Ben Salmon, campaign manager at SmartFOCUS reveals the benefits of introducing a single customer view, which can be achieved even without ripping out legacy systems.

They say that a man with a watch knows the time, but a man with two watches is never sure. By extension, many companies can peel back their jackets to reveal thirty watches hanging on the inside, none of which work. They all tick, but they're inconsistent and that inconsistency clouds the truth.

At a time when data is proliferating in most businesses, it can seem that the more information you have, the less you know about what matters. If you want to find out who your most profitable customers are, for example, you might need to add up their spend across all the different products you sell, which could be an integration project that spans thirty IT systems.

That's because companies have traditionally found it easier to bolt on a new client relationship management (CRM) system for each new product or acquisition than to try to upgrade the old one to accommodate it. This has led to islands of data all over the enterprise.

Because businesses have been content to organise data and customers by product, channel or division, customers must call different numbers to ask their bank about credit cards and mortgages, or to grill their telco about broadband and mobile phone offers. While the portfolio of services is marketed under a single brand, the organisation is so fractured that it behaves like a haphazard collection of separate businesses.

In this environment, it's impossible for a company to manage its relationship with customers strategically. Without a full picture of the customer's relationship with the business, customer service agents cannot make informed decisions. Should a customer call to cancel a contract, the company cannot be sure whether it's best to let the customer leave or to try to keep the business.

What if the customer hasn't paid his or her bills, or is unprofitable to serve because of excessive returns? Is it sensible to offer incentives to avoid losing a customer, if it's one that’s costing the business more money than it's making? Alternatively, a bill rebate might be a small investment to make to keep a dissatisfied but valuable customer. If a businessman has a problem with his personal phone, he might well take the firm’s account with him when he defects.

Ripping and replacing the legacy IT architecture is neither viable nor desirable for most businesses, but there are solutions that can create a single customer view by bringing together data from the existing systems in one place. That includes systems dedicated to different products, as well as different processes in the customer life cycle such as billing and marketing.

The more established a company is, the more data stores it is likely to have, and the more difficult it will be to achieve a single view. To succeed, it is essential that there is buy-in across the business for both the project and the concept of a single customer view.

As the business grows, it is inevitable that new systems will be introduced. If they are integrated with the single customer view, that doesn't present a problem. The whole concept is undermined, though, if new systems are created to store customer data without being linked to the single customer view.

Every time data is imported into the single customer view, it needs to be cleaned. Rules must be written that define how inconsistencies in the data will be ironed out. It's possible for different systems to have conflicting versions of the same name (such as Ben and Benjamin), in which case the single customer view must give one source of data priority.

That source need not be static: the system could accept the latest updated field as gospel, or the latest product bought, or even an online service because the customer entered his own name there and it is therefore more likely to be accurate.
Data must also be de-duplicated to ensure that there is only one record per person. If multiple records persist, the system will not have a complete view of the customer.

Automatic validation can improve accuracy by ensuring that postcodes and addresses match, for example, and that the customer's contact permissions are screened against the latest mailing preference service and telephone preference service lists. The accuracy of data sources within the business could even be used to decide which is more likely to be accurate when conflicts occur in fields that can’t be validated, such as name.

Having a single customer view delivers benefits across the three key challenges marketers face: productivity, customer understanding and financial attribution.

Two people can do 15 campaigns a week, instead of just three, because data is available in one place and can be easily analysed. Because customer segments can be quickly and accurately identified, the time to market for new products is cut. Marketers can concentrate on contacting the right people, which will eliminate wastage and build rapport with the customer base.

Campaign feedback should be integrated, so that continuous improvement can be measured. It's even possible to spot the true communication preferences of customers from how they respond to the business, which could be different to the preferences they have indicated. That makes it possible to switch communications to the channel that offers the lowest cost to serve and/or highest response rate.

Greater customer understanding underpins strategic decisions across the business. By profiling customers and prospects, and identifying the traits of customers that bring greatest value to the business, marketers can target new, high value customers.

Having a full view of every customer's relationship with the business, and the ability to understand the customer life cycle, makes it easier to spot and retain lapsed customers quickly, and to build deeper and more loyal business relationships.

Marketers face increasing pressure to demonstrate a return on investment from their activities. A single customer view makes it possible to track sales across all channels, which could originate from campaigns in different channels. Marketers can identify which campaigns had an impact on which customers and customer segments, so that future campaigns can be refined.

One organisation that has transformed its business with a single customer view is Cheshire Building Society. Four source systems now feed the marketing database nightly: the core banking back office platform, the call centre database, and the MAPs and iMAPs mortgage and investment application processing systems.

'We have a very detailed record of all transactions, all date and time-stamped,' says Howard Ormesher, customer knowledge manager, Cheshire Building Society. 'I'd be very surprised if any other building society could get this level of detail daily.'

In total, over 500,000 customer records and 21 million of the building society's 'most interesting' transactions are transferred to their highly-indexed CRM database, which is rebuilt from scratch at 4am each morning. A permanent file of campaign histories is remerged with the new data each time to provide the continuity required.

All other historical data is re-imported each night from the source system and all derived variables such as lifetime value, any bandings and even age are recalculated on each update using the latest data. All this takes about 80 minutes. 'If we have new demographic data that we want to load, we can easily link it in at postcode or individual level,' says Ormesher.

Daily updating is tailor-made for triggered marketing and also means that conventional targeting can be based on customers’ most recent transactions. The marketing system supports campaigns including offering mortgage, buildings and contents insurance to mortgage holders; offering personal loans to relevant customers based on age, Cameo group and product holdings; and sending ISA top-up mailings.

One of the key variables for insurance is the renewal date, lists of which are available externally. 'We need to know the customer's insurance renewal date and their mortgage renewal,' says Ormesher. 'It's now very easy to append data.'

Pitching uses the existing operational CRM capability to prompt branch agents. It links to a script using intelligence gleaned from the customer database. Depending on the customer, staff might best use a visit to the branch to suggest a meeting with a sales consultant or simply ask the customer to provide an email address as part of the data gathering process. Some of those targeted in mailings will also have the same products pitched to them by staff if they visit their local branch.

More and more companies are realising the benefit of connecting their customer intelligence, and it is becoming a competitive differentiator. Isolated customer data is a missed opportunity: those businesses that can't create a single view of the customer that unites all the data they hold, will lose out to rivals who do.