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Plain English about Information Quality

  • April 01 2007, 1:00am EDT

Larry would like to thank Piyush Malik, information integrity competency leader and global delivery leader for Business Intelligence Solutions with IBM Global Business Services, for his contribution to this month's column.

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. - Gandhi

Most organizations would agree with Gandhi's quote and strive to attract, retain and earn loyalty; however, they may feel challenged in managing their customers effectively. Despite heavy investments in customer relationship management (CRM) suites, few companies can claim to know their customers fully; the goal of a 360-degree view of the customer has remained elusive. Many talk about data being a strategic asset, but the truth is, in the absence of quality, this asset becomes a liability, and all customer strategies falter or fail.

The 2006 online-shopping numbers scaled new heights, increasing the importance of online customers.1 Virtual customer interactions via Web, chat, email, phone, fax and interactive voice response systems are becoming increasingly mainstream due to cost-effectiveness and convenience. A great leveler for startups and smaller companies, online shopping threatens traditional brick-and-mortar businesses unless they adapt.

Challenges in understanding and formulating strategies for today's customers and prospects get accentuated when information quality is poor. Data issues in customer identity, preferences, privacy or sales history can make or break the company's future. Let's take a look at the business scenarios from an information quality perspective.

Customer Identity

Each customer is unique and must be treated as such, irrespective of his virtual or walk-in interactions with the product or service. Often, the rush to grow rapidly causes companies to lose touch with their customers.

How would you feel when despite being a subscriber to a phone company's long distance service for many years, you get a piece of junk mail to enroll? Or, for that matter, when your cable company runs a promotion for its new digital service, it sends three identical letters to your home address - one addressed to your wife; a second one to you with misspelled name and a third one addressed to "Our Neighbor," what's your reaction?

This demonstrates the company's inability to understand the distinction between a prospect, customer and the classification of a household. No wonder an estimated $611 billion a year is squandered on misdirected mail in the U.S. alone.2 The value of high quality customer data is clear.


Retailers' loyalty cards as well as many shopping Web sites want you to register with email addresses and phone numbers as a prerequisite before offering the most exclusive deals. While doing so, they ask a few optional questions regarding your demographics and preferences.

You sign up. The company goes through a system upgrade. Soon, you start getting a deluge of emails from them with offers of products not of interest to you. Your email address has been shared for marketing purposes, ignoring your preferences. Adding insult to injury, your lodged complaint is countered with a request to reregister preferences as the information you previously provided has been "lost." You vow never to shop with them again! In this case, data completeness and accuracy was not ensured during the system upgrade/migration. This caused loss of goodwill and potential profits.


Every online visitor's click can be watched and recorded, thanks to spyware and cookies. The Web log data is a goldmine to enhance merchant's ability to know and treat its customers well. Customers are wary of shopping at places with known lapses, such as phishing and identity theft. Adequate data security and privacy protection measures must be enforced to safeguard customers' credit card and personal data.

Misleading Sales Practices

Many instances of poor data quality are considered misleading sales practices by customers.3

  • Inadequate stock. Heavy advertising coupled with inaccurate stock data can cause huge supply chain backlogs and scores of dissatisfied customers
  • Pricing. Incorrect prices in online merchant databases such as often occur.4 If the price entered is ridiculously lower than the cost of goods, financial losses occur. It also results in loss of corporate prestige if such orders booked are not fulfilled. Overpricing errors cost lost opportunity in lack of sales.
  • Mislabeled item. Small mistakes can lead to big losses. A staffer of Webvan, an online grocer, entered the wrong SKU (stock keeping unit) data into the inventory control system. Despite the perishable item being in stock, the SKU did not match the one in Webvan's IT system. It remained on the company shelves unsold and finally rotted. The customers were left high and dry, but Webvan suffered the worst-case consequences - it eventually went bust!

The importance of ensuring information quality at the source and preventative quality measures cannot be overstated. Companies no longer can rely on face-to-face interaction of its associates with their customers to know them better. Thus the mantra for success in today's world is to remember the customer, their preferences, shopping patterns and buying records across multiple touchpoints and ensure security of personal information. This reinforces the idea that good practices for governance of data coupled with sound information quality principles will lead to effective and profitable customer relationships.
What do you think? Let us hear at


  1. "comScore Networks Reports Total Non-Travel E-Commerce Spending Reaches $102 Billion in 2006." comScore Press Release, 3 January 2007.
  2. Wayne Eckerson. "Data Quality and The Bottom Line." TDWI Reports Series, Chatsworth: TDWI, 101 Communications, 2002.
  3. Piyush Malik. " Information Integrity for CRM in a Virtual World."Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities and Technologies . Hershey, PA: Idea Group, 2006.
  4. Troy Wolverton. " Amazon customers turn to FTC after pricing glitch." CNET, 8 August 2000.

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