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January 14, 2011

Single customer view: dream or reality?

The single customer view has long been the Holy Grail for businesses, but for many it is no more than a dream. Steve Evans looks at why getting a 360-degree view is still proving such a challenge, and what companies are doing to overcome it

By Steve Evans

"I’ve been in this business a long time," says Colin Rickard, EMEA MD of leading provider of data management services firm, DataFlux, "and the idea of a single customer view (SCV) has always been there. Why is it so hard to achieve? While systems and data continue to proliferate it’s like trying to hit a moving target. The common challenge with multiple systems is pulling information from them, deciding what the single customer looks like and then making the right data available, usually in real-time."

Colin Rickard of DataFlux
Colin Rickard of DataFlux

The benefits are clear – a full view of the customer is needed to keep them happy and spending money, to cross sell, to gain new customers and to improve inter-departmental knowledge of a customer. An SCV can help you track a customer from initial enquiry to purchase, from complaint logging to resolution. Client bugbears about customer service often revolve around repeating oneself when on the phone and being passed from department to department, with each phone call or conversation being treated as a completely separate entity. SCV is supposed to eliminate these issues. So why is it still just a dream for many organisations?

"It’s been difficult to achieve because the history of customer relationship management (CRM) was borne around the idea of making a team more productive, but over the last five years or so people have realised it’s more about the customer journey," says David Beard, CRM expert at business software and services provider Sage UK. "The technology keeps getting better, faster, cheaper, but it’s a culture issue. It’s about how the company makes it work with the processes in place."

CRM isn’t working
Is it so important to have an SCV in place? Well, yes, according to Gartner analyst Michael Maoz, who claims that CRM isn’t working. "Over the past ten years the level of customer satisfaction has edged up only slightly – for most industries in the vicinity of 3-5%," he wrote on Gartner’s blog network. "Considering that over $75bn was spent on CRM-related business applications in that time period, and triple that sum on process improvement, and hundreds of books written, you might expect better."

Sage’s own research would suggest so, too. A recent survey of 1,500 UK SMBs revealed that nearly one-in-five (18%) believe they have missed out on potential sales due to having poor CRM procedures in place. While the majority of small businesses (72%) questioned believe they have a successful CRM platform in place, 19% still rely on writing customers’ contact details manually in a notebook while 20% lack basic CRM processes for tracking sales leads and recording customer data.

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"But we’re getting closer [to an SCV], because the customer is making more information about themselves available in a public way on the internet," adds Larry Augustin, CEO of open-source firm SugarCRM, whose clients include Avis, AXA and Coca-Cola Enterprise. "Companies still have to be able to grab that in, but, for example, if your client posts something on Twitter you can go into your CRM system and see their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn page. It’s the job of CRM to organise that data and provide the 360-degree view."

Beyond reach?
Surely the likes of Twitter and Facebook have made the idea of an SCV farther away than ever? More information is being created, but in a variety of different sources, often by people not using a uniform identification. A nickname here, different email address there, and suddenly it is very difficult to match the information to the client.

"Wherever you go they’ll always be another piece of information that we haven’t figured out how to get. There is an awful lot we have got today – information is much easier to get to – but there will always be something," Augustin adds. But that’s not to say CRM vendors aren’t reacting, and most now offer integration with social network sites. RightNow Technologies, for example, is pushing its Social CRM idea. It acquired social media firm HiveLive in a deal worth around $6m in 2009 and has also added Facebook integration to its CX platform.

"Social is a global reach working at the speed of light," says John Kembel, VP Social Solutions at RightNow, before touching on one of the main issues with CRM and the single customer view: "It’s one thing to find the noise out there about you, it’s another thing altogether to find the message."

"It’s down to the intelligence of the user at the keyboard," adds Sage’s Beard. "You can’t guarantee it’s the right person or information, which is why human intervention will always be needed. The market moves too fast and there are too many new channels for that."

Finding the message
These myriad new channels are generating a huge amount of data for companies to wade through on route to the shoreline of the SCV. ‘Finding the message’ is perhaps the most difficult part of the fabled 360-degree view, and one that is often forgotten by businesses intent on grabbing as much information as possible. "Getting the right information to the right person at the right time is the key, and the challenge," as Xabier Ormazabal, senior product marketing manager at CRM and cloud computing experts, puts it.

A lack of focus on the quality of the data that companies use often leads to ineffectual CRM systems, which will in turn lead to poor customer service and… well, you get the idea. "The challenge with multiple systems is creating a single coherent set of data. You can’t just put them together in a single database; you’ll end up with an apples and oranges situation," says DataFlux’s Rickard. The amount of consolidation over the past few years in the form of mergers and acquisitions means there are more systems and more data to integrate.

"You need to agree on a single standard," Rickard offers. "So, for example, gender can only be seen as one of two options and all data has to conform to that standard, rather than one of three options, as I have seen in some cases. Then you have to know if the data is right. If, for example, a person is listed as retired and 21 years old, that suggests something’s not quite right. That’s where the tech comes in."

More specifically, this is where Master Data Management (MDM – see ‘Using Master Data Management’, below) comes in. It’s the creation of a single view of corporate data from a variety of sources, which is then pushed out to applications and the people using them. The aim is that this creates a uniform view of information across the organisation. It’s cleansed and de-duplicated before being added to the master data repository, and integrated with all major ERP and CRM platforms, meaning your company is only ever using the most relevant and up-to-date information available.

Rickard says that the ultimate goal is to make the customer’s experience a better one, primarily by making the agent dealing with the issue sound more knowledgeable. Gartner’s Maoz picks up on this theme: "Business after business is taking their eye off the basics of the customer experience, such as excellent field service, knowledgeable customer service representatives, location-aware services and consistent policies. Instead, they continue to run after the hot, new trend, which today is social networking, analysis and monitoring.

"By all means: go deep on Social CRM – create those links amongst your customers, and build better ways to listen. And then integrate those processes with your ongoing efforts, not only in marketing but in customer service as well. [Agents are] put under constantly shifting circumstances regarding customers. They often need to respond dynamically, and that requires that knowledge be at their fingertips, and decision support tools, and the power to act."


Using Master Data Management

  • Identify the value-drivers that can be improved as a result of customer insight.
  • List the business processes that will be positively impacted by the 360-degree view.
  • Evaluate the types of analysis, techniques and information requirements that are necessary to support these business process improvements.
  • Understand the master modelling issues related to the unified, hierarchical view of those entities that take on the role of the ‘customer’.
  • Differentiate between identifying data elements and those used for characterisation for business purposes.

Taking these steps will help prove a reasonable business justification for the 360-degree view, and lay the groundwork for measuring the benefits of exploiting actionable customer knowledge across the organisation, according to DataFlux

CRM facts and figures

  • 72% of UK SMBs believe they have a successful CRM platform in place.
  • 19% of them still rely on writing customers’ contact details manually in a notebook.
  • 20% lack basic CRM processes for tracking sales leads and recording customer data.
  • 31% of SMBs use dedicated CRM software.
  • $10.9bn – Forrester’s prediction for the CRM market for software and services in 2010.
  • 3-5% – the increase in customer satisfaction over the past ten years.
  • $75bn – the amount spent on CRM during that time, according to Gartner.
  • 84% of consumers say they are willing to pay over the standard price for goods or services to ensure a superior customer experience, according to RightNow Technologies.


In the first quarter of last year CBR surveyed just over 300 senior IT decision-makers at organisations of all sizes and verticals, in association with DataFlux, to better understand the challenges they are facing with regards to data quality and governance. You can read the results of the survey here.

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