A few decades ago, bank managers and storekeepers used to know their individual customers’ shopping or banking behaviour, preferences and needs intimately enough to provide them with personalised advice, recommendations and service that encouraged customer loyalty.

Now that they’ve been replaced by call centre teams and automated systems, data is the key to providing personalised customer service, says Elliot Reuben, principal business consultant at ExactTarget EMEA and presenter at the Acceleration Digital Ignition Symposium for 2014, held at the Le Franschhoek Hotel and Spa.

Reuben says that the shift towards online banking and personal finance management, in the banking industry, has given customers in banking more convenience and control. But digital channels do not yet replace the people who know the customer as a person rather than just a series of ones and zeroes.

What’s more, banks are missing opportunities to cross-sell or up-sell as well as the chance to keep customers loyal. Various studies seem to suggest that customer satisfaction with banking experiences have declined. Other industries that previously relied on the personal touch may suffer similarly when migrating from bricks and mortar to online services, Reuben says.

“What will replace the bank manager?” says Reuben. “The answer lies in data and how it is used. My bank manager stored data on me –he remembered my tastes, needs and preferences and acted accordingly. This had an effect on how I perceived their brand. It kept me loyal.”

Personalisation, targeting and relevance based on customer data are not new to marketing and communications, but they are an evolving art form, he adds.

“The more data that we collect, and the better our capabilities to interrogate that data, the more nuanced and genuinely personal those communications become,” says Reuben. “The first step is to collect the data; the next is to employ tools which allow you to conduct a meaningful analysis; then comes deciding how to use it to your best advantage.”

There is one caveat in using customer’s data to build more personalised relationships with them: don’t be creepy. Make sure your data and automated systems allow you to say and do the right thing in the right place at the right time – and for the right person, too, advises Reuben.

“They used to say that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers. With fewer shops and fewer shopkeepers, perhaps the next challenge is how we evolve the basic need for communicating in a human and personal way,” he adds.

“Knowing and understanding your audience is the key to successful customer engagement and data unlocks your knowledge and insight into your audience,” says Richard Mullins, director at Acceleration. “Getting the personal communication right – rather than being impersonal or intrusive – is a big competitive advantage.”