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HRD's pocket guide to... personalisation

The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

Netflix recommendations, targeted Facebook ads, customised email newsletters… personalised content has been around in the consumer world for a while. And it’s catching on. Deloitte research found that 36% of consumers expressed interest in buying personalised products or services, while 48% said they’d be willing to wait longer to receive them.

And once they’ve experienced it consumers quickly expect a personalised service to be the norm. SalesForce found 62% expect to receive personalised offers based on what they’ve already bought. Research by Segment suggests that 54% of shoppers anticipate a personalised discount within a day, and 32% within just an hour, of sharing their checkout information.

“People have become used to the notion of ‘mass customisation’ – when purchasing many different types of products we have long been able to build a tailored item that meets our needs better than one that is mass-produced,” explains Gregory Laurence, associate professor of management at the University of Michigan-Flint.

What do I need to know?

Personalisation relies largely on putting people into categories. Advocates claim people feel more of a connection with the service/product and are therefore more likely to buy into it.

However, breaking people down into groups based on things such as gender or age can be risky. Some people may not wish to share this information, may be unsure about or unhappy with categories they’ve been placed in, and computer algorithms aren’t emotionally intelligent enough to understand changes in status. For example, in December 2018 an American woman continued to receive pregnancy- and baby-related content on Facebook despite having suffered a stillbirth. The site’s algorithms had deduced from her posts and other activity that she was pregnant, but didn’t pick up that she had lost the baby, despite her posting about it.

Where can HR add value?

Personalisation is making its way into the workplace – via pick and mix benefits and personalised pensions advice for example. “This is probably associated with more interest on employees’ parts in customising their work experience while at the same time having a more individually-tailored home experience,” says Laurence.

In areas of HR where employees are required to make a choice – benefits, pensions, health interventions – personalisation can be beneficial in engaging employees and ensuring they are receiving the most appropriate information.

“In our experience it changes lives,” enthuses Brian Henderson, partner and director of consulting at Mercer. “We have used personalised videos to encourage pension savers to save more. The results have been amazing. We not only experience two-thirds of people fully viewing a video that is personal to them, we have also seen half of those that view it then increase pension savings.”

“Many employers have offered some element of personalisation on things such as pensions or company cars,” reports Jason Fowler, vice president and HR director, UK & Ireland at Fujitsu.

“At Fujitsu we’ve taken this a step further by offering an array of flexible benefits that colleagues can tailor to their lifestyle circumstances or preferences. These include dental plans, life and critical illness cover, travel insurance, as well as buying or selling annual leave.”

Communication is key though; HR must strike a balance between raising awareness and bombarding staff with unwelcome messaging. “To avoid any sense of intrusion it is fundamental that personalisation is optional,” Fowler stresses.

“With so many variations of employment arrangements, not making personalisation optional can lead to complications; particularly because there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to employee-employer relationships. Balancing flexibility with efficient and accurate management and maintenance of contracts and records is key.”

Anything else?

There are some who argue that personalisation isn’t personal at all. “What you do is segment the market according to things like age, gender, race and you generalise about people from that. It’s not remotely personal,” states Paul Spicker, professor of public policy at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University.

“A lot of the advocates of personalisation say it’s all about choice. And the truth is when we actually look at choice we tend to forget the other side of it,” he continues. “In the provision of goods and services it’s not just the consumer that has a choice. So producers decide what they’re going to do and inevitably that always leaves gaps. It’s called adverse selection. There will always be some people who are more awkwardly placed, who are more difficult.”

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk