I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of speaking at the Hawai‘i Tourism Association’s annual conference in Honolulu, a gorgeous city. I’d not been to Honolulu before, so it was fascinating to walk around a city in which Japanese is more or less the de facto second language. Signs, menus, directions – all have Japanese versions next to their English versions. It’s been great to practice my very rusty Japanese skills.

Here’s the interesting assumption people make about me. Shopkeepers, store owners, and other tourists assume I speak Japanese. It’s reminiscent of when I went to Seoul, South Korea and struggled to get around because I don’t speak Korean, but I look the part. Shopkeepers would ask me questions and I’d have to reply, “I’m sorry, I’m American. I don’t speak Korean”. Boy, did that confuse people.

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I actually took to carrying that around as a graphic on my iPhone as I walked around Seoul.

The shopkeepers in Honolulu make an assumption based on how I appear and greet me in Japanese. Because everyone’s wonderfully friendly, we simply switch over to American English once I exhaust my very meager Japanese skills. I’m fairly certain that it’s apparent in my Japanese accent as well that it’s not even close to my native language. (I once had a Japanese teacher in college who said my Americanization of Japanese sounds made me sound like an inakamono, a country bumpkin)

However, this begets a marketing problem in general: when you make assumptions before the customer gives you data, you risk miscategorizing your customer. Just because you get referral traffic from a social network does not mean the customer heard about you solely from the social network. Just because someone subscribes to your email newsletter does not mean they want to buy something from you. We as marketers have come to rely on passive data, on machine-provided data, leaping to conclusions that may be incorrect.

This becomes even more troublesome in the algorithm-driven world we live in. As machines take on more and more of the responsibility for pattern matching, they build assumptions of their own (or are pre-programmed with our assumptions). For the most part, customers will not tell you that your algorithms are wrong. They will simply see mis-targeted marketing and vanish silently to a competitor.

In your marketing technology, in your marketing automation, do your best to let your customers give information first. Listen. Ask. By not assuming, you may be able to avoid potentially embarrassing mistakes and serve their needs better and faster.

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