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What are the three biggest obstacles to a single customer view?

10th Jun 2014
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Apart from portraying a dystopian depleted future earth, the movie Wall-E sheds light on several possibilities that the future may one day hold. The movie brought forth the concept of a company which was producing and catering to all its customer’s products of use. From alarm clocks in the morning, to entertainment on television and gaming consoles, this company had conquered the complete want of its customers. It had achieved a business pinnacle by completely understanding the various products a customer used, and subsequently, produced all of these products. Such portrayal of future times gives rise to a relevant question: ‘Can one company indeed produce all the products used by an individual or group of individuals?’

Industries in the present day are building on the principle of convergence in order to greatly extend their range of offerings and better their understanding of a customer. With time and its exponential increase in data however, larger and larger masses are adopting social media platforms and have taken to posting even the minutest details of themselves online. Utilising and analysing this abundance of structured and unstructured data, which is of high velocity, variety and volume, is being enabled by big data analytics. This is leading data analytics firms and observers to believe that a holistic and completely integrated customer view is indeed possible. Whilst most businesses would agree that a 360-degree view of a customer plays a significant role in marketing and customer analytics, organisations have not been able to surmount the three specific challenges in obtaining this holistic customer view.

1. Organisational structure

Conglomerates of today are typically very large in scale. Their organisational setup is based on the different products manufactured, which are all treated as functions independent of each other. Product based structures enable organisations to cut down on ‘time-to-market’ as well as the implications of failure of one product over the other. However, departmentalisation of a company into product specific divisions makes collaboration significantly harder. The individual customer information that is collated and stored by each department pertains only to their own usage, which effectively means that multiple impediments would arise from trying to integrate these databases. Without clear cut ownership of information, sponsorship, and subsequent maintenance of these databases- amongst a few of the problems- it would become next to impossible for large, multi-faceted companies to integrate databases. 

2. Government restrictions

To begin with, identification of individuals in the online space becomes a steep ask owing to the use of aliases, nicknames, abbreviations, etc. Secondly, owing to stringent government regulations in the US, Europe and many parts of Asia, companies are often hampered in their access to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) posted by people online. When consumers ask product relevant questions in the online space, such as ’which product to purchase?’, companies unless tagged will not come across this information. This leads to the construction of incomplete and ineffective customer profiles. 

3. Data sharing across organisations

Well defined customer profiles require a holistic view of the customer drawn from multiple directions. The customer’s choices, mode of transport, services purchased, food preferences, etc. are all paramount in building a 360-degree view of the customer. In order to optimize the information of a customer it becomes tantamount to facilitate data sharing across wide-ranging verticals.  However reinforced by the fact that sharing PII is illegal, companies remain averse to sharing sensitive information with other companies. Apprehension and mistrust serve to further amplify present hurdles in data sharing, leaving companies with the initial one-dimensional purview of their customers.

Although the 360-degree customer viewpoint appears enticing for companies, as it enables them to harness insightful customer analytics, several impediments prevent this possibility from becoming a reality. Whilst integrated databases will overcome the gaps left in organisational structure, it is paramount for organisations to also facilitate better cross-organisational sharing of data and information. The government regulations and PII which further provide obstacles in a 360-degree customer view can only be overcome through a sufficient bridge between customer privacy and information collection by organisations. The manner in which governments devise their policy and facilitate the availability of customer data will shape up the how well companies will know their customers. The last but vital step remains in the companies across industries working in conjunction with each other. 

While currently government regulations pose strict caps on broad data monetisation, it is necessary for organisations to be able to harness data from industries across the spectrum, and hence integral for efficient and feasible data monetization practices to take place. In its current state, converting this utopian possibility into an eventuality proves to be both elusive and complicated. It will require significant time before the ideal of tomorrow can become the “real” of today.

David Zakkam is an associate director at Mu Sigma.

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