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BA Use of Google Images Similar to Other’s Efforts to Enhance Experience of Top Customers

A new British Airways program aimed at creating a more personalized experience for customers has raised the debate between knowing a customer’s personal information to provide better service and threats of invasion of privacy.

According to reports in the London Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the international carrier recently started its ‘Know Me’ program in which staff looks up profiles of future fliers so that flight attendants and other front line personnel can “put a face to the name before the customer sets foot in the airport.”

In order to provide top customers a better customer experience, the air carrier is providing staff with access to iPads, to search Google Images for passenger photos. The tablets will also store information about customers' travel and complaint histories. The airline aims to have staff members personally greet around 4,500 passengers a day by the end of 2012.

The program isn’t used for all passengers, just high profile ones, like chief executives of firms or other frequent business travelers. When word got out about the program, some privacy advocates got up in arms about it, claiming that much of the information that British Airways was using for the program was private in nature.

But in all the published reports, it’s the privacy groups, notably Big Brother Watch, that’s complaining about the program, not the passengers themselves, notes Mitch Lieberman, vice president market strategic, Sword Ciboodle, Chicago and Glagow, a company that provides a multi-channel customer engagement platform.

“Everyone is already doing this anyway; British Airways was just being upfront about it,” Lieberman said. Sword Ciboodle, in conjunction with thinkJar, found in a survey released in May that nearly 60 percent of companies in the U.S. and the UK were using Facebook and Twitter to provide enhanced customer service. “If you don’t think that insurance companies aren’t looking at your Facebook page and taking note if you have pictures of you smoking and bungee jumping, then you are mistaken.”

“Their ability to harness that information and enhance the customer experience is fantastic,” said Craig Speizle, director of the Online Trust Alliance, Seattle, Wash. “I fly every other week, if I am greeted, provide me with a preferred meals or other preferences, that’s a tremendous value. Airlines have had a problem with personalization of service of preferences; this type of service can provide tremendous value.”

Liberman added that the information available on Google is public information anyway, so the privacy groups really have little to complain about unless the airline was also storing – and not securing – sensitive personal information, like approved credit cards, much in the same way that Amazon does.

“What's important for every organization to realize is, while social channels are constantly evolving, they are not new anymore,” Lieberman said of the company’s survey findings. “The most successful customer service program will happen for businesses who incorporate social into their overall customer engagement practices, and really keep pace with the way their customers are communicating with them in all areas.”

“I commend British Airways for what they are doing,” Lieberman added. “This way they can find you in the (BA) lounge and provide you with more efficient customer service.”

Lieberman reiterated that Amazon, financial services firms and several other businesses do basically the same thing, though they may not go as far as a Google Image search.

Lieberman added that British Airways could offer travelers an opt-out option if they didn’t want the Google database to be searched, or the carrier could go even a step further if they find one of their targeted travelers is upset by the policy. In those instances, the carrier could apologize, but point out that the information was gathered via Google, and then offer advice to the customer about how to make his information less accessible on the Internet.

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