I will never see the taxi driver who picked me up from JFK again. He doesn’t have to worry that he tried to overcharge me and he doesn’t care if it’s me, or one of a hundred other visitors in the back seat tomorrow. Uber on the other hand knows when I last booked a car with them. They know who drove me, exactly how long it took, where he dropped me off and most importantly how I felt when I left the car. Uber remembers more about where I was, when than I do myself.
When I return to the same hotel reception for the third time in 18 months, they ask me again if this is my first stay with them. How is it possible in 2014 that the receptionist doesn’t know? She tells me not to forget the ‘wine hour’ with a knowing smile. Free wine for an hour every night before dinner is obviously the highlight of many a trip. So why am I expecting her to know that I don’t drink wine and to understand that her comment is completely irrelevant to me? My Airbnb host meets my oldest son so that she can give him the keys we need to her apartment when we arrive in Sydney. They have a cup of tea together and she finds out that we are into good coffee and might use the local gym, so she plots the great coffee places on a map, stocks up on Nespresso pods and her gym membership card is there for us when we arrive, just in case we feel like using it.
I can roam the floors of Barnes & Noble for hours on end and no assistant will make a recommendation to me because they have no clue what I might be interested in. Amazon’s whole business is built on understanding exactly what I want and giving me as many shortcuts to that as possible.
When I was growing up our local butcher knew which cuts of meat my mother would buy on any given day. He knew when we had visitors from England and when money was tight because of how my mother’s shopping habits changed. He took that kind of information in so that he could use it to better serve her and he did that for every one of his customers. Ironically progress, growth and innovation led us not to expect that same level of personalised service for a couple decades. Now technology is helping to take us back, but it’s the humanity that drives the entrepreneurs and business owners who build the technology that enables meaningful experiences and not their platforms and functionality that is driving this new wave of relevance.
Technology is not just taking us forward, it’s taking us back. It’s giving us back the ability to better understand our customers so that we can not only be useful, but also meaningful to the people we serve. Upstarts like Uber and Airbnb are stealing a march on their competitors not because they have information about us, but because of how they intentionally build organisations that use that information to create better experiences—ones that make us feel good and give us a story to tell.
What we crave more than the commodity we think we are paying for is to be understood. What we want more than being driven to our destination, a comfortable bed for the night, or even a book we can get our teeth into, is to really be seen. What people want more than responsive organisations is personal relevance. The value isn’t just in the data we collect. It’s how we use it to make people’s lives better that counts.