A 360-degree view of customers requires better data analytics

Companies want to use better data analytics to get a more comprehensive understanding of their customers. But today's reality suggests that is in the distant future.

These days, IT executives are chasing a mythical Shangri-La in which sales charts go endlessly up and to the right because companies have secured the coveted "360-degree view" of their competitors and clients. But many organizations lack the data management best practices and analytics know-how to achieve this holy grail of a 360-degree view.

The reality of the 360-degree view has not yet been delivered.

"The reality has not yet been delivered," said Chris Litster, senior vice president for marketing at Constant Contact in Waltham, Mass. He discussed the state of marketing automation and said that many organizations still lack the data governance and management to handle such volumes of reporting, analytics and insight that obtaining a 360-degree view requires.

It's even more challenging to find the needed mix of top corporate support -- patient executives who build the team that uses the right technology, which is fueled by the accurate and complete data. Even if all those stars align, the results have to justify the time and expense. All the while, trends and tools are changing faster than most companies can respond.

Since joining Constant Contact in 2006, he said, the company used – and has since outgrown -- a homegrown customer relationship management system. Then it attempted to build its own technologies before settling on a combination of Adobe, Cognos, Netezza and IBM, with sales using Salesforce.com. Describing his experience at a March chief digital officer roundtable, Litster said the shortcomings of database software and recent additions of cloud-based targeting, messaging and personalization suites, keep pushing the 360-degree view further away, as free apps and new single-use tools get attention.

"We're not at 360 degrees; we're probably at 180 -- but that's still better than it was," he said.

Every data report generates more questions, queries and requests -- making the pursuit of 360-degree intelligence a never-ending quest. And plenty of companies don't want to discuss their pursuit, considering it a strategic asset or a risk of showing how their internal operations compare with a competitor's.

Tools are changing faster than most companies can respond.

Whittling down the data

Many companies have a wish list of initiatives, but then face the challenge of sifting through media, social sentiment, analyst reports, community and employee comments. All that raw material can be tough to digest and make part of daily operations, said Rachel Happe McEnroe, co-founder of Community Roundtable. Engaging with advanced users or a high-margin segment, however, can provide data that helps various parts of the organization, from pre-sale to service. Some tools are more like meetings and events, not apps.

"The playing field levels really, really quickly," added Mark Lorion, chief marketing officer at Apperian Inc. in Boston, which makes enterprise-level mobile applications. "The technology doesn't matter as much as you might think."

No-tech options for reaching out to customers and engaging them in new ways provides a huge edge, he said. Lorion described inviting top clients to speak at a staff meeting or discussing their needs on a conference call. Opening your company's network of suppliers or experts to help customers solve problems is another way of building trust, gaining new knowledge and fostering a bigger-picture view.

A company could use 40 or 50 different products to drive sales and marketing alone, estimated Gerry Murray, an analyst at IDC Corp. The myriad applications in use reinforces the ever-shifting ground of this marketplace as well. Companies often lack a corporate plan for coordinating data from cloud-based or free personal software. And the much-touted "single view of the customer" depends on whose view is paramount, along with variables such as timing, profitability and predictive patterns.

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Finding the right information at the right time is tough in a static environment, Murray said, but added that the volatility of workplace turnover and competing new and free applications that may not complement existing IT platforms creates a recipe for less insight -- not more.

"Data projects and the IT projects that make them up are about planning ahead, anticipating and heading off emotional reactions not based on fact, and setting expectations. You will not get it 100% right all the time; but, it will be better," advised Howard Perlstein, a change management consultant who has led projects for PriceWaterhouseCoopers and several departments at Harvard University.

Too many companies see these situations as top-down IT projects rather than the complex set of human training, line-of-business expertise, and opportunities for learning from end users with specialized needs or tools, he said.

This was first published in April 2014

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