In a World of Data, Ethics has No Substitute

By Lloyd Adams, SAP

Traditionally, the relationship between companies and their customers has been simple and symbiotic: customers seek solutions, in the form of goods and services, from companies that are eager to provide them. Early in my career, creating personal relationships with customers was the key to success. While the product always opened the door to a prospective customer, authentic and personal relationships proved to be most valued by the customer.

New and emerging technologies have enhanced this relationship, allowing for precision as the gap between company and consumer begins to dissolve in the digital age. Tools and methodology — such as artificial intelligence and machine learning — enable companies to predict customers’ needs and deliver a more personalized consumer experience.

But with these advancements comes a new ethical responsibility for companies. To maintain consumer trust and grow fruitful business relationships, ethical and transparent data treatment must be a priority.

While many companies are leveraging data to benefit consumer experience, others see the temptation to misuse the data and circumvent vital, personalized relationship-building. The European Union adopted GDPR as a means of establishing regulatory footing to deal with the growing amount of data and its commercial uses. While this regulation provides guidelines for companies on data use and misuse, it should not be the only guiding light in the new digital landscape. Rather than forming compromises based on legislation, ethics should be the arbiter of customer data usage, and put pressure on both individual and corporate accountability.

At SAPPHIRE this year, we unveiled a new customer relationship management tool, SAP C/4HANA, that has a slew of capabilities that help us and our customers better understand consumers. We were confident that we could release an offering that is so heavily reliant on data on the heels of a high-profile data privacy scandal — where consumer data was mishandled — because we have a proven record of collaborative partnership with our customers. We’ve only been able to reach this level of hallowed ground by creating mutually beneficial relationships.

Privacy is a basic human right. Companies must prioritize creating data landscapes and digital environments that are not intrusive. Companies must not sacrifice ethical standards for a bottom line. As we prioritize personalized consumer experiences that evolve with customer preferences, we must also prioritize customer privacy and sensitivity. Companies need to hold themselves accountable for their use of privileged information in a time when business strategy can toe the line of corruption.

The key to building strong customer relationships is establishing trust at the onset. Especially on the topic of data, transparency is critical to developing a successful partnership. When you’re upfront with customers about how and why their data is used, they become more likely to work with you.

With the ubiquity of data and the cognitive tools it fuels, companies are eager to implement tools that will benefit their bottom line. However, the companies that will succeed are those that don’t lose sight of customers’ preferences for privacy and transparency, and blend technology and soft skills to create the lasting customer relationships that will prove mutually beneficial.


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