed. So if you’re using customer intent data or collected information to actually provide something which may help them then that should be ethically okay in theory. It’s a legitimate business interest whether it’s for email, targeted ads or sales outreach, so long as it can have an eventual benefit for both parties involved.

Gone are the days of mass marketing. People now expect to be treated as individuals, and have messages directed at them, rather than their neighbour. So tailoring messages based upon what marketing knows about the customer or prospect is not unethical and of course is bound by the laws of GDPR – as it should be. It’s when data is not managed or handled in an ethical way that we start to see problems.

Getting it right, now

It should be a self-evident truth that customer data needs to be managed in an ethical way by businesses, and that if we get it right now, it will work much better for everyone in the future. There are already lots of ways that technology, and specifically CRM technology helps with this. Good CRM systems should have built-in checks and balances to ensure that data is correct, relevant and up-to-date, both for B2B relationships and B2C. For example, it’s critical that a system should be able to manage the legal relationships between business entities, and that individuals are treated as human beings by respecting their privacy.

Adding a human element to the mix is also important to ensure communications are not sent inappropriately or could be considered exploitative – like the scandal a few years ago when a teenage girl began receiving messages regarding pregnancy and new motherhood – before she’d even told her parents she was pregnant. As the technology is still developing, at this stage of the game it’s the human beings that need to behave ethically, and this will influence the algorithms of tomorrow.

Handing more control to the customer can also deliver long-term gains over perceived short-term losses. CRM systems that enable businesses to allow individuals to manage the information that businesses know about them via portals or preference centres will eventually result in more useful and better maintained data – which should be a win-win for both businesses and customers. Ethical CRM systems can also include rules and workflows to restrict who does what or accesses particular information.

Teaching the machines

And with that in mind, we should be thinking deeper about how we include ethical values not just in the ways we collect data, but also hard-wire ethics into the ways we use it. That may require more data gathering, to develop better personalisation, or blocks on how we use incomplete data, so that it’s much more difficult for mistakes to be made or for data to be misused. The best CRM systems will be able to track correct data and consolidate it into a single, accurate view of the customer and their interactions with a business. But for that to happen, we need to take an ethical stand as humans, before we can develop the right controls for the CRM systems of the future.

The fact is that while AI is developing fast, it’s more important to make sure we get the basics right first. Technology can do so much, and is constantly doing more. But we should never forget that it’s there to serve, rather than be served. At this point it’s important to retain a human element in sensitive areas around data and how it’s used, and that correct decisions made today will inform the choices made tomorrow.