Leveraging Big Data for addressing CRM Challenges


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No one doubts that we are in a data-driven economy but there’s plenty of confusion over which data turns to cash and which is nothing more than fool’s gold. Sure, there’s plenty of hype, particularly surrounding big data, but hype is often little more than penniless shine.

The confusion grows when big data is hitched to CRM. The questions furiously swirl as company after company struggles to make sense of big data, let alone harness it within CRM.

“The problem is that big data is not pixie dust that can be haphazardly sprinkled on to magically automate a company into better customer relationships,” says Omer Trajman, vice president of Field Operations at WibiData, a big data application server company.

“The same techniques that work at Google and Facebook, who have billions of users, aren’t going to work at a B2B or small B2C company,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean big data isn’t useful.”

Data Size Doesn’t Matter…

Indeed, one of the best ways to begin making big data useful is to stop thinking of it as big data.

“It’s not the size of data that matters, it’s how we use it,” says Esteban Kolsky, founder and principal at ThinkJar, a customer strategies advisory firm. “The data is not significantly different than before. Yes, we’re using more unstructured data and yes, we’re trying to use it in real time but still we’re just using data.”

Kolsky says in his “How To Lose Credibility When Using Data” post that the most important thing to remember about data is that “it is contextual and not absolute.” And he’s absolutely right. Without context, data points have no meaning. Without meaning, there is nothing to learn, understand, or use.

“Most attempts to integrate Big Data into CRM result in more noise for field teams,” says Trajman. “Systems that try to capture activity and rate a lead as ‘hot,’ or attempt to be smart about targeting prospects and customers with purposeful e-mails and offers just create more noise.”

It’s All About How You Use Data…

However, giving up and ditching big data is a bad idea, the concept not the term because, yes, the term has got to go. But data, large or small, has always been the heat at the core of CRM and it’s getting hotter.

“This new year will make one thing abundantly clear: Every single business has to cope with this new data-driven world in which data is a currency, an asset and a liability,” says Rachel Delacour, CEO and co-founder of BIME, a SaaS business intelligence (BI) provider.

“It all depends on how you tackle it and turn it into something immediately valuable,” she added. “Instead of falling for analysts and vendors who tout the really big thing, more organizations will start thinking small data in 2013, especially when it comes to understanding their customers and CRM strategy.”

Does that mean a new buzz word, perhaps “small data,” is now in the offering? No, it simply means that we need to take a different view of data, as big or small as it may be, to get to the answers we seek.

“So the best way to think about big data is to think about its sources,” explains Delacour. “Don’t become paralyzed by the size of the entire datasphere and instead focus on three simple questions: What types of data do I have? What new types of data can I access thanks to the Net? And what new questions can I keep asking to improve my business? Asking them is almost free.”

How Does CRM Measure Up to the New Data Challenge?

Once you’ve asked and answered yourself on these questions and assembled a list of appropriate data sources, will you find CRM ready to turn that data into bankable gold?

“The reality is that CRM solutions need to bring together two aspects of big data; first, the transactional ‘structured’ data originating from solutions outside CRM which are the transactional breadcrumbs of how the consumer is interacting with an organization today,” explains David Lloyd, CEO of IntelliResponse, a provider of virtual agent and knowledge base management software.

“Secondly, to create the optimal outcome, it is critically important that the enterprise interactions– i.e. web, mobile, voice, social, chat, virtual assistant– with customers are integrated, as this represents the true voice-of-the-customer, aka unstructured big data,” he continues.

“Most CRM solutions deployments in enterprises environments today don’t tap the ‘big data’ in enterprise transactional systems let alone pull the conversations happening across customer interaction channels to create a perfect combo,” he concluded.

Where CRM Needs to Be Fixed…And Where It Doesn’t

So, yes, there is work yet to be done to perfect CRM’s use of data, particularly in regards to “real time” use and silo-busting.

“For many, big data is still a work in progress,” says Subu Desaraju, vice president and Group Director of Strategy & Analysis at Digitas, a global advertising agency with a strong CRM capability.

The 2012 Columbia BRITE/ NYAMA Marketing in Transition Study, the results of which are published and presented by the Columbia Business School on video, found 91% of senior corporate marketers believe that the use of big data is key to a brand’s success. Yet 39% say that their own company’s data is collected too infrequently or that it’s not real-time enough. Further, large firms are much less likely to collect new forms of digital data like mobile data (19%), than they are to collect traditional customer survey data such as on demographics (74%) and attitude (54%).

“The real issue here is not the value of big data but a firm’s internal capability to collect, manage, and interpret big data,” explains Desaraju. “To unlock the full value of big data in marketing and CRM, brands need to invest in the necessary but hard to find talent and in new infrastructure. It also means getting your feet wet, staying the course, and demonstrating some patience.”

Which is to say that at the moment CRM is largely not running on all cylinders, and therefore not the engine it could be.

“CRM solutions today work around the periphery of big data but don’t harness it,” says Lloyd.

“One of the promises of big data in CRM is the intelligent engagement of consumers to drive share-of-wallet or mind-share resulting in increased loyalty and revenue growth,” he added. “At a basic level CRM is delivering on part of the promise through the integration of base customer data coupled with marketing automation platforms found in today’s CRM solutions; however the relevancy of what is delivered to consumers is poor, i.e. too broad to be highly effective.”

CRM and Big Data Collisions: Shrapnel or Momentum?

Does this mean that CRM and Big Data simply explode when they collide? No, but it does mean these issues need to be resolved in order for users to truly benefit. However, that does not prevent some companies from benefitting now.

“A ton of companies are investing big in analytics — big data, both structured and unstructured, is here to stay,” says Gregg Clark, Americas Leader for Consumer Products in the Advisory Services at Ernst & Young, one of the largest professional service firms in the world and one of the “Big Four” accounting firms.

“Many are trying to figure out how to realize the business cases they contemplated and those who are succeeding are moving beyond just data and technology,” he added. “They’re aligning various areas – sales, marketing, manufacturing, R&D – through a value driver visualization and prediction process.”

To illustrate his point, Clark said this is an example of a company wielding Big Data and CRM well:

“A global consumer products company who competes in many categories has derived the drivers of growth for many segments of their customer base. They use social media listening matched to demographics to track and then predict behavior.”

And he compared it to these symptoms of not doing it well and says there are far too many companies in this space:

“Companies have invested in high-end customer analytics and have armies of people trying to make sense of disconnected and confusing data. They run static reports and push them to the sales and marketing teams, reporting on the past.”

But beyond these innovative approaches to data use, companies have to figure out which results have actionable meaning to which departments.

“Despite sales representatives having more access to customer information today than ever before, on their own, representatives are not any better at selling,” explains AJ Gandhi, VP of Customer Solutions at Lattice Engines, a Big Data for Sales company.

“But if the sales representative can be given simple and actionable insights derived from the analysis of Big Data, they can drastically improve their results,” he said.

CRM is on the right track in its use of data, but there is still a ways to go before companies can maximize its use and CRM products can reach the next useful plateau.

“It will be a couple years before we get to wherever there is,” says Kolsky.

Vijay Muthupalaniappan
Vijay Muthupalaniappan is a Senior Consultant with Infosys Ltd. Currently engaged as a CRM Business Analyst for a Large Australian Telecom Company. Experience working on projects under Waterfall and Agile practices with hands-on Project Management and Estimation. Been a part of large IT Business Transformation projects advising clients with planning and formulating IT implementation / migration strategies.


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