Notes On Digital Transformation: Customer Data Hub

In “Notes On Digital Transformation: The Customer”, I discussed why customer data is important for business growth and the importance of the data system to be agnostic of any technology that connects to it and to be flexible and scalable to meet the future needs of the business.

So what does it mean to have the proper structure to store and organize customer data?

It is important for the business to structure and collect data based on objectives they want to achieve. A good number of businesses make the mistake of deciding to capture everything about the customer whether that data is relevant to their business or not and whether they will act on it or not.

Also it is important that the structure, a business designs today, is flexible enough to add more data types in the future. For example, WhatsApp communication was not a standard piece of the business communication channels a year ago but now it is, which means that businesses now need to efficiently store those conversations as part of the customer’s record.

The basic customer data structure should help the business answer the following questions (because remember the whole purpose of this is to empower your marketing team with the data they need to engage with those customers):

1- Who is my customer? This is basically the identity of the customer (name, birthday, gender, nationality, etc.)

2- What is the shopping behavior of my customer? This is related to transactions (online and offline).

3- What is the engagement behavior of my customer? (Open emails, clicks, and any other campaigns related data)

4- How does my customer feel about my brand? This is related to feedback (surveys, customer service, and Social Media) and referrals

Those are the fundamental questions that every business should be able to answer and they cannot do so without properly storing and organizing their customer data.

Now a lot of businesses would say that they already have a system to store the customer data and by that they mean a CRM system. That’s great but if we take a closer look, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), according to Salesforce, is a strategy for managing an organization’s relationships and interactions with customers and potential customers. CRM system helps companies stay connected to customers, streamline processes, and improve profitability. It can be used by different verticals in the organizations and also helps them to focus on the relationship with individual customers.

In other words, CRM give businesses visibility of customer contact information and sales opportunities. Some new generations of CRM even have some capabilities to automate marketing campaigns to those customers either directly or through additional execution tools. They help with lead nurturing, customer retention, and up-selling to existing accounts.

The Primary users of the CRM system is Sales and Customer Service representatives and NOT marketing teams. Case in point, one of the leading CRM companies in the world is Salesforce, so they have literally the word Sales in their name to emphasize the role of their system regarding sales teams.

However, if you remember from “Notes On Digital Transformation: An Introduction”, I mentioned that the main purpose of creating a centralized customer data structure, that collects and organize customer data from different kinds of sources, is to enable “Marketing” teams to engage with customers, pure and simple.


Ok so if CRM is only a “piece” of the puzzle, then what can a business do to create that Customer Data Hub that would serve “Marketing” teams?

In recent years, we have seen the rise of what is known as the Customer Data Platform (CDP), and according to the CDP institute, a CDP must have the following capabilities:

●     Ingest data from any source

●     Capture full detail of ingested data

●     Store ingested data indefinitely (subject to privacy constraints)

●     Create unified profiles of identified individuals

●     Share data with any system that needs it

Gartner defines a CDP as a “marketing system that unifies a company’s customer data from marketing and other channels to enable customer modeling and optimize the timing and targeting of messages and offers.

A few years ago, Salesforce started a CDP initiative to make it part of their products suite and they are acquiring companies to expand their capabilities in that area.

Whether you call it CDP or something else is not the point, what matter is for the business to setup a system that captures all different kinds of customer data to create one universal customer profile and then plug that data back into any tool that can use it for marketing purposes.

In other words, the CDP enables “marketers” to bring in huge amounts of online and offline data from a multitude of sources, then match, merge and remove duplicates to produce a Single Customer View, without the requirement of help from a team of engineers or IT specialists. Each unified customer record can then be segmented, analyzed and used to make recommendations to help create a personalized customer journey.

So, the aims of the CDP are to empower the marketing team to use clean, trustworthy and compliant data across all their marketing channels, and to act as a single source of truth about their customers to enable analysis, intelligence gathering and the automation of targeted, personalized marketing campaigns.

Another key aspect of CDP is simplicity and ease of use. Since the CRM database is highly complex, they require an IT team for setup and management, while CDP was created to be simple and manageable by marketing professionals.

So the key thing to emphasize here is that rather than working with a database (or databases) owned and controlled by IT. This means marketers do not have to go back and forth to IT and make requests to access data and get that data back. Marketers can manipulate and control data themselves, a simple but a very new concept.

A CDP (or CDP like systems) lets marketing teams leverage their data by putting the power in their own hands. This can be used for analysis and research, to make segments, to build and execute campaigns and get reports.

That all sounds good on paper (or screen) but the reality is that most businesses already have legacy systems, or they just spent millions installing a mammoth of a CRM system that was supposed to solve all their problems, or they already have several proper systems in place that do their jobs separately but are not connected, and the list goes on about the barriers that stand in the way of a business to even start thinking about centralizing their customer data and kicking off their digital transformation.


So what are the challenges to setting up a proper customer data hub?

Here businesses are presented with two options:

1- Replace existing system(s) with a modern one that is designed to propel the business into the future.

2- Gradually revamp their technology ecosystem by creating something that sits on top of the legacy systems and that has the ability to connect with modern day tools and systems, which gives the business the flexibility to get started fairly quickly without disrupting the existing infrastructure and some of the existing processes (which also means less cost).

It is important to highlight that until a few years ago, the first option was pretty much the only option available because that was how technology was structured and built. One mammoth system to rule them all. Then a few years ago technology evolved, like it always does, into open platforms and cloud technology, in other words technology now allows us to build different “specialized” systems (or products) that can easily connect to each other to do a lot of different things. What is interesting about those systems is that a lot of them follow the plug-and-play model, where no installation is required, no expensive hardware to buy, no costly support, and more importantly no expensive upgrades, so in theory those systems never get outdated.

Now you might be thinking, that is great and businesses are naturally gradually revamping their systems to move quickly without disrupting the business a lot and without spending tons of money. Unfortunately, that is not case for many reasons, one of them is old habits die hard.

Remember in “Notes On Digital Transformation: An Introduction”, I mentioned that part of the digital transformation journey is people and changing the mindset of those people. Some of those people are in IT where the mindset is still one system to rule them all and one big initiative to change the world. So we still see businesses (especially big ones) that go the route of changing everything and moving from one big system to another big system with very unrealistic expectations about time, benefits, and cost. This mindset gets even more challenging by the simple fact that this new concept, of centralizing customer data that easily plugs into different marketing systems, shifts the control and decision making power from IT to Marketing. A lot of organizations are still struggling with that shift.

This is why it is important that businesses start adopting the approach of building a solid data foundation on top of which multiple, connected, solutions can be plugged into to serve the different needs of the different divisions. As long as the data foundation is solid then implementing and changing systems on top of that foundation should be cost efficient and quick.

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Notes On Digital Transformation: The Customer

According to the late Peter Drucker, as he wrote in his book The Daily Drucker, there is one valid definition of business purpose, which is to create customer.

He explains this more by emphasizing that “it is the customer who determines what a business is. For it is the customer, and he alone, who through being willing to pay for a good or for a service, converts economic resources into wealth, things into good.”

However, historically businesses focused more on selling rather than on customer. Even their marketing efforts were more about attracting more eyeballs, clicks, views, and feet through the door with minimum attention to who is actually looking, clicking, walking into the store, and most importantly buying. We have encountered many businesses that were generating millions in revenues and millions of transactions but with no clue about who they were selling to and without any way to know if those transactions were generated by one customer or a million customers.

With today’s very competitive landscape, very demanding customers, and the spread of technology, it is more imperative to focus on the customer and to identify who that customer is. You probably heard all the buzz words about businesses trying to be Customer Centric, Omni-Channel, 360 degree view of customer, Customer Experience, etc. and unfortunately, yet once again, the focus has been on IT systems with over hyped expectations.


Creating the Customer from Customer Data

If the purpose of a business is to create a customer then it comes without saying that the foundation, for any solution that the business can build on, is customer data. So as a result the starting point for digital transformation should be customer data, not the CRM or marketing system or the E-commerce platform or robots.

Now it is important to highlight that the online business is to a certain extent ahead of the brick-and-mortar one because it is easy to collect customer data online than it is offline, for two simple reasons: delivery and payments. Customers shopping online must provide some personal details to receive the goods and to pay, a requirement that does not exist in the brick-and-mortar world. In other words, online customers are easy to track while offline ones can be totally anonymous.

This is why most of the advancements related to customer data collection and analysis is actually for the online world. That is not to say that no data is being collected offline but that effort is dwarfed compared to the capabilities that exist online. Also this created another challenge for businesses, which is the huge gap between online and offline and the ability to bridge that gap. The same customers shop online and offline, one of the challenges that businesses face today is how to connect the two and create a seamless journey for the customer.

If you are thinking that online shopping is the dominant one then why worry about off-line customers then it is important to highlight the fact that, according to stats published on Digital Commerce 360, e-commerce in the US accounts for 16% of total retail purchases after factoring out the sale of items not normally purchased online, such as fuel, automobiles and sales in restaurants. That is in the US, while in many parts of the world that number is still in the single digits realm. What we have seen in the past few years is a blending of the channels and a realization from retailers that to properly compete they need to have a presence everywhere, online and off.

Even with the COVID-19 crisis, which eventually will subside, and where a lot of retailers are now scrambling to establish or ramp-up their e-commerce presence, that number is forecasted to jump to the mid twenty and it is yet to be seen if it is a long term up-tick or a temporary one.

This brings us back to the concept of customer data, which for the most part still lives in silos, out of date, and in a lot of cases hard to reach. Customer data by nature is system agnostic, my name does not change if it was captured online or offline, on a piece of paper or on social media. As a result, the customer data system, if we want to call it that, should not care about where the data is coming from, as it will be coming from different channels that are known today and many more that will be created in the future. Its sole purpose is to store, unify, and organize the customer data in a way that can be used for “marketing” purposes, pure and simple.

A business should not only focus on building a proper structure to store and organize data today but also one that is scalable and flexible to accommodate new trends in the future. WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and SnapChat did not exist a 15 years ago and now businesses, online and offline, are struggling to accommodate the influx of data that is flowing about customers from social media.

The mistake that businesses make is they look at customer data as part of a product while it is completely independent of any product and/or vendor. Customer data structure should be completely independent and should be able to accept data from any product or channel as long as it adheres to the structure designed to meet the specific needs of the business.

Once the proper structure, for data to be collected and organized, is established then the business has the flexibility to leverage the unique advantages of different systems to collect different pieces of customer data. On top of that, the business would have a bigger flexibility of leveraging different marketing and customer engagement systems to serve its needs because they have the data that they can feed into those system to engage with their customers properly.

If the primary goal of a business is to create a customer then it goes without saying that the first thing the business needs to do is to know what kind of customer they have and that can only be done by properly planning to collect and organize the “right” customer data that is “relevant” to your business.


Customer data creates opportunities and optimizes your marketing efforts

The power of data is that it allows businesses to have visibility about potential opportunities, ideas, and ways to optimize their spend. For example, businesses can send smaller marketing campaigns to a specific target with relevant content, which would reduce marketing cost while increasing revenues. Data becomes more critical on social media as you want to make sure not to target your own customers when you are looking for new ones.

Data creates opportunities as it reveals trends and sometimes a segment of customers that your marketing team never thought about. This would would enable the business to create different engagement campaigns to maximize the revenues from the newly identified segments.

Data is like the fuel that the business needs to operate whatever customer experience systems they get. The cleaner the fuel the better those systems would operate but without it, no matter how sophisticated the technology is, you will only achieve a fraction of what you should.

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Notes On Digital Transformation: An Introduction

Throughout the many meetings and conversations we have had with different organizations about their digital transformation efforts, the conversations were mostly dominated by what technology or systems the business should use. As a result of that focus on the technology as the ultimate cure, we have seen many organizations fail to even kickstart their digital transformation journey. If digital transformation was only about technology and systems then it would probably be called Systems Upgrades, which is what organizations have done for decades.

So what is Digital Transformation about?

If you search the web for Digital Transformation you will no doubt find, what may seem, many definitions from different sources, but if you take a closer look at them then you will find a common thread. Here’s one from The Enterprisers Project:

“Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to customers. It’s also a cultural change that requires organizations to continually challenge the status quo, experiment, and get comfortable with failure.”

Here’s a more elaborate one from a Harvard Business Review article, “Why So Many High-Profile Digital Transformations Fail”, by Thomas H Davenport and George Westerman :

“..digital is not just a thing that you can you can buy and plug into the organization. It is multi-faceted and diffuse, and doesn’t just involve technology. Digital transformation is an ongoing process of changing the way you do business. It requires foundational investments in skills, projects, infrastructure, and, often, in cleaning up IT systems. It requires mixing people, machines, and business processes, with all of the messiness that entails.”

So we can establish a few foundational aspects of what digital transformation is:

1- It is a mix of people, technology, and business processes

2- It is not a project, it is an “ongoing process” of challenging the status quo and changing the way you do business

3- It is messy and requires certain tolerance for risks and failures

For a digital transformation journey to be proper and survive, it needs to be sponsored from the top by the different divisions heads. Unfortunately what happens most of the time is that it gets “assigned” to IT where it becomes an “IT project” instead of a business initiative.


Why is it that a lot of businesses focus mainly on technology?

Digital transformation usually falls within the realm of IT so naturally the IT team would focus on technology and systems with minimum to no consideration to business processes and internal culture. Also, technology lies at the heart of digital transformation and, from experience, it gets all the attention because it is the “cool” part of the journey and, at least on the surface, it looks easy to implement. In other words, a lot of businesses simply follow the buzz words that are trending at the moment as they don’t want to be seen behind on current trends.

That is why you see a lot of communication from businesses about what new cool technology they implemented and all the publicity they are getting. What you don’t hear is whether they actually improved their internal processes to match the new technology or more importantly whether they elevated their staff to match the technology. It is very easy to identify those gaps and all one has to do is walk into one of the stores and ask the staff about that new AI system they just implemented or the new virtual assistant that is getting all the buzz and how you, the customer, would benefit from all that, and what you would probably get is a puzzled look and an embarrassed staff.

Technology is the “cool” part of the digital transformation journey because, for the most part, it is what the outside world see (especially customers) and talk about. It is all around us from the cool world of AI, robotics, automation, machine learning, product recommendation, blockchain, virtual reality, virtual concierge etc. Customers do not talk about the culture or the processes of the businesses they interact with, those are only mentioned in business articles and academia. However, what customers “do” remember and talk about the most is the customer service and this is what a lot of businesses tend to forget and when the promised sales numbers do not materialize the first thing to be blamed is the system and IT along with it.

On the surface, technology looks easy to implement as the organization can simply turn to the company that provides the technology and rely on them for implementation with the help of consultants. However, changing the internal culture and processes can only be done from within and it is a painful endeavor. I mentioned that on the surface, technology is the easiest part of the digital transformation because that is only an illusion and sooner or later the organization will realize that digital is not a thing that you can plug into the organization and expect magic to happen. Most organizations avoid dealing with the messiness that comes with mixing technology, people, and processes and would rather focus on the technology as in the end they can simply blame the system for not taking them to the promised land.


Legacy systems bring with them legacy processes and legacy people

You cannot transform one and leave the others behind. Time and time again, we see organizations charging one team of “transforming” the business by enforcing systems and technologies on everyone within the organization and without any proper understanding of the existing business challenges and without involving the people who are supposedly expected to not only adopt the new technology but also ensure its success.

Transformation is not a sudden thing, it is not a one time project that you can assign to a team with an end date. Transformation is gradual and continual but that doesn’t mean businesses have to wait a long time to start reaping the benefits of digital transformation. By aligning everyone on what digital transformation means to the organization, by empowering the separate divisions to identify the best ways for them to embark on that journey while meeting the overall objective of the organization, and then by breaking down that journey into measurable and realistic tracks that people can learn from and adjust to, then each one of of those tracks can deliver immediate results.

This allows the organization to be cost efficient because it invests incrementally in steps rather than throwing one big investment into everything and hope for the best, it gives them room to adjust as there will be failures and learnings, and most importantly it allows their people to evolve.


The urgency of digital transformation in the era of COVID-19

It is more critical for businesses now to adopt this agile approach towards digital transformation as the COVID-19 epidemic is forcing them to accelerate their digital transformation journey which might look like a good idea at the start but if not executed properly they might find themselves in a lot worse situation from when they started. We are already seeing many businesses rushing to setup E-Commerce without the proper understanding of what it takes to do that (it is not only about selling products online) and without the proper execution. It is understandable that businesses would want to expand their sales channels but it is also important that in these tough times, the business is not wasting precious money, time, and resources on something that might not deliver the expected results.

As a business you need to:

  1. Define your challenges and objectives
  2. Prioritize your needs and the needs of your customers
  3. Identify what you need to overcome those challenges and achieve your objectives (maybe what you have can help you achieve that with minor modification)
  4. Most importantly involve your staff as you will need their commitment and ideas to get to where you want to be

Like everything else in life, a solid foundation is a recipe for success in the future. No matter what the next emerging technology is, with the right foundation that is designed and built to connect to those modern technologies, organizations would be on the right path for a successful digital transformation.

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