The last decade has brought about an explosion of digital touchpoints with your customers. Even beyond core digital products like websites and mobile apps, a company’s customer support, sales, and marketing all happen online now. This has, in turn, generated an explosion of customer data that’s strewn across a variety of third-party services, from help desks and CRMs to digital surveys, error reports, and payment processes.
To bring some clarity to this mess, the concept of a “single view of the customer” (or a 360-degree view of the customer) has emerged. The idea is to somehow condense this data into a single view where you can see everything that has happened to a customer and gain a sense of omniscience about the customer experience.
It’s a powerful idea, but the reality is that this “single view” is impossible to achieve. In fact, it’s not even desirable. Every team in your company is seeking different information for different reasons.
- Marketing teams want a view that reflects campaign performance and shows how other aspects of the customer experience impact those campaigns.
- Sales and support teams want a complete historical profile of the customers they’re currently interacting with.
- Product and design teams want to watch recordings of customers interacting with their mobile apps or websites with a contextual understanding of the rest of their experience.
- Executive teams want to combine data sets from broadly disparate parts of the business to understand how customers and the business are impacted at a systemic level.
Trying to build a single view for an entire organization is disastrous because every team views customer data from a different angle. In trying to be everything to everyone, the single view ends up being useful to no one.
The New View and Its Accompanying Headaches
The current trend in the market is the complete opposite of a single view. The past few years have brought a massive proliferation of tools, each designed to solve a specific problem with a unique view of the data. In other words, the market is trending toward many views!
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You can see it both in the popularity of marketing suites at companies like Oracle and Salesforce and in the rise of hyperspecialized startups — for example, machine learning for fraud detection on websites or automatic discovery of the “aha moment” for mobile apps. In this multiple-view world, the typical business has two options.
Option A is to buy a fully integrated suite from a single vendor. There are a handful of companies that claim to offer an integrated solution of analytics, marketing automation, and advertising on top of a single central data store. In reality, these suites are loosely affiliated collections of products that are assembled through acquisitions. They don’t share a common data set, and they’re integrated only in the sense that they have a single login and billing system. The companies that sell these suites are simply using their superior sales distribution with existing customers to cross-sell additional products that they’ve acquired.
Option B is to integrate a bunch of specific — yet separate — tools into every single one of your data sources. Each tool is amazing at what it does, but the integration challenge here is borderline insanity. Most companies use somewhere between 10 and 20 different tools that are powered by customer data. For example, a single business may use marketing automation for email or SMS, several ad networks, a CRM, a help desk, a customer success tool, an analytics tool, a visitor recording tool, and a marketing campaign attribution tool, among others.
Integrating all these different tools with a different set of customer touchpoints means hundreds of integration problems for an engineering team to solve through custom code.
Neither alternative is great, but thankfully, there’s a third option.
The Single Repository With Many Views
The best way to make customer data accessible and useful to all departments — and the way that high-flying tech companies like Facebook, Dropbox, and Uber do it — is to create a single repository for all customer data with many views built on top.
The repository should hold everything about a customer’s experience, from support and sales team interactions to marketing campaigns and product usage behavior. But each team needs a view of that data that’s tuned to its workflow to make smart decisions and deliver a great customer experience. It’s expensive to build it yourself, but the benefits are massive.
There are four noteworthy benefits to having a single repository with many views.
1. You can break away from buying huge, one-size-fits-all marketing suites.
Once you have a single customer data hub as your central repository, you can choose best-in-class tools to connect to that repository — the best ad network, the best email marketing tool, the best SMS and push marketing tool, the best attribution tool, and the best campaign analysis tool. Every single one of your tools can go from frustrating or OK to the best in its class.
2. You can move among tools as business needs change.
A central repository of data gives you flexibility and freedom. It enables you to experiment as you determine which tools your business needs, which vendors actually deliver what they promise, and which vendors provide great support and help. You can try out dozens of analytics tools and narrow your list to the few that best fit your needs in different departments. Because each tool will already be connected to the central repository, your engineers won’t have to refashion those tools every time you decide to make a change.
3. Access to data becomes democratized and nonpolitical.
If you don’t have a central repository of data, people have to gain access to data by begging and pleading with the software engineering team. This creates a hugely political atmosphere of favors, and the ability to “get shit done” becomes correlated with the ability to politic. Well-defined processes and straightforward access to a central repository eliminate the need for favors and horse trading among departments, helping everyone in your company get work done.
4. You can connect disparate parts of the customer experience for analysis.
It’s frustrating (but common) to be answering a business question through analysis and get stuck without the right data at your fingertips. If you were analyzing the effectiveness of a marketing campaign, you might see that the signup numbers look great.
But do you know whether customers actually end up paying at the same conversion rate as other marketing channels? Maybe your churn went up this month. Could it be that the customers in one channel are good at signing up but churn quickly? Unless you have a single repository with a full set of customer data, analysis of real business problems often ends in frustration and unanswered questions.
The more your customers engage with your company, the more data you’ll have to work with. Don’t let that information go to waste by splintering it across a large number of third-party tools or, worse, causing problems within your organization. Put all your customer data into one central repository, providing easy access and many views for your teams. Everyone will be able to work together to provide the best possible experience for your customers.
Peter Reinhardt is CEO and co-founder of Segment, a customer data hub that helps businesses collect and manage data. Peter studied aerospace engineering at MIT and loves to constantly learn new things.