Let’s consider how to manage customer data the right way: ethically, usefully, and achievably. With scandal after scandal about the misuse of customer data making headlines, it’s no longer possible to think of data as something neutral or passive that gets collected and sits out of sight and mind.
We’re seeing rapid changes to how we think about the collection and use of data. One major theme of the day is technological innovation. Traditional boundaries are being tested, with even governments feeling out how public and distributed innovations like blockchain could work for them. Another theme is dread. There’s a distinctly dystopian resurgence of anxiety about surveillance and poor or actively harmful data management, and unfortunately we’re seeing that suspicion justified. It’s vital for organisations – particularly government ones – to understand that data is fraught and to take a thoughtful approach to the ethics, reach, volume, and scale of the data they collect and use.
Within organisations, there tend to be two opposed approaches. There are those who trust in tech to solve data problems, the more innovation and more data collected the better, even if it’s not fully understood. Then there are those who trust their own workarounds more: the people who have their paper folder or their spreadsheet sitting on the side, whether because the system isn’t set up usefully, there isn’t an established way of working that encourages the right kind and quality of data isn’t being entered, or because of habit and comfort.
Increasingly, the uses and abuses of data are so top of mind and so poorly understood by most of us that organisations are tending to throw everything at the wall. It’s all too common for organisations to take the approach of investing big in new systems without understanding how to drive them effectively, ending up with messy data that causes lots of headaches, rework, haphazard ways of working across the organisation, and reinforcement of those two opposed approaches (including workarounds on top of workarounds!).
In short, if you throw everything at the wall, you’re going to find cracks. Technology isn’t a wilful force in and of itself (at least not yet!) and should be a facilitator rather than a driver. Positive, active human behaviour should drive how we interact with data and how we use technology to facilitate that interaction. Let’s get back to the very basics of what organisations need to do with data: serve their customers.
Here are seven principles for achieving that aim by managing customer data well at the ground level:
- Collect enough data: establish minimum sufficient collection principles for each type of enquiry or issue so enough data is collected for each instance – and no more
- Collect the right data: collect the correct and relevant data right from the start
- Keep customers informed: it’s their information and they should have assurance that you’re doing the right thing with it. Provide customers with the means to self-serve and use good records to keep them informed of how you are handling their matter and why
- Manage data centrally: data should be accessible for everyone who needs it, live in a single system or single set of well linked systems, and be set up to record whole matters from end to end from the customer perspective rather than treating each contact as a new matter. The central management should be supported with good security, back up, and recovery practices
- Make the data understandable: data should be recorded and maintained in such a way that everyone who needs to can understand it and use it, reach it, and report on it as intended
- Update the data correctly and immediately: waiting “until there’s time” results in gaps, losses, and customer frustration
- Keep on top of the future: recognise when you’re collecting data in new formats (like social media interactions) that need to be captured properly; maintain the data in a good state so that it can be easily extracted, converted, and uploaded to new systems; and watch that it’s being used as intended
Here are three principles for managing that data well from a strategic viewpoint:
- Drive technological solutions, don’t let them drive you: seek out robust and responsive systems that suit your current and projected needs, like mobile solutions for field workers who’ve been typing up their paper notes or data input forms that flex to support collection of correct data for each enquiry type. Work with suppliers to find solutions rather than making purchases you don’t understand or need
- Empower your people: give front line staff the right knowledge and training to manage customer data, empowering them to do the work rather than to hand it off to subject matter experts
- Develop interim processes: if you can’t get the best solution (technological or otherwise) right away, don’t settle for how things are right now. Start with interim processes. In any case, an iterative approach will serve you better than crashing and burning with a perfect approach that turns out to be perfectly wrong
For a practical illustration, let’s take the example of a customer contacting their Council about flooding, an issue that can be minor or major and for which it’s crucial to get the right information immediately.
- The employee at the first point of contact needs to be empowered to collect enough and the right data to establish how dangerous the situation is, the location, and whether the matter even falls under Council’s responsibility – it’s not sufficient to get the customer’s name and contact details to pass on to a technical expert
- The customer should be informed about the response, such as how quickly Council will attend to the issue. They should be kept informed of the final outcome of the issue if they’ve requested this using good, centrally stored records of what happened and when – simply marking the issue as closed will not help the customer
- Particularly for an emergency, it’s crucial that the data be understandable and updated correctly and immediately – alongside direct contact with the engineering and outdoor workforce staff managing the flooding
- Considering that this may be a very stressful situation, drive technological solutions that will make it easy to handle it well in the moment: the Council should set up enquiry management systems with custom fields for each issue category so that staff are prompted to seek out and record the right information in the right way. They should make sure the staff who are attending the flooding have the mobile connectivity to access and update the data the need quickly. Using flexible, integrated systems well will help the Council keep on top of future requirements, particularly if the flooding recurs or there’s a need to report on it (such as when seeking flooding assistance funding)
- Flooding doesn’t wait for you to get the right solution on board, such as flexible and integrated IT systems. Once the Council recognises the need to empower customer service staff to manage this issue, they can start developing an interim process. For instance, technical staff can list questions and urgency criteria for the staff to follow – even if this just lives in a plain text document on the intranet for now
The amount and complexity of data held by organisations, and the technology attached, can be overwhelming. If you’re going to deal with it properly, these key principles are an important place to start working with data ethically, usefully, and achievably.
At LKS Quaero, we help clients with effective ways of working and customer service provision, underpinned by effective IT management. If you’d like to know more, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.