Monty Python made famous the exclamation 'no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!', and here Chris Ford of Grass Roots explains how the world of digital marketing is ruled by the same characteristics of fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency: it seems that no-one expects the Digital Inquisition, either. This article is copyright 2012 The Best Customer Guide.

In today's digital age consumers are simply being asked too many questions, too soon, and for no apparent good reason. So why do so many companies gather reams of data about their prospects and customers, and then clearly never use it? And how often are we still being asked to fill in some kind of online form simply to find out more about a product or service? This practice should be consigned to the history books, without delay.

FEAR! Asking for swathes of information before a customer or prospect is permitted to inspect your wares is about as far from the ideal experience as you can create. It generates fear and concern over personal privacy, frustration at the barrier to entry, and (worst of all) can result in many of us immediately flipping from interest to disenfranchisement, backtracking hastily, never to darken your online doorstep again.

If being asked for too much, too soon is off-putting, what happens afterwards can be just as damaging. Too often there's a massive disconnect between the data we give and the experience we receive in return.

I recently went to an automotive manufacturer's website, just in case there was anything I might be interested in to replace my current car. I duly filled in all the usual content details, only to find yet more mandatory fields ahead of me before I could get to their e-brochure: What car do I drive? How old is it? When would I change? What model am I interested in? How many miles do I drive a year? How many cars are there in my family? How old am I? How much do I earn?

I confess, the only reason I filled this little lot in was because I was fascinated to see what it would lead to. So I diligently completed the entire online form, sat back, and waited. And waited. The following day, I received the e-brochure, and discovered that the model I was interested in would cost far too much money to run anyway, so it was duly filed in the recycle bin. A week later, and I had almost forgotten all about it, when I - at last - received a call from the local dealership. Here's how the conversation went, more or less.
"Mr Ford?" - A good start: personal and friendly.

"I have been passed your contact details following your recent brochure request, and was following up with you to see if I could be of further assistance with the choice of vehicle you would like to consider from our range" - Still alright, not too pushy, and offering his assistance. "Sorry, I can't remember requesting a brochure, I'm afraid."

"Our records show that you received it via email." - Ah, good! Some knowledge of my contact method and what I asked for. "Oh yes, I remember now, I did receive it via email, but in the end there weren't any models that were of interest to me."

"That's a shame - so what do you drive at the moment?" - Actually I've already passed this information on. "I drive an Audi."

"Nice car. You realise that we compare extremely favourably against Audis with our range don't you?" - Yes, which is why I considered them in the first place.

"Why don't you come along and try a few cars at our showroom? You sound like the type of client that likes to drive the car before making a decision as to what one you would like to buy." - Good grief, even I can spot sales tactics at work. "Well as I have said I don't think you have what I want."

"When are you thinking of changing your car?" - Internal sigh - I told them this already. "Honestly I don't think I have the time to spare to come along unless I am extremely confident you will have what I want."

"Come along, you wont know until you have tried a car of ours whether it's right for you. Got a family?" ... and so on.
You get the idea.

Lesson 1
If you collect lots of data at the outset (assuming you actually haven't already turned people off just by asking - drop-offs need to be measured here!) then make sure you use what you've learned throughout the process to delight the enquirer. In this case, that would be immediately sending an e-brochure with a personalised message, before an informed and useful conversation with my local dealer.

SURPRISE! Something quite different happened a while back when I was checking out some top-end flooring online (with due encouragement from my wife). Unsurprisingly, I was asked for my name postcode, email address and mobile number, but in this case, I was told why and what would happen to my enquiry.

Any potential scepticism was pleasantly dispelled when within 15 minutes of hitting the enter key, the flooring brochure landed in my inbox. So far so good - and even better, the covering email included my name, details on the products I was most interested in, and further information on my nearest reseller, with a promise that they would contact me within 24 hours.

Sure enough, that afternoon the local specialist called and asked how they could help me. During the conversation I was asked a number of questions about the house I lived in and my personal circumstances (such as if I had young children at home). I arranged to visit the showroom, we chose some flooring, and it was fitted the following week. All good.

Fast forward a year or so, and - with bathrooms on my mind - I called back into the showroom. I explained that I'd bought kitchen flooring before and that I was just browsing. I gave my name, and to my utter amazement, the sales assistant reappeared wielding an iPad showing photos of how various flooring combinations could work within a house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. So, that would be a house just like mine.

My surprise must have shown, as she explained that the person who I had dealt with previously had made a note of my details, and that she'd matched these ideas with what I'd bought before. How cool is that? The result was two bathrooms and the utility room are now beautifully re-floored, and I'm happily recommending this particular retailer to admiring friends.

Lesson 2
Collect what is needed to delight the client at the appropriate time in the engagement process, then add to this data when the time is right in a connected, non-intrusive manner. Use this knowledge to maximise engagement in the future, online and offline.

RUTHLESS EFFICIENCY! We all know that loyalty programmes are a great way to gather data. To take part, we're used to filling in mandatory fields to get what we want. This scheme - from a well-known restaurant brand - wanted me to complete some extra optional fields: date of birth, number of children, food preferences, likely frequency of return. Apparently, this information would entitle me to extra offers as a result.

"Okay," I thought, "Let's give it a go," so - like the data geek and loyalty points junkie that I am - I completed all the details and waited to see what happened next. Instantly, I'd received a personalised and highly relevant email which did more than just deliver warm and fuzzy feelings, it also explained clearly and concisely what I should expect from the scheme and included personalised offers based on the additional information I'd given. For example, if I used my local restaurant (based on my postcode), in March (the month of my birthday) and dined with a party of more than four people (my family has 4 members) I would be entitled to free desserts for all. And if I used my loyalty card - which would arrive in the post within 48 hours - I could collect triple points as a birthday gift from them. A shiny new card arrived two days later with a printed copy of my offer. A week later, I received an email to say the local restaurant looked forward to seeing me.

So, when my birthday came around, my whole family (me, my wife, my children, and the grandparents) ate at our local restaurant and took full advantage of the restaurant's generosity. The element of 'delight' came with the bill, when the waitress also brought my very own birthday cake. And I now have enough loyalty points for a free bottle of wine next time I take my wife out for dinner there.

Lesson 3
If you ask for lots of data at the outset, make sure you explain what you're offering in return, and that the information is used in ongoing communications to demonstrate your attention to detail and to delight your clientele.

There are five key questions necessary for designing a successful contact data strategy:

  1. What data do we need to create a quality experience for the prospect/customer?
  2. What data is essential now, and what can we glean over time?
  3. How will we use this rich data to engage with the prospect or customer on an ongoing basis?
  4. What do we plan to use that data for to perpetuate a quality experience?
  5. How do we intend to maintain, store and update this information over time?

There are many ways to collect and use personal data (including recommendations through social networks - another topic in its own right). Yet there are still only very few companies that truly recognise the value of this data and deploy it as a valuable business asset across both the customer and employee domains - both offline and online. Even the most fabulous online relationship can be completely destroyed if your people cannot replicate this attention to detail when a customer eventually encounters your brand in person.

No-one expects a Digital Inquisition. But on the other hand, we all expect companies to remember what we tell them. It's not so much to ask, after all.