It’s a long journey from the first efforts of “customer cleanup” to a full-fledged data governance program. But that’s where many companies start. They gradually accept that there are issues with their customer data such as:


  • A lack of consistently applied standards and controls,
  • Problems arising from conversion of customer data from acquired companies,
  • Lack of ownership of customer data,
  • Invalid addresses leading to undelivered and returned mail or
  • Customer service problems caused by large numbers of duplicate and inaccurate records.

So they form a committee, hire a consulting firm, and involve their internal IT folks. That’s a great start, but it’s important to realize that this is not a once-and-done project.


My experience shows that when companies clean up their customer data to a specific point in time and then stop, within two years, their data is back to its original state or worse. So the one-time customer cleanup project has to morph into an ongoing customer data quality way of life.


A good first step is to restrict the number of people who have the ability to add or change customers. This typically sets off lots of howling from various areas of the business. But if everyone in the company has the ability to add or change a customer, then everyone in the company has the ability to mangle customer data too.


It’s hard to have accountability for customer data quality when it’s everyone’s job and no one’s responsibility. So a small, dedicated group of people who live, eat, breathe, sleep and dream about customer data is necessary. These people, referred to as “data stewards,” are an essential part of a data governance program.


The first step is realizing you have a problem, and the next step is organizing resources and funding to fix it. Plan for a small, dedicated group on an ongoing basis to manage and be responsible for the quality of your customer information. Then, start thinking about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.


If you’re not already using any data quality tools, they can be incredibly helpful. What tends to overwhelm people is the sheer number of customer records with problems. Anything you can do to automate the process of consolidating, cleansing, correcting and completing customer data will act as a force multiplier, allowing your small data stewardship team to be more productive and fix more problems in a given period of time.


Enriching your customer data with an external content provider like D&B or Acxiom can also be a big help. People in your organization would probably find Standard Industrial Classification Codes, number of employees, annual sales revenue and other pieces of data useful. If your customer data has those fields at all though, it’s almost certain that the majority of them are blank.Salespeople and others within the enterprise just don’t have time to look them up for every new customer. A content provider can fill in the missing fields and provide more sophisticated things like corporate hierarchies, financial statements and credit and risk ratings.


Now that you’ve got a small group of people working in an organized, disciplined way, using a data quality tool as well as an external content provider to correct and complete customer records, you’ll be able to deduplicate your customer data, arrange customers into their corporate families, achieve higher yields from marketing campaigns, more accurately target customers for cross-sell and upsell efforts, etc.


Corporate data governance needn’t be an overwhelming or expensive initiative.Your company is probably already doing it in some form or fashion. By stepping back, identifying some existing resources and hiring a few new ones, getting the right tools in place, tracking the metrics of what you’ve accomplished and publishing to the rest of the enterprise the business impact those improvements have had, you’ll find that people’s trust in the customer data will go up, time-consuming manual reconciliations will be reduced, decisions will be made more confidently and costs will go down while revenue will go up.


Data governance is not rocket science – to a large extent, it’s common sense. The second law of thermodynamics is described as the level of disorder or entropy in a system will increase over time, unless you put energy into it.


The same concept applies to our discussion if no one is ultimately responsible for customer data, and there are no defined metrics in place to measure data quality or processes in place to improve it, don’t be surprised when it gradually decays.


If people are starting to talk about a customer cleanup initiative, don’t get discouraged. Even though it’s a long distance from there to a working data governance program, it’s a good sign that they realize there are issues that need to be fixed, and they’re starting to think about how to do that. Encourage people, and find a few of them to become data champions or data quality evangelists. Once they realize that improvements are possible and that executive management will back them if the ROI can be demonstrated, they’ll start down that road. Eventually, with the right tools, processes and people to be part of the data governance team, you’ll see great progress.

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