Does your front-line staff have access to the information that will help them deepen and sustain relationships with the most valuable customers? Do they have the information to identify those customers who are merely bargain shoppers and not likely to ever be profitable? Can they tell that the customer they are talking with has already turned down an offer for X but has expressed interest in Y during a prior interaction?

These questions really beg the following: Where is your customer data, and where should your customer data be? If you take a broad look across your organization, you will likely find pools of customer information scattered across a variety of departments and corporate hierarchies and embedded within a variety of systems ranging from OLTP to archives to OLAP applications. You will also find that this data varies in coverage, accuracy, precision and relevance.

Even with sophisticated, centralized, customer information systems and data warehouses, most firms do not have the optimal distribution of data across the organization. While important customer information might be captured and stored in one or more systems, customer information is often not effectively deployed to the various points of contact.

A customer information management plan enables you to optimize the value of your customer data assets and addresses:

Where and how to efficiently collect customer data. There are typically a wide variety of data collection options and current practices, varying greatly in efficiency and effectiveness.

How to transform data into meaningful, actionable information. This data may need to be consolidated to an account or household basis, monthly transaction summaries or linked to regional sales territories.

How to readily distribute customer information throughout your organization. This could range from a P.O.S. application to information in sales/service centers to a decision support system.

Developing a customer information management plan also represents a big opportunity to realize cost efficiencies and increase effectiveness in managing customer relationships. Shared data hygiene, consolidation, maintenance, reporting or access tools across systems could provide significant cost reductions and/or efficiencies.

Developing and implementing this plan, however, can prove to be very challenging. You'll likely face some of the following obstacles:

Departmental/divisional boundaries. Various groups within your organization may have differing opinions on data ownership and customer data value. These groups might also have different business goals that may support customer data collection and maintenance efforts or may defeat these efforts.

Deeply entrenched systems and processes that may be difficult to change. These might relate to existing technologies or existing business processes and practices.

Time and money. This type of an enterprise-wide initiative could be unsustainably large.

We recommend the following approach to developing a manageable, agreeable plan:

  1. Define where customer data is currently needed or could be utilized across your organization and why. You might be surprised in the number and variety of data needs; therefore, it's important to differentiate "must have" from "nice to have" and prioritize.
  2. Conduct a customer information audit, which defines where data is currently gathered and how; the quantity and quality of this data; where data is maintained and how frequently it is updated; and how this data is maintained and by whom. This documentation is crucial, as it ensures that all existing data resources are identified.
  3. Based on findings in Steps 1 and 2, develop a specification document that details data, process, functionality and architecture requirements. At this stage, avoid identifying specific solutions; rather, focus on detailed business processes and support elements.
  4. Conduct a gap analysis, identifying discontinuity between what you have and what you need.
  5. Define a solution that reflects your current situation and your prioritized requirements. This solution should also take into account "softer" organizational and situational issues, such as the interest levels and capabilities of various departments that could benefit from customer information.

Potential solutions could include:

  • Design and development of customer data collection and distribution processes and/or mechanisms.
  • Creation of data collection standards.
  • Development or improvement of data processing capabilities.
  • Creation of conceptual model for an enterprise-wide customer information system.
  • Implementation of a customer-centric data warehouse.
  • Realignment of internal data sharing practices.
  • Development of tools providing your organization with common access to customer data.
  • Alignment of customer information needs with internal data warehouse plans.

Developing the plan, while only the beginning, will ensure that any subsequent implementation efforts are in harmony with this broader strategy.

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