A CRM ghost story – or why artificial intelligence leads to real-life stupidity

Phil Adams is planning director at Cello Signal. Follow him on Twitter @Phil_Adams

Answer that phone and you enter another dimension. A dimension of shadow and shade that lies between the two stools of marketing automation and personal service. A dimension of unclosed feedback loops and misfiring data synapses. A dimension that exists between the summit of marketing’s sophistication and the pit of its incompetence.

You are entering the twilight zone of banking CRM.

This is a true story but the names have been changed so as to avoid embarrassment.

It is also a ghost story. There is a friendly ghost in my bank’s CRM machine. Her attempts at customer engagement are more accurately described as trigger-based haunting.

Let’s call her Mary.

Mary phones me every time a lump sum is paid into my current account. I instantly recognise her, before she announces herself, by her Merseyside accent. This is a groundhog call and, in true groundhog fashion, it seems that only I am aware of the cyclical nature of our relationship. She is oblivious to the fact that we have had this same conversation many times before. I know the script and its nuances better than she does.

“Hello Philip, my name is Mary and I’m calling from the St Helens branch of Bank X. May I talk to you about your current account?”

“Sure (inward sigh), go ahead.”

“I notice that a significant sum of money was paid into your account on the 27th.”

“Yes, that’s my salary (trying not to sound patronising). It’s the same amount that gets paid into my account around that time every month.”

“Oh I see. Well did you know that you could be earning more interest on your current account as long as you maintain a certain minimum balance? Maybe we could arrange a time for you to pop into the branch to discuss your options.”

“That won’t be easy because I live in Edinburgh.”

“Oh. Ha ha! Never mind then. Thanks for your time.”

The fact that my account is at the St Helens branch is an accident of history. I opened it 34 years ago in 1982 at the age of 16. I am the epitome of the kind of inertia that the bank undoubtedly mistakes for loyalty. 1982 was also the last year that I lived full time in my parents’ house.

There is a subtle clue in the information that the bank holds about me that should be enough for Mary to know that I can’t just pop in. It’s called my address, which includes an Edinburgh postcode. The problem with having your head in the big data clouds is that you can lose sight of the blindingly obvious.

I have had this conversation with Mary a dozen times. A dozen times I have told her that I live in Edinburgh. A dozen times I have identified a regular monthly payment as my salary. Surely it is a sufficiently quirky exchange, sufficiently oft-repeated, to be memorable. You shouldn’t need machine learning to spot the most basic and the most pronounced of patterns.

I don’t have the heart to challenge Mary, to lay bare the disjointed, disintegrated dog’s dinner CRM of which she is the hapless representative. Besides, I like her. She is on point at the sharp end of a demented system but she is pleasant and cheerful. There is a quaint, innocuous charm to her dotty indefatigability.

Mary operates at the very edge of the grid. She is the bank’s equivalent of the lost soldier in the jungle; still disciplined, still proud, but unaware that the war ended many years ago. She fights the good fight for the human face of banking, operating on intelligence that is decades out of date.

It warms my heart actually. I hope that every branch has a Mary, a human reminder of that all the automation, all the technology, all the mechanical personalisation quickly unravels without empathy as its driver.

Artificial intelligence leads to real life stupidity in the absence of emotional intelligence. The most powerful engine in the world is useless if the transmission is buggered.

We need Mary. Forget artificial intelligence. She is the endearing human chink in the artifice of marketing intelligence. I don’t want to exorcise my friendly ghost.

Phil Adams is planning director at Blonde Digital. He can be found tweeting here.

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