Now that there are so many new customer "touchpoints" - including automated teller machines, e-mail, chat rooms, Web-based banking, stock trading, and call centers - it is important to know just how and when customers interact with a company.

This knowledge is a key to something more crucial in today's business environment: identifying a customer's potential value.

"You need a single source of clean and consolidated customer information to do customer relationship management well," says Wayne Eckerson, the director of education and research at the Data Warehouse Institute.

Customer relationship management is a process that uses technology to capture, analyze, and disseminate data from all touchpoints. The goals of CRM are to integrate and utilize all relevant data from every customer and prospect interaction; deliver such data to all in the organization who need it; better understand customers' value; improve the efficiency and effectiveness of interactions; and develop customer relationships and make them last longer.

At the core of these efforts is the need to establish an accurate and clear view of the customer, be it individual, household, business, or any combination thereof. The systems in place at each touchpoint must be capable of identifying and matching customer records to consolidate and integrate data from multiple sources.

With this opportunity comes a demanding set of challenges, the greatest being the task of taking myriad data elements being created, stored, and maintained and integrating them with high-quality enterprise data. On the strictly informational end, these challenges include varied standards, mistakes, and misspellings; misrepresentation of homonyms; recognition of legal entities; and missing and incomplete data.

For instance, many applications are unable to deal with the problem posed by an address such as this one:

Pat F. St. James ITF Patricia Fuller St. James C/O St James Church 111 1st St. SW Ste. 111 St. Petersburg, CO, 11111

The abbreviation "St." has a number of potential meanings - it could be of a last name, part of a business name, multiple parts of a street address, and part of a city name. In addition, ITF and C/O can represent several different things. Does ITF stand for "In Trust For," and thus is there a relationship between Pat and Patricia? Are they the same people? Are they husband and wife? Mother and daughter? Father and daughter? Does C/O mean "In Care Of," or is it an abbreviation for the state of Colorado? Is it both?

Of course, it is possible to write coding operations or routines that will map variations of the spelling of a name into a single, consistent structure. But does it make sense to perform the same mappings on the same data over and over again? Or does it make more sense to perform this edit check at the time of data entry, and enforce a corporate standard at the beginning of the process?

Larry English, president of Information Impact International Inc., says the message is simple.

"Don't keep cleaning the same data at the back end - fix it at the source," he said. Also, it is imperative to ensure that the cleansed data will satisfy users and enable them to make mission-critical decisions.

Enterprisewide data quality also has to overcome a number of technical challenges: It must work across computer platforms, seamlessly integrate with Web components and objects, handle increasing amounts of information, and, of course, be user-friendly. A good customer data management solution is one that can be implemented in high-performance applications to investigate, cleanse, identify, and match records in preparation for loading to the data warehouse or operational data store.

In addition, more organizations are operating on a global scale that necessitates an understanding of international data sets. Above all, organizations must be able to depend on a data-cleansing solution that establishes standards that are portable, with output that can be consistently applied across the enterprise.

Sound data quality is the result of architecture designed to help solve the complex problems inherent in legacy system data, while also serving as the operational gatekeeper for incoming data. This enables customers to rapidly implement long-lasting, sustainable data quality solutions that cleanse and recondition large volumes of information from sources all over the globe.

A large international bank with more than 550 offices and a million accounts in 82 countries wanted a unified view of its customers and services and had to consolidate and analyze information from a wide variety of applications. It needed a better understanding of customer relationships, products, and distribution channels to maintain its competitiveness. After implementing a data quality solution, the bank had a greater understanding of its relationship with each customer, what services the customer was utilizing, and what services it could offer in targeted marketing.

The customer relationship managers are now able to access complete relationship-wide customer financial information and provide effective investment advice. Sales campaigns are now focused on customer segments that are most likely to respond, and recommendations are presented to the front line for cross-selling opportunities. The matching capabilities of the data-quality tool that was chosen gave the bank a comprehensive picture of each customer.

Another key objective for this bank was to identify emerging trends and anticipate the changing needs of its customers. To that end, it needed to understand the financial profile not only of the individual customer, but also of the household. Being able to household customers gives the bank a much different gauge of customers' needs and what services might be appropriate for them.

As financial organizations become more global and more centered around relationship management systems, data quality will become more important. Enterprisewide data-quality solutions have a track record in establishing standards that have an impact on the bottom line.

Leonard is vice president of marketing for Trillium Software, a division of Atlanta-based Harte-Hanks.

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