Data Quality – the Herculean task at BT

Interview with Nigel Turner, Head of ICT Customer Management, BT

In very large companies which number their customers in millions, the promised-land of the 360 degree view of the customer must seem very distant indeed. In this article, we take a look at what BT has been doing over the last few years to get a fix on good quality customer information. They certainly deserve 10 out of 10 for effort, but is the promised-land within its grasp or tantalisingly out of reach?

The Herculean task which faced BT

Frankly I’m not terribly impressed with Hercules. All he had to do was:

  1. Slay the Nemean Lion
  2. Slay the Lernaean Hydra
  3. Capture the Ceryneian Hind
  4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar
  5. Clean the Augean stables in a single day – ok I’ve some sympathy for him here
  6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds
  7. Capture the Cretan Bull
  8. Steal the mares of Diomedes
  9. Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte – this could have been fun
  10. Obtain the Cows of Geryon
  11. Steal the Apples of the Hesperides – not much ambition there then
  12. Capture Cerberus the guardian dog of Hades

Luxury! As we say up North and to plagiarise Monty Python. What BT has gone through is far less glamorous.

Not sexy but essential...

I have a new found respect for those in charge of ICT having listened to Nigel Turner’s, Head of ICT Customer Management at BT, story of the drive to improve data quality at BT over the last 6 years.

Where do you start when you have some 26 million customers and a smattering of some 4000 different and disconnected legacy systems across multiple business divisions from Wholesale to Retail? Oh and information from emails and other sources is piling up at a compound rate of 40% a year.

This is the sort of challenge President Kennedy spoke about when contemplating a manned mission to the moon: "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained." He also spoke about the huge effort of will that would be necessary if they were to succeed, along the lines of the ‘no pain no gain’ school of thinking.

In CRM terms there is lots of talk about the single view of the customer. The gargantuan task is not sexy and many in the business community might have a tendency to turn their backs on it and say – "that’s data, therefore it is IT’s problem. As Eddie Short VP of Customer Intelligence at Capgemini said, "this leads to a little ‘i’ and a large ‘T’" (see the Eddie Short interview).

Nigel explained that this symptom also existed at BT at the time. However, the CIO had the strength of character and nous to start with a proof of concept in the Wholesale division, led at the time by Paul Reynolds. He recognised that good customer data was essential for very practical reasons. Considerable time and effort could be wasted if the basic address details were inaccurate, as well as the negative impact on customer service. Service engineers might not turn up at the right address, for example.

Developing the prototype

The IT team’s first task was to identify the customer information sources that existed across the division. As Nigel said, 'we didn’t know what we had and it was fragmented across different transactional systems.'

Having identified source systems, the next task was to audit the data quality and it was then discovered that names and addresses were often inaccurately captured, for example by a call centre agent, and field lengths and formats varied considerably between different systems.

Nigel explained that this was a far more serious task than simply doing a bit of data cleansing. The goal was to build a bridge between these different systems, thus allowing them to import and pool customer data. Before they could do this they had to agree on a standard format and need to agree this with the business users. Customers also needed to be contacted to make sure the basic information was accurate.

Once these basic hygiene factors were in place they needed to build a link between the different legacy systems and operating platforms. They found the appropriate software from a third party ISV and used this build the information bridge and staging post to bring customer data together.

Ron Nichols a colleague of Nigel’s who worked in the team said that once this primary trusted information bridge was created, the firm could then import externally sourced data to build up a more compete picture of the customer.

Big BI vs. little BI

This prototype proved to be a success and created substantial savings in time and resources. They had also secured a champion in the divisional CEO, and the project soon caught the interest of the group CEO Sir Peter Bonfield. He realised that the real advantages of data quality were that it would lead to deeper insights into the performance of the business and a greater understanding of customer’s needs and behaviours.

Nigel Turner made the point that senior management in many firms saw little value in business intelligence projects because they remained departmental. 'Little BI' as he called it. To be of real business value, it needed to be cross-company and 'big B'.

Sir Peter Bonfield recognised this potential value and decided to get behind the early success at BT Wholesale, and invited executives from other divisions to hear about it. Naturally this attracted considerable interest and as a result created momentum for similar changes in other divisions, and ultimately across the entire company.

What real difference has it made to the business?

Clearly the task had been staggeringly large and had taken several years to get to the point where everyone trusted the basic customer data – names, addresses, contact details. The reduction in duplication of effort, lost time, waste and reduction in running costs was worth an order of magnitude more than the costs associated with the overall project. Over the years Nigel said that they had saved over £600 million in cost reductions and continuous savings. I challenged this figure, but Nigel stuck to his guns.

High impact on cost reduction

The ROI case from the original prototype was sufficiently compelling to secure proper funding and senior management sponsorship. This also served to attract the attention of Sir Peter Bonfield, without whose sponsorship this might have gone the same way as other ‘little’ BI projects.

A new discipline

Nigel also pointed out that the direct correlation between good processes and good data. You cannot have one without the other. New procedures have been put in place to ensure that the capture of customer information is recorded faithfully by everyone concerned. Training of those involved has also been extensive to ensure compliance.

As Nigel said, it is a continuous discipline not a 'one-off'. As data proliferate the task expands accordingly. Maintaining the discipline is therefore essential to prevent good information from being corrupted or polluted.

Progress is also being made to enhance the data from external sources, while at the same time protecting the core customer information from any potential pollution. The trusted repository of basic customer information also feeds and is integrated into their front office system. This enables the call centre agents to be more effective and supportive of customers.

Data quality is a board level issue

Recent research as well as anecdotal evidence shows that there is a growing awareness amongst senior executives in large enterprises that data quality is a strategic business issue not something to dumped on the IT department and forgotten. As firms evolve into more customer focused entities, the realisation of the importance of good quality customer information really becomes apparent. Gartner laid the blame for failed CRM IT projects in large companies at the door of poor quality data.

As Nigel said, there is nothing new here it’s the old GIGO story. BT is making progress but in terms of the holy grail of the 360 degree customer view, I can’t help thinking that it still has a long way to go. But I certainly have far more respect for its efforts. As I said at the start, Hercules, the big girl’s blouse, had it easy.

By Jeremy Cox CMC Editor Business & Strategy

If you have a similar story to tell or wouold like to comment personally please feel free to email me: [email protected]

For those of you interested in the technology, BT use Trillium software (

You can also read Trillium Software's survey. The findings suggest that driven by performance and compliance interests, senior management will soon lead a more strategic approach for 'Total Data Quality.'

According to Gartner and Ted Friedman, research vice president the leading BI software vendors are:
Firstlogic (now owned by BusinessObjects), DataFlux, IBM and Trillium.

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