Customer Data


The Most Desirable Customer Data Plays Hardest to Get

As a callow youth, I enlisted in the Navy and found myself at sea aboard the USS Gray as a bosun’s mate. That meant standing a lot of watch on the bridge, and being on the bridge meant knowing how to report positions of other things based on a 360-degree arc.

The idea was to have a 360-degree view of what was out there — primarily so we didn’t run into it. We had radar, and it provided a nice idea of the large items that were around us; all the contacts were written on a Plexiglas board on the bridge, with continual updates coming from the people manning the radar scopes in the combat information center in the bowels of the ship.

We also had a sailor posted as a lookout for things that were not visible on radar, like floating logs or oblivious windsurfers. Running into such things would also ruin your day. Our technology was great, but there were things we needed to see that were invisible to the technology.

Look Around

This is why the idea of CRM providing a “360-degree view of the customer” has always rung hollow for me. Like a ship’s radar, your CRM technology can collect data about the big things about the customer — primarily, your sales and marketing activities and the customers’ responses to them. However, there are other things about your customers you won’t spot unless you have built processes to look for them — small but important things that can determine the outcome of your journey with that customer.

The 360-degree assertion is bogus to start with. We can make broad assumptions about customers based on the past, and we can record interaction details, but we can’t know things about the customer that might directly affect our ability to sell our market to them. A customer’s financial travails, relationship woes or health issues may have a direct effect on their behavior as a customer — and businesses have little visibility into these issues, thank goodness. Those factors make it harder to predict behavior and are difficult to incorporate into how we communicate with customers.

There are other small cues that we often miss, however. Very few companies do a good job of understanding how people use their corporate websites, for instance. If you have a content marketing plan in place, do you know what each visitor has looked at, and have you thought about what pathways customers follow through your content lead to key items of content that suggest a readiness to buy? Probably not — because most companies lack this ability, not because it’s difficult but because the process to look out for it has never been put in place.

Social media provide newfound visibility into the things customers are thinking about, but most companies still lack a process for taking this data and storing it within CRM, or for using this data to flag when customers are ready to buy. This is social CRM in action — a theory much discussed but only occasionally put into effective practice.

Direct Connection

Your front-line employees interact directly with customers — they’re the ones who have face-to-face relationships with them, instead of the abstract “customer relationships” we dwell on so much in CRM. So have you built a process to allow those employees to note significant things about customers when they share them? Are you on the lookout for insights to further strengthen loyalty, improve your product offerings, or remedy service issues, even when those insights come from an off-line source — and have you thought about methods of taking insights gathered off-line and putting them into your CRM application?

It’s ironic that, in a time when we have the ability to collect, organize and analyze more customer information than ever, some of the most useful nuggets of knowledge are simply going to waste because they’re not as easy to collect as other data. That’s a shame — and it’s an indication of how much we rely on technology to solve what is really a human issue.

We’ve come to rely on the easily monitored and recorded activities to feed data into our CRM systems; the companies that succeed in the future will be the ones that anticipate the swing of the pendulum back toward a more complete view of the customer by being more fully aware of what they’re looking for.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

1 Comment

  • I think this is absolutely right. Purchasing and browsing activity, despite how much they reveal, are still only one small part of what makes a customer tick. But we want to believe in their predictive power because that whole notion of the complete, numbers-driven wraparound system is the dream CRMs are made of. After all, anyone with a rudimentary database system (hey, anyone with a pretty good spreadsheet!) can record contact information, purchases, contact history, and so on. Users have to think of a CRM as not a way to make their work just a mechanical process of data entry, but as a way to facilitate–not replace–the kind of real relationship-building that leads to repeat business and general goodwill.

    John-Paul Narowski – founder of karmaCRM

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