Four ways to get your business data under control

[This post first appeared on the Sage Business Experts blog in January 2015]
[It was updated and re-edited in October 2016]

I (for my sins) spend a lot of my working days managing or interpreting business data for my clients – there is a surprising amount of it. Customer data, order data, product data, financial data, management information and reporting data – all of this stuff matters if you are a business, and managing it properly will pay you dividends (probably quite literally!)

Here I will share a few tips to help you get your business data under control in the first place, and also to keep it under control.

1) Collecting business data

On the face of it, it sounds like a good plan to get the customer to enter as much business data for you as possible, especially if you have an e-commerce website, or some other direct connection to your customer base. This is fine, but it exposes you to rubbish data – I regularly see telephone fields populated with ‘0123456789’, or emails entered as ‘me@email.com’, or whatever it takes to get past the form validation.

Sometimes customers are reticent to provide telephone numbers, dates-of-birth and so on as they think that it’s none of your business.  If your site forces them to provide that data for no good reason (and you need to explain that reason to them) then they may go elsewhere. I have been known to leave sites that insist on both an email address and a mobile phone number – I don’t want to be getting endless marketing texts, and email is far easier to ignore.

Your specific business requirements will be fairly unique, but as a general point I would suggest not being greedy. Collect the data you need bit by bit – the real value in customer data is not so much their name and address, but their buying patterns and the likelihood of you converting them into a long-term customer.

If you have an ongoing relationship you can collect business data bit by bit and build up a picture. If someone buys once and then you never see them again, you don’t need to waste resource on collecting information about them – send out some offers, and try and entice them back. If they don’t come back, don’t worry – concentrate on finding out more about those who do come back.

2) Tidying up your business data

Think about how you would like to be written to by a business – I doubt you’d appreciate an address like ‘fred bloggs, 1 any street, anytown, ab1 2cd’, which is how customers very often enter their details via a website!

Get your designers to put some validation into your system that converts the input to ‘proper’ cases – normally a capital initial for names and addresses.  Decide about the format for telephone numbers and stick to that (usually with or without spaces) – setting some rules like these can make it easier for the designers and developers to validate the input and minimise the amount of rubbish you will end up collecting.

Bear in mind that the input can be sorted out behind the scenes – I have seen systems where the user gets a message saying, for example, “Please enter the telephone number without spaces!” If you have one of these, speak to your developer – it needs a simple line of code to strip out the spaces before the number is stored, and the customer is none the wiser – a far better experience on your website.

3) Storing business data

A quick tip if you are storing data in the ‘cloud’. In general, you may not be too fussy about where it ends up geographically, but some businesses will be regulated, and may have to keep the data in the EU for example.  So make sure you check if you are backing up a database, and storing that backup on the cloud.  Even though your main system may be in the EU, if you put the backups onto Dropbox or Google Drive, or some equivalent backup service, they may end up anywhere, so be careful if it’s important to you.

4) Data Protection compliance

This is a whole post on its own, and probably more than one. Many people are unclear about the rules, and this can allow unscrupulous operators to get away with calls that they really shouldn’t be making.

From the other side, if you yourself are a marketing operation then you simply have to keep data clean, or you can end up in trouble.  Mailing lists and telesales data needs to be regularly audited, not only to ensure accuracy, but also to check that the prospect has not recently signed up with the Telephone Preference Service, or some similar organisation.

If this is an area of concern or interest for you, then this useful guide from Experian might help. It tells you how to approach a variety of scenarios, so you may find your own challenges dealt with here.

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