As someone who spends a good deal of time understanding Customer Relationship Management – providers, solutions, systems, processes, use cases and implementation – I’ve happily gained insight into industry trends. These trends include the evolving role of CRM as the core of customer engagement, and the race to incorporate artificial intelligence – predictive analytics, machine learning, natural language processing – to personalize and automate business processes, whilst discovering and massaging away customer pain points before they turn into intractable knots.

We describe these efforts to anticipate and proactively address customer needs as customer engagement. A hyper-individualized focus, usually data-driven, is sometimes referred to as ‘customer obsession’. The term is apt – companies scour all available channels for every personal datum to better customize engagement to elicit a favorable reaction. Just like regular obsession!

Of course, I jest. Customer obsession is for mutual gain, and we willingly give up some privacy for convenience – predictive search queries, one-click checkouts, knowledge of popular product pairings depend on it. In this fashion, customer obsession reshaped B2C marketing and sales. It’s also starting to reshape B2B marketing and sales – this data-driven customer approach is essential for B2B account-based marketing, which Forrester Research predicts will take on new life in 2017.

But the mad collection of data can easily go awry. Much like the ‘uncanny valley’ of computer graphics, marketing outreach based on specific triggers on customer profiles completed with data acquired from every available source can easily get very creepy.

It’s as though an extremely capable private detective were sent to track us down, and even though he just meant to convey an innocuous sales pitch, it’s discomfiting to know how recognizable and traceable we are to a determined stranger.

I recently had a few such experiences of B2B customer obsession myself. I offer two of them as a precautionary tale of CRM gone awry – leaving a prospect a little leerier for the wear.

A Shotgun Encounter with a Major Marketer

Part of my job entails experimenting with different CRMs to get a sense of how well they might achieve various business goals – reducing time wasted with data entry, accurately scoring leads, etc. I try to educate myself as to the best practices of the three pillars of CRM – sales, marketing and customer service.

Downloading ebooks and white papers in exchange for personal identifiers and contact points is common. I don’t mind providing my work email, for example; I like newsletters. I occasionally read them and you never know where you might find inspiration.

An email address, at minimum is universally required to download CRM trials. As a consequence of my work, I inevitably receive a veritable deluge of newsletters, some enlightening, others mere marketing spam. Unsubscription buttons exist for a reason. Such was the case after trying out the CRM offered by a provider of a major inbound marketing platform – regular emails, nothing unusual, I paid it no heed.

But for a separate piece, while testing out an unrelated social CRM in which I (probably foolishly) confirmed my LinkedIn address and sent a test email from my personal account, I received marketing messages through both those channels from the aforementioned inbound marketer. I hadn’t ever given them that data. I speculated that perhaps the marketing company used the same, or similar, social CRM software which trawled newfound lead information into their database – but either way, I was receiving B2B marketing on channels I’d never offered for solicitation.

It felt like a sudden intrusion – as though I were sitting at home and a complete stranger poked their head through the window. No, I would not like to buy anything, thanks. A digital version of a sales visit to your front door during dinner.

I call this the shotgun approach. Faced with a fervent desire (or need) to reach prospects faster than competitors, armed with fresh contact points, the marketer fires off a salvo of messages through various channels hoping one of them will connect. Except there was one target who received all of the messages, and it felt decidedly off-putting.

A Phone Call from a Mysterious Stranger

In a separate situation, I downloaded a few ebooks from a large CRM provider. In exchange, I provided in a web form my full name, work email, office address and a few company details – number of employees, industry, etc. As mentioned, disclosure of such information doesn’t trouble me – it’s all publicly discoverable if one were sufficiently interested.

However, I don’t provide my personal phone number when I sign up for work related content. (I used a computer generated VoIP number.) I like to keep my personal and professional affairs separate – by principle and device – and besides, unsolicited phone calls are not my cup of tea.

An unsolicited phone call came anyway, in the form of an unidentified number from Ontario, Canada. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a sales call! We had a nice discussion in which I informed the salesperson my interest was purely academic, and the call ended there.

I wasn’t really bothered by the content or the purpose of the conversation – it was that it came over a channel I’d deliberately omitted from the web form. It wasn’t the content or the purpose of the call that perturbed me – it was the fact it came over a channel I deliberately omitted from the web form. Which implies they acquired my personal cell from a separate source. That source was unrelated to our exchange, but used to send me a sales call anyway, which made me rather uneasy.

A Bid for Personal Space!

It’s not that I think data collection, customer engagement and account-based marketing should, in any way, cease. I’m most likely an outlier in many of these CRM providers’ sales funnels – I regularly visit their pricing pages, I download ebooks and white papers, I occasionally click links in newsletters or email support agents with product-related inquiries – despite lead qualification traits pointing otherwise, I presently have no interest to subscribe. (My apologies to all affected for the misperception.)

This trend of massive data collection, connectivity across channels (and things) as well as customer obsession will continue – the potential for marketing and sales optimization is simply too attractive. And customers willfully participate, and will continue to happily provide our GPS coordinates for ride-sharing or navigation apps while our voice-activated assistants quietly record snippets of conversations. But in this mad rush of data collection, perhaps it behooves businesses to maintain a discreet distance, at least to maintain the semblance of privacy – in which, despite having access to contact points that prospects didn’t directly provide, giving customers some room to control which channels are engaged – so that customer obsession does not become as disquieting as real-life obsession would be.