Show Me the Data: Slim Down Your Customer File

Many people gain holiday weight. Your customer file can also gain weight that can make it sluggish and less efficient. The start of a new year is a great time to trim your customer information for two significant reasons.

For one thing, not all data is good data, especially old data. Some companies I have worked with have sent along all of their customer data, including sales records going back four, five, or more years. When I have reviewed some of the old records I have found periods of abnormally low numbers of transactions. I have learned from questioning that these records are remnants of system start-ups, or a legacy of the lax record-keeping policies of the database manager’s predecessor.

Just as often I have learned that the client’s business model has changed since the start of their sales history. They changed their catalog significantly, radically altered their prospecting strategy or refocused their merchandise selection. They have kept these records out of a fear that usable information will be lost if they are discarded. As soon as I conclude that they are not relevant to the client’s current planning process, I discard them and get on with the analysis. Had the clients reviewed their history and asked these questions themselves, they could have increased the efficiency of their own internal queries, of their external merge/purge and modeling processing. Also, had they told their IT system administrators – who often grouse about excessive file sizes and ages – that they were willing to drop the old records to help IT out, they could have gained their gratitude and extra high priority for their next system project.

Another good reason for slimming down your file: Not all data is safe data, especially private data. Some clients have included more information in their customer files than is needed for analysis, such as credit card numbers and sales executives’ notes. Files for rent include birthdates, credit indicators, and a variety of other individually targeted data.

Even though such information can be legal for you to access, rent and use under privacy regulations and the HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley laws, I have cautioned some clients about using it. The threats to privacy regularly mentioned in the media have sensitized consumers and business people to potential identity theft, industrial espionage and business and government carelessness in handling personal and financial data. Is there something in your customer and sales files that could embarrass you or lose you the trust of a customer if they saw it printed on their catalog label through a horrible but not impossible mistake? If there is, ask yourself if you really need it. Or, if you do need it for a particular promotion, consider if you need to keep it. You should not retain prospecting records if the prospects have not responded to your offer within the single or multi-use arrangement you have with the list owner. Yet many companies clutter their databases with one and two year old files because no one will initiate a cleansing. Private personal, health, financial and rented data should be carefully handled and thoroughly deleted as soon as their necessity is over.

Keep yourself trim in the new year. Keep your customer and associated files trim as well. You and your data query and retrieval system can benefit, as can your external processing, through smaller, faster running files. Keep your private data private and erase it as soon as you no longer need it. Neither you nor your customers can be embarrassed by the revelation of information you no longer have. Look over your files now, before you get deep into analyzing your 2007 data, and get rid of the items you will not use, no longer need or should not have kept in the first place to start your new year off right.

Bill Singleton, president of Algonquin, IL-based consultancy Singleton Marketing, and pens “Show Me the Data” for the Lists & Data Strategies e-newsletter.

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