How this customer thinker lifted Pepper's data game

How this data and analytics leader has built up data smarts across the financial services business

Most data teams are constrained by the resources available to them. So when those resources aren’t enough for you do everything, you could be doing to help your organisation, you can either live with the situation, or find ways around it.

For Paul Thompson, the latter option was the more appealing one. A former treasury expert, Thompson took the role of head of data and analytics at Pepper Financial Services Group three years ago, bringing with him a deep knowledge of the workings of a finance business and how it could be improved for customers and partners.

Thompson realised quickly how much more Pepper could be doing to use data to help its partners and clients. But also knew his ambitions could be curtailed by the resources he had to work with. So while he had some remit to build out the data function, he also chose to adopt self-service data analytics platform, Alteryx, to make the rest of the organisation more data literate.

“Like every data department around the world I have limitations with regard to the resourcing that I can have,” Thompson tells CMO. “But with the right kind of data literacy and education and tools you can enable the business to take on lots of those things themselves.”

Thompson’s goal is not to shift work away from the data team, but to enable other parts of the organisation to use data for the betterment of partner and customer relations. He says this is something that is increasingly expected by partners as they themselves become more data literate.

“That ability to understand whether the partnership is working is a differentiator,” Thompson says. “The ability to have a feedback loop and understand what is going on is quite critical. If you can understand those mechanisms, you can visualise it and feed that back to your business partners quickly.”

And it was here that Pepper’s existing data environment was coming up short. “Enterprise data warehouse platforms are very good at creating automated, canned reporting in stable environment,” Thompson says.

“What they are not amazing at doing is providing data fast. We were finding instances where we were being asked to provision and visualise data for our business partners quite quickly, and we weren’t able to do that.”

The need for a more powerful and usable data tool was also being fuelled by increases in the sheer volume of data that Pepper was now managing, which had long since outgrown the capabilities of spreadsheets.

“One of our transactions had more than 40,000 rows of data, and we figured out a better way to do that using Alteryx,” Thompson says. “It went from 30 to 40 minutes of waiting time when you are trying to update things to instantaneous.”

Building team data smarts

Equipping other staff with data skills revolved around what Thompson calls a ‘land and expand’ strategy.

“We wanted to get a couple of engaged business partners who had challenges or needed information and demonstrate to them that Alteryx was a really useful tool to enable that,” Thompson says. “We have gradually created more and more interest and buy-in as people start to see the tool in operation and its benefits.

“And testament to that is we have gone from one licence to 30 licences.”

Further proof of the success of the strategy came in the early days of the COVID crisis, which had an immediate impact on the financial status of many of Pepper’s clients. The company suddenly found itself switching from having no data points relating to COVID-related financial hardship to having many.

“We didn’t really have a methodology for that in our enterprise data warehouse,” Thompson says. “We worked closely with our business partners and the data governance manager. We mapped processes, we mapped data flow, and we used Alteryx to give us visualisation of our position as it related to COVID hardships for both management and our investors.

“And that was a very powerful demonstration of our collections team working very closely with a tool that enabled us to bring information together that wasn’t stuck within a data warehouse and visualise it to our executive really quickly. To me that is the nub of what we are looking to achieve.”

The goal now is to continue to build that data capability throughout the organisation, to enable the creation of even better outcomes for partners and customers.

“Everyone talks about data citizens, and I like the term,” Thompson says. “To my mind I am really helping the business to scale in its capabilities for data and analytics. We talk about being a data driven business, and so I very much see my role as an enabler of that, and tools like Alteryx help me to do that.”

Read more on how other businesses are building their data smarts:

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