Since we blogged about the challenges we overcame to deliver a Single Customer View for a major retailer a few years ago, we’ve found a lot of the same challenges repeated across other industry sectors such as non-profit, financial services, and education, as well as marketing services providers managing marketing databases for companies in many different sectors. So if that’s more of the same, what’s different? In a word, time. It’s no longer good enough to have a Single Customer View that is only up to date every night, it should be up to date as quickly as your customer switches from one device to another – that is, in real-time.
What are the benefits of a real-time Single Customer View?
Let’s stick with the multi-channel retail example both for continuity and because increasingly any product can be viewed through the eyes of a shopper, whether it is a scarf, a phone, a take-out meal, an insurance policy or a credit card account. It is widely recognized that the key to success in retail is a positive customer experience, so let’s look at some research findings:
- 67% of us start shopping on one device and continue on another (Google Aug 2012)
- 68% expect their shopping experience to continue across devices (Forrester research commissioned by Tapad July 2014)
- Almost half of UK adults online experienced problems with online orders in the last 12months (JDA June 2015)
- 71% of respondents said that as a result of a poor shopping experience they would be likely to switch to an alternative retailer (JDA June 2015)
To illustrate, if a customer orders online using their home computer for collection in store, and then after leaving home they want to change the order (using the browser on their phone or by calling the central customer service line), they expect the vendor to have the latest information about the order immediately available – otherwise, the potential for customer disenchantment is spelt out in the JDA research quoted above. If the info is all up to date, the new visit/call from the customer is an opportunity for the vendor to pitch an additional purchase, based on a 360° view of the customer’s account.
So how can you deliver a real time Single Customer View?
To answer this question, we first need to review where the moving data that we discussed before is coming from: keeping with the multi-channel retail example, it’s from Point-of-Sale systems in store, customers entering orders on the web site and call center operatives entering and looking up orders. These may be feeding into multiple corporate databases (ERP, Accounts, different subsidiary businesses etc.) The challenge is: how do we perform the standardization, verification and matching that is required, classify misleading data etc. all on the fly, given that there can be as many as a dozen different data flows to handle? And how do we do all this quickly enough to ensure that the operator always has a current and complete view of the customer?
The key to meeting the challenge posed by the need for a real time Single Customer View is to accept that traditional disk-based database technology is too slow – we can’t afford the time to write a dozen or more transactions to disk, standardize and link all these by writing more records to disk and then read it all back from various disks to give the information to the operator – we can’t expect them to have a coffee break between every transaction!
To us the answer was obvious – all the data needs to be kept in computer memory, updated in memory and read back from memory, so getting away from the limitations placed by conventional hard disks and even solid state disks. But, you may say, that’s fine for small volumes of data but what if we’re streaming thousands of transactions a minute into databases with tens (or even hundreds) of millions of customers? The good news is that computer memory is so cheap these days that it’s extremely cost-effective to provision enough memory to handle even a billion customer accounts, with failover to a mirror of the data in the event of a problem.
Now it’s all very well to say “just use a lot of memory”, but can you find software that will run on all the different varieties of hardware, server technology and database systems that make up the corporate data sets? And will this software allow for the different kinds of error and discrepancy that arise when people enter name, company name, mailing address, email and multiple phone numbers? Even more challenging, will it allow for misleading data such as in store purchases being entered using a store address as the customer address, or a customer giving their partner’s phone number along with their own name and email address?
Once you’ve successfully managed to process the data real-time, you can begin to organize, understand and make use of it in real-time. To use the retail example one final time, now you can take the call from the customer on their way to collect their order and (by finding the order linked to their mobile number) enable them easily to add an item they’ve forgotten plus another item prompted by their purchase history. If the branch near home doesn’t have all the items in stock, you can direct them to the branch which does have the stock near their office – based on an up to date work address linked to the customer. With a real-time, 360° Single Customer View, it’s easy!