In a recent Advertising Age piece , Kunur Patel presents a tale of two companies: Southwest Airlines, a company reputed among airlines for their dedication to customer service, and Delta, a company dedicated to automating processes through mobile technology--service through apps rather than humans. She writes, "The future of customer service in the airline industry may well be devoid of the warm, smiling employees that have been core to Southwest's strategy. Instead, the industry is looking to...technology that guarantees customers won't have to encounter humans on their trips at all."
Meanwhile, in the same edition of Ad Age, Natalie Zmuda wrote : "When CMOs learn to love data, they'll be VIPs in the C-suite...and if they don't, they'll be relegated to overseeing promotions while someone else takes Chief Customer Officer role."
But is it so simplistic? Should the plentitude of data the information age affords us be all that drives corporate decision-making? What about the ability companies now have--more than ever--to connect with their audiences in a more human and direct way? The real question is, does being dedicated to data somehow exclude more "human" approaches?
I've spent the last several years advocating that empathy  and listening  are the future of marketing and criticizing  companies for being too eager to simplify people into numbers and, in the process, losing touch with who they actually are.
My suspicion of automated technologies and extensive use of data comes less from the data itself but rather how the data is used. Companies who put all their focus on poking and prodding their audiences for information without much regard for the experience of those actual audience members, for instance, have tipped the scales far out of balance. (Think of onerous customer surveys we now face at every turn, or of companies that share their content in ways that allow them to best glean data from audiences but, in the process, provide that content in ways that isn't so useful for the audiences they are trying to serve.
But I don't mean to dismiss the enormous impact of data in the process. In fact, the abundance of information that's out there and available can often be used in service of the customer, to very beneficial ends. After all, as industry leaders like LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman  have emphasized, quantitative data has driven innovation in serving audiences. And companies from Google to Amazon to FedEx have used the wealth of data they have about customers/users to constantly find new ways to better serve them.
Rather than pushing marketing and customer service leaders to believe that data is the sole path to innovation and influence within their company, we instead have to think of our organizations as cyborgs (borrowing from my friend Amber Case , whose official job title is "cyborg anthropologist," researching the connection between people and their technologies).
That is to say that companies can use data in ways that aim to serve their customer: automating processes to make them more efficient for customers; analyzing all the quantitative data that can be generated from "sentiment monitoring" and website user data; and so forth. But, even as companies take advantage of all those technologies in the service of their customers, they can't lose sight of what can't be automated or quantified: Experiencing their world from the audience's point of view (as, for instance, we are aiming to do at Peppercom with our new Audience Experience  offering). Listening to what customers are saying, online and off, and both respond to them and respond to those concerns by changing the way we do business. Developing relationships with customers and providing them with what they want and need. This is what helps company go the extra mile, where market research and analytics can't take them.
If we return to the two Advertising Age pieces I referred to earlier, we can actually see this "cyborg" path forward beneath the scenarios about airlines devoid of employees or CMOs relegated to promotions if they don't make data their sole focus. In her article, Patel quotes Southwest's senior VP of customer services Teresa Laraba  as saying, "You need to make sure you have people there when the technology isn't doing what you need it to. You will not see us have technology so heavy that you have to search high and low for people." And, in her piece about CMOs needing to focus on data to stay relevant, Zmuda features Forrester Research's Josh Bernoff  talking about the balance between customer knowledge, on the one hand, and engagement and relationships, on the other. Both emphasize the important role technology and data play, but also that such automated and quantitative approaches have their limits.
It's great that an abundance of data is providing more robust ways than ever for companies to understand their customers and other audiences, when that data is used to help the audiences companies intend to serve. But the organizations that will thrive must be equally cognizant of what those numbers can't do and put equal weight behind qualitative means of understanding and connecting with audiences. Our companies must be cyborgs, not merely robots.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications , a Futures of Entertainment Fellow , a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT , and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program . He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera  with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media  with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford .
[Image: Flickr user Andres Nieto Porras ]