Why many B2C businesses are further away than ever from a single view of the customer
Ben Robinson
By Ben Robinson

Single view of the customer

Groundhog day.  I am having exactly the same conversation with clients that I was having 20 years ago.  I work in the customer & consumer technology sector and this conversation is about a fundamental building block of customer engagement strategy.  It’s about delivering a single view of the customer.

20 years ago, the CRM technology market was beginning to boom.  CRM technology vendors were promising to transform the relationships between a firm and its’ customers and large enterprises, were investing in first generation solutions.  Almost every project had identified a “single view of the customer”, as the foundation upon which this transformation would take place.  This concept was simple; draw together an organisation’s collective knowledge of the customer, from different systems and departments, structure it and then expose it to front-line staff who could use it to make a difference.  Why then, 20 years on, have so few organisations successfully delivered on this objective and is it still relevant?

There is more than one reason why, for many organisations, the single customer view is still aspiration not reality.  The challenges that exist today are not those of twenty years ago either, there are more of them and they are more complex.


Why is single view of the customer still a relevant topic?

We are living through a period of change the pace of which is unprecedented.   The advance of digital technology has changed the lives, behaviour and expectations of billions of individuals in just a few years.  Consumers are no longer anonymous individuals with no voice.  We are a noisy collective who talk, share, switch, complain and demand more, in an instant.  As consumers, we adopt and exploit new technologies at a pace that the brands and suppliers we deal with have been unable to match.  Recent history is littered with organisations who were unwilling to listen or unable to act on what was happening around them; equally there are those organisations that have gone from nought to 9 digit dollar valuations in similar timescales.  It is difficult to argue, against this backdrop, that any business that deals with consumers, does not need an intimate knowledge of them as individuals, which means understanding their past, knowing them in the present and predicting their future needs and behaviours. 

The single most important factor behind many of today’s digital success stories (Uber, Air B&B, Amazon) is the customer and the firm’s ability to listen and understand them.  These businesses have identified something which is valuable to customers and made it available quickly.  The Under Armour acquisition of tech vendors raised eyebrows – why did a sporting goods company need tech businesses in its’ portfolio?  Because they were buying customer data to unlock the next growth phase of their business.

I chose to blog on this topic because I am having the SCV conversation more in the last 12 months than ever before.  The primary driver of these conversations is businesses who have identified a need to launch digital customer initiatives but realised that their single customer view and underlying customer data, is not in a fit state to support this.  Almost any digital transformation program will have a significant focus upon customers, but if you’re missing critical information about your customers, or worse still, you have that information but you’re unable to see it and use it, you face huge challenges in moving forwards.


So what’s stopping everyone?

So if the single customer view is still relevant, why then, have so few organisations been able to deliver on a single customer view (and the underlying customer data model to support it)? 

1. Agile is not always the answer

This might seem an odd statement from someone at AgilityWorks.  But the reality is that for organisations who have embraced agile to deliver rapid progress in customer-facing digital projects, they may have created a new problem to solve.  Agile brings a collective focus to those things that are most important in delivering a successful project quickly but this does not typically create an environment where the needs of other projects will be considered.  If there is no owner of customer data represented in the agile project team (and frequently, there is no such owner as I’ll get to in a second) then the team will build or create the customer information that they need to support their requirements.  This can lead to duplication of customer data and siloes of information which are then difficult to reconcile.


2. A lack of ownership

So who owns the customer?  And the customers’ data?  Marketing?  The Chief Digital Officer?  Customer Services?  Sales?  Very few businesses have a nominated owner for customer data and without this ownership, it becomes difficult to drive new customer data initiatives forwards. 

In the absence of centralised ownership of customer data, individual projects or departments create just the data they need for their immediate requirement (see my previous point) leading to further fragmentation and moving them further away from a centralised model and causes issues around duplication, accuracy and inconsistency.  Decentralised approaches to customer data management also create direct challenges to providing consistent customer experience across multiple channels.


3. Complex spaghetti architectures

Commercial enterprise architectures have become increasingly complex over the last 10 years, as organisations have turned to multiple niche software providers to keep up with consumer adoption of new technology.  Very few businesses have been able to run a single CRM system that manages the complete spectrum of customer touch-points and channels. 

In these multi-vendor, multi-application landscapes (resembling spaghetti) customer data is spread out over multiple systems creating duplication and introducing the potential for inconsistency and misalignment.

The challenge then becomes how to join fragments of data together to form the single customer view.  A single customer journey now takes place across multiple channels and technologies and capturing these, normalising them and storing them is tough.  Each touch-point in that journey might also be a fundamentally different type of information, an on-line purchase, as structured data followed by a complaint, created, stored and shared as a video blog.  Bringing these different aspects and types of information together is difficult.

There is a separate issue here since there are now a multitude of customer data sources which are not owned by the enterprise and which are stored externally.  These sources could potentially be very valuable but acquiring access to them might be costly and therefore there is a commercial decision to take.  Or put off.


4. Limitations of current technology

Accepting that customer data now comes in many forms, including unstructured and anonymous, many of the technologies and applications deployed to deal with customers are not suitable.  Current enterprise applications were not designed to cope with consumer-grade data volumes and the infrastructure these applications run upon is often not suitable.  Classic relational databases are not well suited to dealing with large volumes of unstructured data yet this is the foundation upon which many customer-facing business applications are built.  In this environment, it becomes exceptionally difficult to join fragmented customer records together to form the single view.  There are technologies capable of storing and processing the volumes of data that B2C businesses now deal, but often these are not fully integrated into the wider business application landscape, which is critical if those front-line staff are to respond in real-time.  The recent shift away from Apache Hadoop to Spark is evidence of the need for big data platforms to perform in real time.


5. Making the case

There’s a lot of data out there and it’s growing all the time.  2 billion photos were being shared daily by the end of 2015 via Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (*1).  IDC are forecasting 180 Zettabytes (or 180 trillion gigabytes) will be created in 2025, up from less than 10 Zettabytes in 2015 and 44 Zettabytes in 2020.  The explosion of consumer data volumes is being driven by social platforms, IoT, mobile and the web.  As individuals, we are leaving an ever-expanding footprint of data behind us in our daily lives.  And this data we leave behind takes new and different forms. 

In amongst this vast universe of customer data, determining what is available and valuable and increasingly permissible to use (see GDPR below) will be key to driving forward a single customer view initiative.  And associating financial benefits to the single customer view is not necessarily straight forward, since value comes from how and where you expose this capability into the front-line of the organisation and what those teams and individuals choose to do with it.


6. The Fear Factor

Regulators are struggling to keep up with the explosion in the volume and sources of customer data, but they are making headway (see my colleague James Blackburn’s blog on the forthcoming GDPR legislation due in 2018).  The issues of privacy and consent are being forced upon businesses by regulators and the fines for non-compliance are in some cases significant.  For many organisations, the fear and uncertainty around legislation in relation to storing and managing customer data slows down and stalls projects.  This may seem short-sighted but the risk of creating and exposing a new customer data tool across and beyond the business does introduce challenges.

GDPR Blog7. Suits you…

There are relatively few off-the-peg solutions that completely address single view of the customer for B2C organisations.  The complete scope of a solution needs to consider not only transmission, storage and visualisation but data quality, governance, remediation, management and regulatory compliance.  These are broad topics and a one-size-fits-all approach is difficult when customer systems, landscapes and data models are not uniform.  For organisations who have become increasingly conditioned to buying cloud-based off-the-peg solutions, the prospect of a bespoke tailored solution can be off-putting.


What next?

Whilst the challenges to implementing a single customer view are numerous, some businesses have successfully overcome these and been able to drive the business forwards from an intimate understanding of their customer.  In my next blog in this series I will discuss how to successfully deliver the single customer view. You can also register now for our single view of the customer webinar on the 13th June:

Webinar Registration


*1 https://cewe-photoworld.com/how-big-is-snapchat/ 

Ben Robinson
By Ben Robinson

Ben is Practice Director for Customer Management and has amassed over 13 years’ experience, focusing exclusively on front-office projects for the last 11 years. Ben joined AgilityWorks after previously working for Xansa, Atos Origin and SAP; he has implemented Customer Management solutions across a broad range of sectors including Consumer Good, Retail, Professional Services and Public Sector.

Follow us on Social

And get access to even more digital insights


Just want to talk, call us on:
+44 (0)844 5610930

Join us

Life doesn't wait and neither should you. If you want to join a bunch of people intent on changing the world, you've come to the right place.


Latest opportunities