By Rick Delgado

Imagine sitting at your computer when you get an email from a company whose website you recently visited. The message contains offers for products that seem specifically targeted at you and your tastes. More than that, they seem to know a lot about your life — like your most recent vacation destination, what you do for a living, even the fact that your child is about to start kindergarten. All this after visiting a website for only a few minutes. Do you feel a little creeped out? You’re not alone. This type of tailor made marketing has become a lot more common in recent years, all thanks to the rise of big data analytics. Many businesses have made it their mission to collect as much information on their customers as possible, using that data to provide unique offers, better products, and specialized services. Using big data has become a key to prolonged success for companies, but there are ways to take it too far, to the point where customers start to feel like someone is always watching them. Striking the right balance in the collection and use of customer data and customer privacy is a tough task but one that businesses need to achieve.

To be sure, big data analytics has a lot to offer not just to businesses but to customers as well. Gathering data on customers is a sound strategy, which helps to inform companies in their business decisions. Big data can help drive marketing efforts and increase sales. But as with all good things, if you take it too far, the negative consequences begin to grow in number. For many businesses, this can cause confusion and frustration. Many think customers should be happy they’re receiving offers that are minutely tailored to the individual. While customers certainly like being treated like a real person and not just a number, many also see the collection of their most personal data as a creepy tactic, and the last thing a business wants is to be seen as creepy.

As noted by Chris Bucholz of CRM Buyer, the goal of avoiding the creepy nature of big data can be achieved if businesses try to think like a customer. Companies need to pay attention to the customer perception of their big data use. One of the most common worries customers have is how their big data is obtained in the first place, particularly when all they’re doing is visiting a website or purchasing something online. Sometimes, customers give up their personal information unknowingly. How many of us have clicked the “Accept” button on the Terms and Conditions page without actually reading the terms and conditions? Not helping matters is the fact that many customers have very little understanding of what big data is in the first place.

What this all boils down to is the need for transparency from businesses in terms of how they go about collecting and using a customer’s data. One of the best and most straightforward things a company can do is ask a customer’s permission. While it might seem like a simple act, having customers willfully give up their information can be extremely successful and encourage a more trusting relationship. Of course, the only way a customer will voluntarily do this is when they understand the value they get out of sharing personal information. If a business explains that personal data will be used for delivering specific offers and deals, customers may be more inclined to giving up that data.

Greater use of customer data can also be done gradually. If a business simply plunges into a customer’s profile, customers can get turned off from the idea pretty quickly. Businesses should start with the basics: an email address, maybe a phone number or mailing address. Over time, companies can ask for more information while explaining what they’re using it for. This strategy allows organizations to build up trust over time starting with a more stable foundation. Once customers know that a business will use their data responsibly, they’ll be more willing to give more information. This avoids the creepy vibe that many companies give out when collecting data.

With the proliferation of big data analytics tools, it’s easier than ever for companies to gather customer data. What companies do with that data, however, can create complications with customer relationships. Go too far with big data, and customers will get creeped out and likely won’t continue doing business with you. Use big data in a responsible manner, and you can enjoy the many benefits it offers.

Rick Delgado is a technology commentator and writer. Follow him @ricknotdelgado.