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Customer data integration in eCommerce today

August 17, 2006

A few years ago, a big manufacturer lost a very important distribution center due to a fire. It completely destroyed the building, as well as thousands of shipments that were to be delivered to a global customer base.

The president of this company needed to mail a letter to his many customers in an effort to explain what happened and to help provide a date for when operations would return to normal. He passed the request to the v.p. of customer relations, who in turn asked IT to produce a list of all the customers at that distribution center.

The IT staff pulled reports from its customer relationship management , enterprise resource planning, and billing and supply chain management systems. What they found reveals a distressing but pervasive problem at most organizations.

Each list contained different, overlapping and confusing views of the customer base. Some names were listed or spelled slightly differently; some addresses were a bit off. The end result was that this company could not create an accurate and inclusive list of customers affected by the loss of the distribution center.

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For years, enterprise applications -- in particular, CRM systems -- have been promising a "single view of the customer."

However, the proliferation of systems has led to more confusion at a data level about the customer base. In fact, marketing and customer relations executives are struggling to understand even the most basic questions: Who exactly are our customers? Which customers are we trying to target? Who are our best customers? Which customers represent our best opportunities?

Uncertainty about customers' identities can severely compromise efforts to build stronger relationships. In today's competitive marketplace, if customers don't feel valued, they will take their business elsewhere. Customers are hard to acquire -- even harder to keep -- but easy to lose.

Customer data integration, or CDI, is an emerging method for compiling the most authentic customer information from all applications, databases and customer touch points into one centralized data source.

By bringing the best information about customers to the surface, CDI strives to deliver consistent, accurate and reliable information -- regardless of the originating application.

The benefit is that the data itself -- not the applications -- is the focus. Each business unit can view the same information about customers, which improves support and service across business functions.

Companies are now turning to CDI solutions with two added components: robust data quality capabilities and sophisticated identity logic, aka "identity management." With these components, users can improve the quality of data while also identifying and managing the same customer sets across sources and applications.

The data quality component typically begins with an in-depth data profiling phase. The company then builds in business rules to standardize and verify addresses and other attributes, reconcile conflicting information, validate name and address information, and add demographic data to enhance the value of information.

The second component is identity logic -- a crucial phase of any successful CDI effort. This determines whether customers listed in different sources are indeed the same customer, and intelligently integrates customer information from multiple applications and databases.

The various records for Michael William Smith, Mike Smith and Michael W. Smith, for example, are determined by identity logic to indeed be the same individual, provided other data points are similar. Companies can flag information for linking customers across applications and sources, and isolate the best data from multiple sources.

CDI solutions are helping companies create consistent, accurate and reliable data -- and deliver a truly unified view of their customers that builds a firm foundation for sales, support and marketing functions.

Thanks to CDI, organizations are developing healthier, more lasting relationships with their customers and can market more intelligently -- and profitably -- to them.

Source: eCommerce Times

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