August 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

A Single View

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“After that there will only be one customer database,” says Sumit Oberai, vice president of customer solutions. “Management believes we will view this project as successful if we’ve stopped talking about online customers and retail store customers and loyalty customers and just talk about customers.”

Indigo is using Microsoft Corp.’s BizTalk middleware to pull customer data from its store point-of-sale system, from PCMS, and homegrown e-commerce system into a single database, also homegrown.

Tracking customers who purchase online is relatively easy because of e-commerce technologies that collect data by customer. Far more difficult is tracking customer purchases and behavior in stores. This is why many retailers integrating customer data into a single database rely on loyalty card and similar programs, like Mountain Equipment’s coop registration, which make it possible to track a customer’s in-store purchases.

A major part of Indigo’s tracking of customer data online and in store will be handled through its loyalty card program, which costs $25 to join and offers special promotions and a 10% discount on all books. Like Mountain Equipment’s coop registration process, Indigo’s loyalty card registration and ongoing loyalty data collection efforts provide the retailer a rich set of customer information, from basic demographics to favorite authors and genres.

“The foundation of the business case for bringing customer data together was really about customer relationship management and marketing,” Oberai explains. “We will be better able to tailor our marketing efforts, and we’ll get better response. This is the single best reason to have all customer data in one database-to market effectively.”

Indigo plans to use its customer database to drive highly targeted marketing efforts. Today it sends eight to 10 versions of a marketing e-mail a week to swaths of customers. The retailer wants to scale that dramatically, to 100 versions, aimed at very specific groups of customers.

“Having all data in one place gives you a richer view of customer experiences, and as a result we may even get to one-to-one marketing based on purchase history, store events customers have signed up for and more detailed loyalty card information,” Oberai says. “But this is something we cannot do today without a single view of the customer.”

Customer service

Like marketing, customer service is a major area where a unified view of customer data can make a big difference in how a multi-channel retailer interacts with customers.

All Mountain Equipment staff, regardless of location, have access to the customer database, which contains complete purchase histories. When a customer has a question, a staff member can pull up the customer’s master record and view all information to help customers resolve issues with a purchased product or help them buy related products that best suit their needs.

“Having the combined customer data enables staff in any location to solve problems for customers,” Parsons says. “When you don’t understand all the interactions a customer has had with you, it’s very difficult to meaningfully respond in all sorts of customer service situations. With the full view of the customer, it’s buy anywhere, talk anywhere, return anywhere.”

Parsons cites returns as an example of how a single customer database allows Mountain Equipment to deliver superior customer service.

“A customer can buy something online and return it in Vancouver, and buy another item in Vancouver and return that in Calgary. This is extremely easy for us to see and manage because the data is in one place,” Parsons says. “The data helps staff feel more confident when handling returns, they understand what a customer has done at any location. This really reinforces the single view of the customer kind of thinking and has been very good for us at getting the different channels to work well together.”

Crossing the channel

Seeing activity in the different channels through a unified customer database can offer insights that translate into multi-channel success. Parsons found this out through combing the customer database after a new web feature, Staff Picks, led to increased sales of numerous products. What she found was that while Staff Picks was featured only on the web, sales of the recommended products also increased in stores.

“Staff Picks online has been a very powerful tool that is helping offline,” she says. “The success of the online promotion and the corresponding in-store results led us to develop an in-store sign program featuring Staff Picks. This is an example of how you can test ideas in one channel and observe results in all channels and then decide how to make a new program or offering multi-channel.”

That’s what creating a single view of the customer is all about-effectively treating customers across channels. This cannot be done with great efficacy, retailers and experts say, without integrating customer data.

“We know about customers in many different ways, but today we store customer information in different places and we do not provide the optimal customer experience,” says Oberai of Indigo, which soon will launch its unified customer database. “Customers are individuals and Indigo should know that. The more we can know in a collective manner that you are the same person buying all these books, the more efficiently we can treat you and market to you.”

The customer is at the heart of retailing, and knowing the customer very well leads to greater success, Parsons says. “With all customer data in one place, you can view a customer as one person and be able to get at their information quickly and easily in a complete way,” she adds. “When it comes to strategy, our whole mindset is multi-channel. We don’t think about people as web customers or store customers. Put simply, they are customers.”

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