When Personalized Customer Service Gets Creepy

In the olden days, people kept returning to the shoemaker who knew them best; what looks good on them, what they can afford.

Back then, the customer experience was personal by default, even if the products weren’t tailor-made. Whenever you entered a shop, you inevitably faced a real person.

By now, many consumers feel that something’s missing and so businesses are looking to bring that in-store feeling to the online world. As was the case with many efforts to personalize the online experience , the result is often no less than creepy.

We put up some warning signs, so you can steer clear of trouble when delivering personalized customer service online.

Data spilling

Offering personalized customer service relies on customer data, both offline and online. Still, there’s a crucial difference between both worlds.

Imagine a customer in your physical store. They browse products in a certain section, they look a certain age and gender, their shopping cart is indicative of their readiness to buy. A keen eye might even tell what type of customer they are.

The important part is that the customer is aware of the information they share while being in the store. You could walk up to them when they stand irresolutely before a shelf with a product in hand and offer personalized assistance based on the displayed behavior.

Online, though, it’s more tricky. Here personalization and privacy are in a conflict, often referred to as the “personalization paradox.” In a 2018 study , Accenture found that 83% of consumers are willing to trade in personal data for a personalized experience. That is, as long as the company is transparent in their usage of the data and gives the consumer control over it.

A customer approached just like the one in my physical store example will likely feel like they’re being surveilled if you approach them about the contents of their shopping cart. Indeed, 27% of Accenture’s respondents said they have experienced companies being invasive in their communication. Of those consumers, 64% said the reason they felt that way was that they weren’t aware they had shared the information the company referred to.

Even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.

Andrew Pole, data analyst at Target

In 2012, US retailer Target found themselves at the center of a public data privacy meltdown for a similar breach of trust. They had found a way to identify pregnant customers based on shopping data aggregated in online profiles and sent these customers personalized coupons and ads via mail.

In one case, the parents of a high school girl learned about their daughter’s pregnancy via one of the letters. Tellingly, people used the coupons as long as they didn’t notice how much Target knows about them and once they noticed, many were furious.

While this was a marketing campaign, we can still deduct a few best practices for personalized customer service:

  • don’t mention data to the customer they haven’t knowingly shared
  • don’t say “I know” when they mention such data themselves
  • don’t answer too early when using a typing preview in chat support

In other words: whatever data you collect and intend to use for marketing, advertising or customer service, be transparent about it – or expect to creep your customers out.

Obvious personalization techniques

There are ways to personalize your customer service that rely less on gathering detailed customer data. They’re easy to pull off but also easily exposed.

Contrary to data spills, these personalization techniques won’t frighten your customers but they’re enough to put you in a bad light. If they work, your customers will be more satisfied with the overall service. If they don’t, your customers will simply rate down your service.

Name Shower. This technique derives from Dale Carnegie’s famous statement that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Taking Carnegie at his word, sales and service agents frequently drop their customer’s name to personalize the conversation.

Graph showing the rise and fall of trust through flattery.

If you repeat your customers’ names at every opportunity, they will assume that you’re cutting corners to create the impression of personalized customer support. For all flattery, there’s a point at which trust quickly turns to suspicion.

Operator stock photos. Another all too obvious personalization technique is using stock photos for your operator pictures in email signatures or your chat messenger.

Stock photo of a customer service agent.
Would you believe this to be the person you’re talking to?

Granted, showing your customers the real faces of the operators they’re speaking with raises privacy concerns, but it’s personalization at its best. So if your agents ask you to protect their identity, it’s understandable that you’re looking for something more natural than avatar silhouettes.

But just like Name Showers, stock photos only work as long as they’re not recognized as what they are – an attempt to manufacture a personal touch with little effort. Once detected they’ll make you look like a fraud.

Images from user-powered photo databases like Diverse UI lower that risk, but we encourage you to back away from misleading your customers altogether. Instead, use your company logo or create comic avatar pictures that resemble your operators with apps like cartoonify . Finally, use the actual conversation to personalize the experience.

Indiscriminate use of emoji, gifs & informal language. Many companies try to cozy up to their customers by simply talking to anyone like you would talk to your friends. In written communication, an informal tone as well as sprinkling emoji and gifs works for businesses that primarily target young consumers. For companies with a more heterogeneous customer base, it’s a risky approach.

Messaging is spreading across all age groups, becoming the standard mode of private communication. Still, the default tone in customer messaging has yet to catch up. The majority of consumers aren’t carefree Gen Z to Ys, raised on the internet and accustomed to its informal tone. Confronted with an overly formal tone, they might wonder if your agents mixed up browser tabs.

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But even if your target group is more easy-going, too much and too obvious informality can lead to suspicion. Again, the dose makes the poison. If agents throw in emoji, gifs and youth slang en masse, they will no longer sound natural to any customer.

Thanks to the passe-partout pronoun “you,” English doesn’t require its speakers to choose between formal and informal. To prevent awkward situations in other languages, for instance German, it’s good practice to simply ask the customer how they’d like to be addressed. In fact, asking the question is in itself a great personalization technique. To also properly use emoji and emoticons in business communication, here’s our required reading .

Chatbot support in the uncanny valley

Most of the personalization consumers encounter is either automated or not made exclusively for them, like product suggestions, ads and email campaigns.

The only time you craft something truly personal for your customers is when you have a conversation with them. The messages you send back and forth might be repetitive and even consist of chat macros . Nevertheless, there’s a human taking their time to read and write, focusing on a single customer, if only for a few minutes.


Looking to scale this up, companies increasingly place their hopes in chatbots. There are in fact many good reasons and applications for a chatbot in customer support , but replacing personal human support equally is not among them.

First, there are the many common growing pains of today’s chatbots, like conversation dead ends, information overload, under or overdeveloped personas and run-of-the-mill malfunctioning. Once these are fixed and your chatbot can do a somewhat convincing impersonation of a human agent, you’ll face the next problem: the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is where humans get an eerie feeling because the robot in front of them is no longer clearly visible as such. That’s why we love Wall-E and R2D2 but have trouble warming up to Sophia.

Rafe Sargarin’s advice is that “customer service needs to be either more or less robotic.” Best keep it in mind if you’re planning to offer more customers more personalized support via a chatbot.

We’ve found chatbots to be most useful when they take over the “dumb” part of service, like collecting questions and customer details. Used this way, they also free up time for human support agents to focus on personal support. To prevent any confusion, we recommend giving your bot a name and image that clearly highlights its robotic identity.

Keep it real

Between a business and its customer, both sides benefit from personalized customer service. The business reinforces the connection and secures a repeat buyer. The customer gets a preferential treatment that reflects their buying history and a seller they can entrust with their information. That’s why the regular usually gets the seat at the bar with the best view of the pub and an open ear from the bartender.

As relationships grow, so does the importance of trust. If your personalization efforts are based on deception, it’s a recipe for failure.

Transparent automation is better than shallow personalization. So, don’t let your agents pretend and don’t be creepy. Inform your customers about the data you collect and why you do. Be available, pay attention to detail when it matters, and wow your customers by reducing effort first .

A final number from Accenture’s study that shows how much customers value sincerity: 45% of respondents of the study said that the coolest personalization tactic of all is when companies send apology emails for negative in-store or online experiences. To say it pompously: Strive for perfection, but always be clear about who you are.