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Facial recognition, familiarity, and the creepiness factor

Several weeks ago there were a number of articles on  British Airways googling their VIP passengers before boarding a flight. This practice allowed BA to step up their  level of customer service including recognizing these people by name as they arrived. BA could also gather all sorts of personal information about these customers so “creepy alarms” went off.

My wife and I went to a local restaurant last night, one that we had not gone to for a few weeks. The place was pretty empty but the protocol was to wait to be taken to a table. One of the chefs noticed us waiting for a few minutes; recognizing me he waved then interrupted a server’s conversation to tell them to get us seated.We got a lot of attention, fast delivery of our food, and had a very good time (plus the food was great as always). This owner knew that we had usually visited weekly and then stopped for about a month so he wanted us to have an exceptional experience and get more business from us in the future.

When I travel I usually stay at part of a national chain. I always have extra towels in the room and my preferred paper in the morning. This automatically happens because the chain had asked me about these things when I set up my frequent-stayer profile. Recognition of my preferences improves the experience at the hotel as opposed to my asking to ask for these things each time I visit.

The local restaurant and hotel chain are examples of how to provide great customer service using personal information without being creepy. Why then would a similar program by British Airways have an increased creepiness factor? Simple, the personal information was never provided to them, they went and got it.

My creepy alarm tends to go off when someone knows something about me or even my name if I had not shared it with them. If someone comes up and says “Hi, Bob” and I do not recognize them, the creepy alarm goes off, my shields go up and I begin to wonder who this is and what they want. As soon as the person tells me we worked together, went to school together or about some other shared experience then the creepy alarm quiets, shields go down and life is back to normal. I am sure you have experienced the similar thing at some time.

This past week a new application called Facedeals was announced that uses facial recognition technology to offer customized coupons when you enter a store. A potential next step is for you to enter a store and the clerks are automatically provided your likes, purchase history, and recent on-line shopping simply by a camera taking your picture. There are clear benefits from a retailers perspective in this use of technology; the clerks can sell directly to your needs and preferences. From a buyer’s perspective it can speed up a transaction and might even appear to be exceptional customer service.

The question is when do the creepy alarms go off? Is this use of technology, an extension of what BA was attempting, good or evil? I’d be interested in your thoughts and will report back in the coming weeks.