Do You Have a Single, Smart View of Your Customers?

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Most major companies these days have access to large quantities of information about their customers, from their locations to transaction histories and what they are saying on social media. In nearly every case, however, this data sits in different places—a company’s legacy CRM systems, its loyalty program databases, new cloud-based applications, third-party servers—and can be hard to access. Sometimes marketers must wait in line to get the data they need served up to them by IT.

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A few companies have taken a different tack: They integrate various data flows into a single overall view of each customer. They update records immediately and make every transaction instantly accessible to anyone using the system, enabling marketers to have a remarkably full and intelligent view of customers.

Integrating customer records involves a process that generally goes by the name of master data management (MDM). An MDM system sits on top of existing databases and captures everything— in-store traffic patterns, online behavior, comments on social media and so on. Every interaction enters the system in real time, and users of the system can tap into it from wherever they happen to be.

While no company has developed a complete MDM system, some are getting closer. Consider Hilton Hotels’ extensive use of data. After a guest stays at a Hilton in Houston on business, he browses the hotel’s website to explore a week-long vacation stay at a Hilton in Paris. When he calls central reservations with questions, the call center representative will thank him for his recent stay and recognize that he was reviewing Paris hotels online. Hilton’s automated system connects the guest stay history, web browsing and call data, third-party information that the guest splits spending between Hilton and Starwood, and projected occupancy data for Paris properties. Data management thus allows Hilton to improve its cross-selling, balance occupancy across properties and make the process faster and more convenient for guests.

Building a full-blown MDM is not essential. Large companies often have hundreds or even thousands of databases, some of them built many years ago. Integrating them all into a single MDM solution tends to be cost prohibitive. Instead, savvy marketers focus on the handful that matter most and concentrate their resources there.

Liquor company Rémy Cointreau’s marketers, for example, didn’t wait for a full-scale MDM system. Instead, they decided to act on information they could access themselves. Social media data revealed what people were saying and where they were imbibing, helping the company target brands to particular bars with better accuracy.

Technology, moreover, is just one part of the solution toward a single smart view. The other part is organizational. Marketing, IT and other functions need to come together to share priorities and develop an overall plan, rather than working at cross purposes. IT should become more of a business partner, developing a joint roadmap and investment plan with marketing, as part of the annual resource planning cycle. The two functions then are jointly accountable for delivering on the plan so that everyone in the organization can have the same view of customers—which is the first step to staying connected to those customers.

Laura Beaudin, Mark Brinda and Jason Ding are partners at Bain & Company.