Show Me the Data: Ask Questions First and Deduplicate Later

Duplicate records in a database can dilute a mailing and discourage response. But they can also provide valuable information about customer behavior. Asking several questions before deduplicating your data can let you gain knowledge that you might otherwise lose in normal processing.

Start with a question about the structure of the file before you. Are the accounts also the contact records, or does one account have multiple contacts within it? If there are separate account header and contact fields, check to see if the accounts are limited to a certain number of contacts. Some database structures designed for business-to-consumer activity limit the number of contacts one account can have. When those systems are used for business-to-business activity, multiple buyers or inquirers at a business might have to be spread over duplicate accounts to let a sales rep list all the contacts. Deduping at the account level could lead you to mistakenly drop valid contacts and limit response to your mailing.

Look into how the database records purchases. If the contact records are also the account records, as is the case with many b-to-c files, look to see if duplicate records reflect successive transactions.

I recently worked with a file that had separate accounts for each purchase of expensive consumer items. The deduplication had to be done in two steps. The first was to drop duplicates of the same transaction. The second was to flag duplicates of the names and addresses over different dates and item numbers. When the numbers of duplicate records for each household were summed up by name and address they were an exact indicator of customer value and rank.

Follow up by inquiring whether the contact records are also the shipping addresses. Some b-to-b files have separate address fields for account header, contact, and shipping address. If they are separate you might want to focus on the decision-making or buying contacts. If you have to include the shipping addresses, look closely to see how they differ from the account or contact information.

Many business-shipping records I have seen do not include a contact name. You might have to add items to your merge/purge match code such as a department name to specify enough detail to retain unique shipping addresses in your mailing.

Standard merge/purge processing makes assumptions about the records you will be submitting. You can question those assumptions to fit the processing to your file. But you have to ask the right questions about your own customer records. Then you will not lose some of the contacts you would like to mail because your b-to-b accounts limit the number of contacts they can include. You will not lose significant customer value and ranking data when your accounts are also your transaction records. And you will not mismail or undermail when your shipping records are included with your contact records.

Instead of accepting the assumptions built into your merge/purge processing, ask questions first and deduplicate later.

Bill Singleton, president of Algonquin, IL-based consultancy Singleton Marketing (, writes “Show Me the Data” for the LIST & DATA STRATEGIES e-newsletter.

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