data management: Mountains to Mine

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New technologies turn information overload into information with an edge.

Information: The foundation of every sale, the guts behind every deal. But in this oh so overwhelming Information Age, it's all too easy to be buried, burdened, and burned out by data overload. There's no shortage of information, but, left unmanaged, it won't do much but collect dust.

Companies spend untold hours and dollars collecting detailed information about their customers and competitors in an effort to better understand their needs and expectations. Yet for many businesses, much of that valuable information goes to waste, simply because it takes too much time and energy to dig through the mounds of paper reports assembled by field researchers and salesmen. But today, faster, more organized, and more accurate technologies are allowing companies to drill deeper into their rich databases and helping them to more easily garner the information they need to develop detailed business plans in a pinch.

In fact, Forrester Research reports that 52 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies plan to use data mining to help determine marketing strategy in 2001, up from 18 percent in 1999. Forty-eight percent plan to use data mining to improve customer service, up from 16 percent in 1999. Forrester also found that those firms already utilizing mining techniques say their biggest gains occur when data mining is incorporated into their day-to-day operations. "By embedding data mining into applications, users can tap into the insight at the click of a button," says Forrester analyst Frank Gillett.

In this article, we'll look at three products that have the potential to help marketers harness consumer data and gain a competitive edge. One puts data collection literally in the palm of your hand. Another lets the sales force dial up to loads of data. And a third gives retailers the big picture in just a few clicks.

Handheld Help

When Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. evaluated its Richmond, Virginia market a year ago, it was surprised at the popularity of malt liquor in the region. The news meant the brewer's market managers would have to ask retailers a series of questions about the malt category, something they weren't prepared to do. The company's surveys - covering everything from product quality, placement, and pricing, to how well retailers felt they were being serviced by their wholesalers - grouped all malt liquors in one category, with no room for listing specific brands or prices. But this market called out for a store-by-store breakdown.

It seems simple enough - just add a few questions - but with numerous representatives in the field and the need to standardize the survey, adding those questions could have translated into costly delays. However, by using a new product called MobileLink, from San Jose, California-based software maker Casio Soft Inc., Anheuser-Busch's field reps now had the ability to instantly add a form with more detailed questions.

Using MobileLink, reps access surveys through handheld Hewlett-Packard Jornada computers and the data is inserted using a stylus pen, so the interface is as familiar as pen to paper. The technology also allows for bar-code scanning and spreadsheet entry. The data is transmitted directly to the home office, where it can be aggregated and acted upon. Other benefits, says Jim Willis, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Casio Soft: Savings in paper, fax, phone, and postage costs; and the ability to keep track of field reps' hours.

But the real beauty of the system, according to Richard Sleight, Anheuser-Busch's manager of strategic selling, is how it standardizes previously scattershot methods of collecting and storing data. That, and how quickly it lets the company respond to consumer trends and competitive threats. "It used to be a two, three month delay before we could make up a report and take action," he says. "Now we can do it in a day." By speeding up how it collects proprietary data about its own products, as well as its competitors', the company can rely less on the canned data it gets from other sources. That means more timely and specific responses and recommendations to its wholesalers and retailers.

For example, let's say a survey shows that certain products flew off the shelves in a couple of locations. Anheuser-Busch could know that information within days of doing the survey and act promptly to reallocate its product lineup, giving more space to the popular brands without increasing its total shelf space.

The St. Louis beermaker adopted MobileLink about two and a half years ago, after having used other technologies for about two years. And before that? Good, old pen and paper - and manual input. Now Sleight estimates the company has cut the time needed to conduct surveys by 36 percent. Before distributing the handheld PCs, the company accrued about 516 man-hours to do a single survey in one region; that's now down to 328 hours. Company wide, Sleight estimates savings of about 8,000 man-hours a year. Figuring an average cost of $65 an hour, that's a savings of more than $500,000 a year. (The MobileLink system can cost from $75,000 to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the number of users.)

And in markets where the company has phased out field support staff, the savings climb even higher - perhaps by another 20 percent of needed man-hours, Sleight estimates. Among other things, those savings have allowed his team to increase the number of surveys it conducts. Next up: Capturing digital images and attaching them to the surveys. Says Sleight: "There are more capabilities than we're taking advantage of."

Intranet Connection

Until about 18 months ago, Compaq Computer Corp. suffered what one of its executives calls "information toxicity." "We had a lot of good information - it was just all over the place," says Joe Batista, director of Internet and enterprise initiatives for the Houston-based company. "It was becoming toxic."

Enter Field.First, an intranet applications suite from Conjoin Inc. of Burlington, Massachusetts. The portal stores a company's product and market data in one, easily searchable space, allowing salespeople to draw on vast resources to create highly customized presentations and packages from any location. What previously would have taken days to turn around can now be done in less than an hour. Need a slide presentation? Pick and choose from a slide library. Want a report to back up a pitch? Download briefs and charts from colleagues anywhere in the company. "This actually has made our salespeople 18 percent faster," Batista says, "and we're able to work much more closely with the client."

That 18 percent translates to a savings of about 1 hour and 20 minutes a day, which means more time can be spent closing sales and cultivating relationships. Also appealing to Batista: Prior to installing Field.First, which starts at around $25,000, anything he wanted to publish on the Compaq intranet had to go through a Web developer. "It took me two weeks, worst case, and I never got any feedback on content because no one ever associated me as the original publisher."

Now, he and others can publish briefs, brochures, and so on, directly to the intranet, almost instantaneously, and in their original format. And the product lets users classify data using a taxonomy specific to sales and marketing, as well as rate data based on timeliness and importance. The technology is "self-pruning," meaning it will automatically weed out old or unused content based on parameters established by the users.

Once Compaq selected startup Conjoin to provide its intranet product, the two spent about two and a half months building the first version, then tested it for about three weeks before rolling it out to thousands of Compaq sales and marketing staff throughout North America and the Latin American region. Now they're tweaking the product to beef up the taxonomy and add the ability to carry on conversation "threads" - as in a chatroom - in the intranet briefing rooms. "We're able to fine-tune the product to our needs," says Batista.

Aggregate Advice

Cyber Dialogue CEO Mark Esiri, writing in the January edition of iMarketing News, tells the fable of six blind men and an elephant. As each man touches a different part of the creature, he comes to a wildly inaccurate conclusion about its identity. Only by collectively combining their knowledge can the men recognize the whole. The lesson: Companies must combine databases from their various departments in order to construct a true customer profile. But what about combining data from other companies?

That's the premise behind Merchant Advisor, a new service from Transactional Data Solutions, a subsidiary of MasterCard International Inc. based in Purchase, New York. Using masked MasterCard transactions and survey data, Merchant Advisor delivers consumer profiles customized by retail industry and geographic location. It tracks about 1,000 retailers in 40 industries, including discount stores, children's apparel, and office supplies. Retailers who subscribe to the service can track competitor activity and industry trends using competitors' own data - though, of course, the data is aggregated.

The current system can customize data for each state and some of the larger metro areas, and ZIP code level data is expected in about six months. The statistics show where and when people are shopping and how much they're spending. Eventually TDS would like to incorporate data from each retailer, so the system can also track specific items.

Retailers can take the information a level deeper by monitoring specific peer groups, with a minimum of three competitors in any one group to prevent linking data with a specific retailer. They can also track shoppers by spending habits - light, medium, or heavy shoppers.

Subscribers access the service through the TDS Web site (www.tds-mastercard.com), with quarterly updates and an archive of 15 months worth of data. The price varies depending on the level of customization, but can range anywhere from several thousand dollars up. TDS considers its customer list proprietary, so Bill Scavone, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, wouldn't reveal subscriber names. But he said five merchants currently use the service.

One plans to use the system to analyze a new market before opening stores there, then revisit the data after six months or so to see whether customers stick around after the grand opening. Another, a large catalog company, is interested in seeing how its market share across the country compares with that of other mail-order retailers, as well as brick and mortar stores. Other uses: Determining whether a store is missing a crucial audience, say those under age 35; and tracking when customers do most of their shopping, so ads can be timed accordingly. TDS, Scavone says, saw a need for a product that lets retailers "see beyond their four walls, see what happens when a customer leaves the store." That means retailers can also learn more about what it will take to keep customers coming back.

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