Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Just How Important is Real-Time?


I remember about 5 years ago when I worked at Experian. The hot topic when we'd get together for sales meetings and to discuss what our clients (large financial services and telecom firms) needed was real-time customer interaction. We felt that if we could develop technologies and data integration techniques to enable access to up-to-the-minute customer data, our clients would be able to now fulfill their CRM dreams.

They'd be able to offer the customer the exact right product that they'd be interested in, at that specific point in time. Think of how happy the customers would be; think of the extra profits to be made.

Now, 5 years later, I see that the real-time dream hasn't really made it to reality.

Most firms still struggle to pull data from IT. If the data is only a week old, that's a good thing. Analysis is one-off and project-based. Rarely (except for web analytics) do senior managers have the ability to access up-to-the minute transaction and customer data.

I found an article that supported my opinion (that we're still pretty far away from realizing real-time) in ComputerWeekly.com. From the article:

"A few years ago, everyone was talking about the real-time enterprise and how it was destined to be the future. The idea was that companies would be instantaneously aware of any important business events taking place so that they could respond appropriately and immediately.

But that has not happened because of both the cost and complexity of such a proposition."

The article goes on to state that the cost of implementing true real-time technology rarely justifies the new-found benefits. It outlines three areas where companies are starting to consider real-time applications:
  1. Real-time Reporting Systems--where executives will have access to timely reports so that they can make best-informed business decisions.
  2. Business Activity Monitoring--where transaction and customer behavior is monitored in real-time. A certain activity may 'trigger' an action from the firm. A classic example is in the area of risk management--when a firm sees that a customer has started paying other bills more slowly, they change the way their own collections department treats this customer. Typically, they move to a more aggressive collections strategy.
  3. Real-time Data Mining--where an agent (typically at a call center) has access to up-to-the-minute customer data so that they can offer the consumer the most appropriate product/service at the point in time that the customer calls them, or comes to them with service issues.
The article concludes with a couple of case studies of companies that implemented true real-time applications.

Lessons learned:
  • As much as we direct marketers talk the CRM story, we're still pretty far away from real-time, in most cases.
  • Where real-time technology has been proven a success, it's only because the firms that tackled the issue faced it logically and found small areas where they could reap immediate and measurable benefits, hence justifying the expense.
We'd love to hear your experiences. Do you have a story where real-time data access worked? Or, where a significant investment was made, only to have it fail?

4 comments:

Ted Grigg said...

You hit upon an area that really frustrates direct marketers.

As you suggested, getting response reports takes a week if you are lucky. Several of my clients wait several months for reports.

What's worse though is that they often can't trust the data.

Still persisting are inadequate processes such as merging files without unique account numbers; incomplete records because customer representatives are not trained in the data input business rules; but even more telling is the total absence of established or written business rules in many companies. Basic questions such as ”Who is the purchaser?” on this record or ”Is this the end-user?” remain unanswerable.

So testing and planning is compromised.

Thanks for a truly relevant blog article.

Suzanne Obermire said...

Thanks Ted, for your comment. You'd think that in this day and age it would be easier to access data. Forget about real-time, simple access remains a chore for most of our clients.
Suzanne

Anonymous said...

Real time is crucial in the publishing game. Checkout Ford Employee - Clifton Lambreth's new Ford book - Ford and the American Dream.

ERAnderson said...

Suzanne,
In my past as an industry analyst, I've dug up quite a few case studies that prove real-time marketing can pay off. But, I think one of the issues, is that we tend to make blanket statments like "real-time is a requirement" and then work towards that "goal" only to be disappointed later. The key question that companies need to ask is WHY? Why will real-time contribute to the business?

Real-time can certainly enrich customer interactions...

Take phone service, for example. How many times have you been on a service web site, couldn't find what you were looking for, then called customer service only to have to start the process over? Well, if a company could treat that as a single interaction then there is a lot of benefit to the customer experience.

Real-time can also improve marketing effectiveness. For example, lot's of companies randomly slot content on their Website. The next stage of content personalization is taking compiled profile data to slot content. Add to that the real-time context of what the site visitor is doing right now and you can further align content with what the visitor is trying to achieve.

I agree with your point that data access, timeliness, quality -- all remain huge issues today. And, I think IT perhaps went a little crazy with all of these architectural visions of real-time customer hubs and all of that stuff that was all the rage a few years back. But, at the same time, if you start with a clear business problem/opportunity, I think there are clear scenarios where real-time has and can payoff.