Putting an end to the exploitation of customer data

We must no longer accept that online services misuse customer data for monetary purposes under the guise of “customer experience”. A transparent data policy is urgently needed.

Fig. 1: Which cookies are you using? Avoid third-party cookies! (pexels, Leonardo Luz)

Every time customers visit a website or use an app, they must expect the operator to store their data and use it for purposes they hardly ever knowingly consent to.

Sometimes the intended use is harmless and even helpful – such as using preferences and past behaviour to improve navigation and enhance the customer experience. Consumers thus benefit from personalized feeds, tailored suggestions or even loyalty rewards.

Most of the time, however, unclear cookie descriptions and dark-pattern designs only serve to mislead users, and spy on them. The operators will collect data and sell it to third parties. In the best-case scenario, this will be to advertisers or direct marketing agencies that want to influence customer needs. In the worst case, the data ends up in the hands of malicious parties, on black market forums, or with aggressive spammers.

The reasons for this illicit activity are almost always financial. It is an easy extra income that increases sales and perhaps makes investors happy. It is the consumer who loses out.

One popular tactic to obtain data is through the application of third-party tracking cookies across websites. Through the interaction of hardware, software and smart applications, trackers can collect valuable information about all user activities, and can paint a picture about a person’s interests, preferences, and even their location. We need to be aware of this: there is no such thing as anonymity on the internet. In fact, data collectors are so sophisticated that they can paint a surprisingly accurate picture of exactly who we are by combining all the data traces we leave behind. It is no coincidence that this approach is called fingerprinting.

Fortunately, consumers themselves can play an important role in stopping this. As users become more and more data-conscious, they increasingly demand control and transparency over the use of personal information, putting more pressure on operators and data collectors to act ethically and with data privacy in mind.

Companies need to ask themselves: is it really still worth risking one’s own reputation to gain financial advantages through the exploitative use of data? We at Zoho, for example, advises companies not to use third-party trackers and to have a fully transparent data usage policy towards their customers.

In fact, distancing oneself entirely from any form of data analysis, collection or use can be a worthwhile strategy. This creates a brand image that values customer trust over short-term financial gains. By removing third-party trackers, the success of online campaigns may not be as easy to monitor, but the benefits to the customer experience could make it well worth it. We removed all third-party cookies from our websites years ago and instead developed our own solution to track online marketing performance (fig. 1). As an alternative, a feedback and rating system that enables honest and open communication with customers could allow them to actively express their opinion on a particular service instead of making assumptions based on indirect and dishonestly gathered information.

Another innovative way companies can improve the customer experience is by investing in AI-powered automation. Corresponding software then not only ensures quick access to important customer data, via specially developed CX tools, but also significantly reduces the time spent on back-office tasks. This allows employees to concentrate on more important tasks, such as personal contact with existing or potential customers.

Data-driven insights are not the only way to improve the customer experience. Only brands that act fairly towards their customers will remain competitive and sustainable in today’s competitive markets.

Suvish Viswanathan, Head of Marketing bei Zoho Europe