Top questions to ask when building a customer data engine

Leaders from flybuys, News Xtend and The Iconic share how they're working to better harness customer data for organisational success

Having a plan for how you’re going to use customer data, an ability to action it, and a lifecycle approach to customer engagement are all vital in building a successful customer data strategy.

That’s the view of the chief customer officer of flybuys, GM of operations and technology at News Xtend, and chief data scientist for The Iconic, who shared how their organisations are working to build the ultimate customer data engine during the recent CMO-CIO Executive Connections virtual event series in July, sponsored by Salesforce Datorama.

When it comes to building a customer data strategy, the first question News Xtend’s GM technology and operations, Christopher Stobbs, always asks is: “Do we know why we’re doing it, and do we have a plan?”

“Plans are worthless but planning is everything – and when it comes to data, it’s critical,” Stobbs said, referencing a quote originally made by US former president, Dwight Eisenhower. Planning is also important in the fight against bias in or around data use, he said.

“If you just start running down the road with data and using it and looking at what it’s going to do, you end up falling unknowingly into biased scenarios. And you’re not stepping back and seeing that bigger picture,” Stobbs said.  

“The other question I always ask is: Are they in it for the long run? Data strategy is a long game. People, behaviour, industry, even the world changes as we know it is today. While you may start down one road, you may not be on it tomorrow.”

It’s a similar story over at flybuys, said chief customer officer, Rosemary Martin. “What are the problems you’re trying to solve, and is the data you’re looking at going to be actionable? You can spend a lot of time analysing things, which might be interesting, but what are you going to do with it?” she asked.

“Start by being focused on getting what you need to get started, then iterating from there. Rather than getting all the data out there that’s possible, focus on what are the problems you’re trying to solve and the minimum data requirements to make it actionable.”  

The Iconic’s director of data sciences, Kshira Saagar, highlighted three questions his team typically ask of the business in order to ensure data is used successfully. The first is around business objectives and goals.

“There are usually three to five things you want to do, so how many of those are being solved with data? It’s the first question we ask,” he said. “That in itself can show only one problem is being solved yet you’re collecting millions of data points.

“The next thing we ask is: How often are you going to solve this problem? Is it every day, every year, or just at Christmas?

“The third question is: How many people are going to get access to solving this problem? Is it just two in the business or everyone who’ll be solving this problem? The answer to those questions translates into who we give access to, what tools we should build, the platforms we should roll out, and the data people should learn about. It’s about solving the company’s key problem, how often we’re solving them, and who is going to be solving them.”

As use of data matures, you’ll find more people start asking tougher questions, and you’re able to solve more complex problems, Saagar continued. An example he pointed to at the online fashion retailer was when his team worked with the head of the menswear team to answer a selection of tough questions.

“They had 15 questions for us, gave us six months to solve the problems, and we took 15 minutes. That’s prompted and pushed them to try and ask us tougher questions,” Saagar said. “It’s good for them, the business and good for the team.”

Read more: What The Iconic's data and analytics chief is doing to drive stronger business decision making

Widening your data thinking

Panellists also talked about how their views of which data sets are important to tap into has transformed in order to better understand and respond to customer need. Over at flybuys, a major shift has been occurring around using transactional data in concert with wider qualitative customer data sets to better understand member behaviour and provide more personalised products and communications.

“We’ve always been very focused on our first-party transactional data. But in the last 1-2 years, we have focused a lot more on making sure the product and services we design are based on direct customer feedback as well,” Martin explained. “We have been focused on bringing lots of insight across the business as well. It’s been great to see teams embrace it. It’s helped to contextualise problems or solutions they’re looking at, by putting the member more front of mind.”  

At News Xtend, plans to better harness a wealth of performance data from customers by tapping Salesforce Einstein AI is increasingly seen as a way of adding more value. Stobbs said initial outputs from trials are promising as the machine learn from data.

“Over time, we’ll need to work hand-in-hand with computers to make sure the bias isn’t there and we’re doing the right thing for customers. It’s an exciting journey,” he said.  

At The Iconic, one way AI is being used is to help filter fashion onsite for customers based on what they like to buy and what items go well together.

“For example, if you search for a black dress, you’ll find 100s of black dresses. There’s no way you can filter all of those. So we look at what you bought before, the styles and patterns you like, the size you typically wear – the algorithm understands all this and filters accordingly,” Saagar said.

“We’re trying to make the online experience as seamless as an offline experience.”

Check out the full panel discussion from CMO-CIO Executive Connections featuring flybuys, News Xtend and The Iconic here.



And you can check out the full presentations from our CMO-CIO Executive Connections virtual event series here.

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