Getting right the name

My name is Phil Thane, if you want the whole thing it’s Philip Alan Thane. I’m a freelance writer and editor of a small magazine. In the last few weeks I’ve had emails addressed:

  • Dear Editor, Phil
  • Hi Phil Thane
  • Hi phil@pthane.co.uk
  • Dear philthane (my username on some websites)
  • Hi @pthane (Twitter handle)
  • Hi Thane!

Sometime way back in the last century marketing departments discovered an unholy alliance between databases and wordprocessors and started sending mail-merged letters. For a while we fell for it and really thought someone had written to us. Then we wised-up but for a few years were impressed that we were dealing with a company so advanced that it could do this, with computers.

50 years later marketing departments are still doing it. These days with email, SMS and a host of social media systems, but they are doing it worse.

In the early days of mail-merge companies had their own lists of customers and suppliers built up over years of trading. Some poor soul had to type the lot into Lotus 123 or Excel which was a lot of overtime but if the lists were accurate and you employed a decent touch typist the data would be accurate and in the format the company wanted.

Then we got Big Data and everyone wants more. More raw data, more tags, more categories, subdivisions, links to other data points, more ways of extracting value. The simplest way of accumulating data is to buy it. Or swap it or merge all the data belonging to companies you have acquired. That data was collected over years by different companies for different purposes and stored in different formats. It is difficult to merge nicely and errors creep in. Then it is passed on to another company, merged again, separated when a division is spun-off, re-merged following a takeover and so on. A lot of Big Data is a mess and because it’s such a Big mess no human ever tries to put it right.

The naming thing is just an indicator of how bad it is, but it’s important because if you get someone’s name wrong they realise immediately they are dealing with a company that has poor data and doesn’t care who knows it. Not a good way to win friends and customers.

My own name is fairly unusual but most British people would realise Thane is a surname even if it’s not one they are familiar with because Phil is obviously an abbreviated first name. But of course no humans are involved in data any more and some of the transformations this data has been through may well have been held in the form NAME, First name. My contacts in France do that all the time. At some point in all the data manipulation something hasn’t matched up properly and first and last names of some people have got muddled. You might try to write an automatic data processing routine to sort that out by comparing with lists of first and last names, but in a connected multi-cultural world that’s not going to help much. Even in the Anglosphere Thane can be a first name, especially in the US. In India it’s a city.

Some names would baffle even human native speakers. James Alexander, or JAMES, Alexander? Gender too is a minefield, Mr Robert Lesley or Ms ROBERT, Lesley?

There is a simple solution. Stop using the conventions of an earlier age in modern business practice. No-one is impressed by ‘mail merge’ these days. When it’s right it’s unnoticeable when it’s wrong, as it often is, it’s an irritant. Make your business communication impersonal like flyers or posters, don’t try to emulate the letter form, most of your contacts are too young to remember it anyway.

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