OPINION: Marketers must retain control of consumer data

When you open your presents next week, consider yourself lucky if a really clear guide to successful multi-channel marketing is among them.

Because the pressure in 2003 to come up with the strategy that allows customers to be able to contact companies when and how they want - and be recognised - will become even more relentless. Relentless, because moving into the multi-channel arena is a potent mix of both carrot and stick.

The stick is that gaining even a sliver of extra market share is so difficult that you have to not only keep your best customers but attract more of their business. The carrot, according to research from consultants McKinsey, is that multi-channel shoppers represent increasingly substantial proportions of what it calls the attractive buying population.

For instance, it has found that retail customers using multiple channels for purchasing spend two to four times more than those using one channel. In banks, they are 25% to 50% more profitable.

So when a multi-channel approach works, it is every marketer's dream.

Take the case of the shopping channel QVC, which had sales last year of $3.9 bn from its 24-hour cable channel and its web site.

QVC's 24 million customers are served by seven contact centres around the world with more than 6,500 staff who answered almost 113 million calls in 2001 from customers in the North America, the UK, Germany and Japan.

And, in January 2002 alone, it received 77,000 e-mails.

What QVC does is create a member profile from someone's first transaction onwards, collecting basic transaction and preference data, including the preferred channel, whether telephone, automated self-service or e-mail.

This is all combined into a single database to get a total view of each customer across the channels.

That's pretty a powerful scenario - but, it must be remembered, it's also an exceptional one. So why aren't more companies moving more quickly to adopt that model? There's one big problem. As the technology has become so complex that it can take the IT people up to two years to implement the systems, marketing professionals in many companies has lost control of the all-important customer data to their IT department.

And the custodian of the data is, by default, the custodian of the customer.

Which means that marketers have had little incentive to clean the data to the point where it becomes valuable customer knowledge.

This situation could be changing, however. There is a small but growing band of companies that are developing manageable, easy-to-use customer knowledge systems that they offer to run for companies on an outsourced basis. This starts to allow the companies' in-house marketers to regain ownership of customer data from monolithic centralised CRM systems.

The interesting twist in this approach is that marketers pay as they use the data based on the number of customers involved. This means that they can assimilate the costs into their budget. The systems also allow them to see the results of their programmes on customer behaviour quickly and accurately.

According to Clive Jackson of Global Beach, one of the main players in this field, marketers across sectors, from automotive to consumers goods, are all looking for better, and cheaper answers to questions of managing customers on a multi-channel basis.

His company is benefiting from the growing trend: it was in 33rd place in the Fast Track 100, the Sunday Times ranking of the this year's top 100 fastest-growing unquoted UK companies. So the coming year could see multi-channel marketing not only come of age, but marketers be freed to do what they should be doing: reclaim their position as the voice of the customer.

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