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There is no single view of a customer

Many have touted "a single view of the customer" as the secret to customer profitability. But it is a lot harder than it seems. columnist Tom Redman explains why organizations shouldn't get too carried away with the concept.

There is a lot of discussion lately about the "single view of the customer." Basically, you consolidate all your customer data from disparate systems and create a single customer record. In doing so, you create a common language that helps get all the departments on the "same page." And the business will operate more efficiently. You'll be able to better gauge how profitable customers are, so you know how much attention to give them when they call for help. And you can discover opportunities for cross-selling and up-selling.

An appealing concept indeed. It almost sounds too good to be true. And truthfully, it is a lot harder than it looks. And there are traps that can sabotage the effort.

There is a reason that different organizations use different terms for their customers. Hospitals call their customers "patients." Attorneys call them "clients." Department stores call theirs "shoppers." Even the Internal Revenue Service has a special name for its customers -- they are "taxpayers." Each of these businesses has a distinctive relationship with its customers and the language used to identify its customers reflects the nuances of their respective industries.

Furthermore, within the organization, different people and departments have different relationships with customers as well. To the marketing department, a "customer" might be a potential buyer. To a salesperson, the customer could be anyone involved in the sales process. To the legal department, the customer might be a legal entity. To the shipping department, a customer could be the colleague who works on the receiving dock. And so forth. Indeed, even more specialized language has evolved within each department -- salespeople identify "stakeholders," "gatekeepers" and "final decision makers." All reflect different relationships.

And all require a uniquely different view of the customer. For example, the salesperson might need to know that the "decision maker" spent his first 10 years in sales before taking a role in IT -- a fact that is of no interest to the legal or shipping department. And the legal department will probably need to know the address for headquarters, while the shipping department needs the address of the factory.

The point is, of course, that no single view of the customer is adequate for everyone across the organization. And any attempts to foist a "common view" of the customer across the organization could be ill-fated.

For more information

Read  Tom Redman's previous column "Data quality: Beware the dirty things your customers see"

Visit our Learning Guide for Data Quality

My working definition of data quality is getting the right (and correct) data in the right place at the right time to serve the customer, make a decision or develop a plan. There is a lot more to this definition than first meets the eye. Here it implies that each person needs the view of the customer that will best enable him/her to serve the needs of the customer. It's the view that is most relevant to the task at hand, the view that provides only the essential details, the view that is comprehensive but not over-detailed, the view that is simple, clearly defined and easy to understand. (Many criticize stove-piped legacy systems, saying they cost too much and don't talk to each other, but it is important to recognize that many do indeed provide customer views that work well for the departments they support.)

Across an organization of even moderate size, dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of different views are needed. So the real task is determining the best view of the customer for each operation/decision and making sure those involved have access to that view. Much "heavy lifting" is needed. Many departments could benefit from more complete views of customers. And new, specialized views that help departments work together are needed. This is the real challenge of the Information Age -- and it goes far beyond just assembling everything we know about the customer in one place.

Thomas C. Redman, known to many as the "Data Doc," is president of Navesink Consulting Group LLC, of Little Silver, N.J. He can be reached at

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