Who Should Own Customer Data?

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brooksbellData-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Brooks Bell, founder and CEO of Brooks Bell Inc.

Businesses capture mountains of data and increasingly use it to make smarter decisions. Customer data has become a valuable asset for many businesses by helping to increase competitiveness in crowded markets. But this data requires management to be effective, and organizations must be vigilant to ensure sensitive information remains secure and private.

Managing data and keeping it secure is a monumental task, one that demands a broad set of competencies. Where, then, does this responsibility fall within an organization? Who owns customer data?

At first glance, data seems to fall firmly within the domain of IT departments, where the knowledge necessary to capture data from websites, create and manage databases and perform complex analytics typically resides. But placing customer data completely under the jurisdiction of IT creates a few problems, too. Frequently, crowded development and maintenance schedules slow the responsiveness of IT departments, making flexible use of data difficult. In addition, marketing, merchandising and other strategies are not always communicated to IT, opening a possibility for misalignment of efforts.

It makes sense for marketing to take control of customer data. With easy access to and intimate knowledge of this information, marketing strategy can be tailored to customer needs, measured against changes in behavior, and tested against alternative approaches. Ultimately, a data-driven approach increases marketing effectiveness – and the return on marketing investments. But not enough marketers have the technical skills to analyze data deeply, let alone manage large databases of sensitive information.

If recent news is any indication, managing and protecting sensitive information will continue to be a central challenge for organizations hoping to make use of customer data. A legal department, then, might seem the best guardian for this vulnerable stock. Legal teams will understand the essential rules governing the collection, storage and use of data. These teams typically also have experience working with sensitive information. But, like marketers, few lawyers have the technical skills large-scale data-management requires. And like IT departments, the legal team is typically removed from direct interaction with customers.

In most organizations, the team working closest with customers is the service and support team. Customer service is well-positioned to collect valuable quantitative and qualitative data – and analyzing and operationalizing this data can dramatically improve their performance. But data collected during customer-service or support interactions demonstrates a clear sample bias, meaning it cannot tell the complete story of an organization’s customers. Moreover, it’s difficult to attribute this data to other initiatives across the organization.

Clearly, there is a need to free customer data from single silos while still using the strengths of each group, but this is not a simple problem to solve. However, organizations can begin to address the issue with these three strategies:

1. Create value for data

The first step in fostering a multidisciplinary approach to managing data is demonstrating a clear value to the various teams that need to be involved. Aligning team goals and KPIs to data-driven initiatives is essential. Beyond this, each relevant team needs at least one clear advocate, capable of connecting the insights provided through analytics to the strategies and processes driving tactical efforts.

2. Build competency across teams

Advocates sometimes emerge on their own but more commonly, they must be created through training and mentoring. To do this, individuals must work across teams, lead and participate in cross-training efforts, and meet regularly with representatives of different business groups. The goal is not to create an analyst, lawyer, developer or marketer in every team but ultimately, to ensure every employee in an organization has a basic understanding of these disciplines, as they relate to customer data.

3. Encourage collaboration by sharing successes

When responsibility is shared across teams, credit for success must be distributed as well. Communication is the most powerful tool for sharing accomplishments and giving credit for the effort required. In addition to this, teams should share goals related to collecting, managing and using customer data. When these goals are met, the collaboration that made the success possible should be celebrated, in addition to the individuals.

For many large organizations, freeing customer data from the grip of a single owner can be a formidable challenge. Doing so, however, will not only increase the impact and effectiveness of this essential business resource, it will also push an organization down the path toward a data-driven culture – one that continues to adapt to customer needs and changing market environments long into the future.

You can follow Brooks Bell (@brooksbell), Brooks Bell Inc. (@BrooksBellInc) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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