Gone are the days when a retailer has to bribe customers to give up personal information. They fill out a survey; the store hands out a T-shirt or a keychain.
Today, it's even easier.
Organizations that offer mobile applications as a contact channel can program those apps to provide information about customers, including name, phone number, where they are at any given momentand contacts. Another way to acquire customer data is to give call center representatives an incentive to obtain as much data about the customer on the line as possible -- whether that means offering a cash bonus or a free lunch.
So customer information is more available than ever. But what can companies do with it?
Ensuring access for the right people
For starters, customer information can be used as fuel for marketing initiatives that, for example, target customers who live in a particular area or have a common product preference. It can also be used to help organizations learn more about its audience so it can better shape future product or service development.
Customer information is used throughout an organization. Finance and accounts receivable might use this information to avoid billing mistakes -- such as charging another person with the same name, for example -- and sales can use the data to better target customers.
Today, sales and contact center reps are expected to know all about the customer and his or her relationship with the company before any sale or service call even begins -- and that knowledge begins with customer data, whether it is obtained from social networks or other sources.
"That info drives the relevance of whatever dialogue you can have with a potential client," said Nicolas de Kouchkovsky, analyst and operator of CaCube Consulting. "It's becoming crucial."
Social media changing the landscape
Multichannel companies -- which rely on multiple customer communication channels -- have long had access to transactional and account data. But now the information is available on social media, which, according to Frank Eliason, director of global social media at Citi, has the potential to change the way customer information is handled and business is conducted.
It's still up for debate whether information that is found online, via a social network or otherwise, can be used for business purposes. At least one company, Lenddo, a financial services startup from the Philippines, grants loans based on who applicants are affiliated with on social media; their only other criteria is the applicant have a bank account and is employed. Lenddo uses social data to ensure customers are who they claim to be and analyzes connections to see how strong they are, according to Lenddo's website.
For more on customer data acquisition
Integrating customer data for a social media strategy
Why putting customer data privacy first is a winning strategy
The 2013 release of Microsoft Dynamics CRM is designed to look at social media connections, said Bill Patterson, senior director of strategy and planning for Microsoft's flagship CRM software. It automatically pulls information from more than 30,000 online sources, including social networks and news outlets. Sales teams will get the biggest benefit from the technology, Patterson said. For example, if a sales rep discovers he already knows someone at a company he had been planning to pitch to, that a connection might help him get his foot in the door. Being aware a company has been in the news lately can be helpful as well.
By using technologies like Microsoft Dynamics, people are definitely listening in to what you post online, said Kim Proctor, consultant at Customers That Click, a customer experience and social media consultancy in Los Angeles. "A lot of salespeople are using social media for info about prospects and current customers," she said, adding that a little conversational grease can help a rep close a deal. "Is the prospect talking about their kids on their Facebook? Next time you see them, be sure to ask about their kids."
But not everyone thinks it's fair or acceptable to use information gleaned through social media to make business decisions.
"If I have a chance of not getting a loan because I'm friends with someone -- I have an issue with that," Eliason said. "If I don't get a loan because I didn't pay a bill, that makes sense. But who I'm friends with [should not matter]."