How to find the most profitable growth opportunities


The SAS Global Forum Executive Conference is a three-day conference held April 4-6 at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV. The conference is international and invitation-only, designed to spark discussions about business problems and how to best solve them.

On Tuesday, April 5, there were two breakout sessions on the topic of customer analytics. I’ll provide some notes from the first session, titled How to Find the Most Profitable Growth Opportunities below, and publish another post later tomorrow with details on the second session, titled Leveraging Customer Data to Drive Business Decisions.

Quick! What's the best strategy for a company to grow?

“Just sell more products or services” right? It may seem like a no-brainer, but there is actually a smarter and more precise way to become more profitable.

SAS’ Senior Director of Product Marketing, Nelle Schantz, led a discussion with panelists Jim Foreman (Director of Circulation and Analytics at Staples), Halina Karachuk (Vice President of Innovation, Research and Analytics at AXA Equitable Life) and Barb Buettin (Director, CRM-Enterprise Information Management, Chico's FAS Inc.), about their approaches to finding opportunities others miss through analytical techniques such as data integration, data mining and forecasting.

To get us started, Nelle talked about the role of analytic teams, saying analytics has the ability to help organizations be very successful and profitable...but sometimes the role that analytics teams play in an organization can be quite different than the potential for analytics teams. And just like that, we had a great discussion about the function of an analytics team, where within the organization they live, and how that should change going forward.

Jim commented that his team plays many roles. He said that every analytical problem should start with a business question. "You start by providing the information they need. But," Jim said, "we always think about new ways to answer them, in a consultative way." Over time, they start to come to you with larger challenges, and we begin to be thought of as a strategic partner in their efforts. That's where I'm headed with my team. "Aim for a partnership"

"We're at a transition point in the organization." Said Barb. When we were really profitable, "it was all good" and we were not looking closely at our data or analytics. Now, that has changed. It's a big focus and things are much different since we've installed SAS. The entire enterprise is now focused on customer data and we work as a strategic partner with all other parts of the organization now. It's so exciting to be part of this new way of thinking. This new way of asking and answering questions.

Halina has seen the extremes of how analytics can fit inside an organization. In her current role, analytics is just beginning to be focused on. "We're a scrappy analytics organization" she says. "We're still building the commitment to this area of focus." She continued by saying that she seeks out people organizationally, who have needs for fact-based decision making, and offers them help. Everything we sell, she said, is through financial advisors - so analytics can be scary to them, since we're so organized around the sales approach.

It didn’t take long for the centralized/decentralized question come up. "When it comes to driving profitable growth with analytics, what’s better?" Asked Nelle. Are centralized analytics teams best set up to do this, or does the decentralized model (where each product, channel or line of business does their own) have advantages? Barb said they are putting tools in the hands of the business, so they can accomplish the easier things themselves. But, she continued, we're there to support them with the larger, more complex challenges. "Teaching them to fish," supported by a strong centralized team, is our strategy. And it's working.

Jim agreed fully with this. "Power to the people!" There is great value in that approach. Sometimes you can push the important, but recurrent, work out to the teams with only a small amount of training. And when you do that, it frees up your centralized team to focus on the complex items.

Nelle moved the conversation forward by asking the panelists their recommendation on where to focus to drive the best business results?

Halina mentioned two things. First, understand the corporate strategy. i.e. what are the priorities and how is the analytical team adding value? And second, understand who in the organization really appreciates and needs analytics. She works closely with these people to find new sources of data, tie them together, build the historical trending... The success comes when the business value is evident. In most cases it's clear how analytics is adding value.

Jim agreed that identifying the right internal customer is a great strategy to find areas to focus on. He said that too many times people come to his team with questions like "sales are down - make them better." There is real value in going back to basic questions when this happens. What are sales? Are they down because trips are down or average orders are down? If it's average order, what is average order? Average order is units and price. So do we have a unit issue or a price issue? Keep asking questions like this and you eventually find the lever to pull. "It's detective work. But it always pays off."

Barb commented that she sees this issue too. Chico's has three distinct brands, and each want one lever to improve sales. But she works to help them understand "there is no one thing." It's multiple things. As an example, she mentioned that they recently found a correlation between associate retention and customer retention rates. We only found this by looking at customer data, she said. "Insight came from data digging." This wasn't clear to anyone before. But now that we know that when an employee leaves, they very often take customers with them, we can act on this.

Nelle brought up the huge migration to online we're seeing - from how consumers use online to shape buying decisions and buy product, to how consumers engage in social networking. And she asked the panelists to share how these online trends affected how they do business today, and to talk about what impact they think online and social data will have on their analytics strategy.

Halina started by commenting that because they only sell through financial advisors, all the social and online activity that happens with her customers is related to research they are doing online. "We're a subscription business," she said. We hope our customers will renew year over year. But for now, online data is not driving the sales experience for us. However there is a growing concern about how to provide data to customers through the online channel, but doing so in a way that does not hurt or damage the sales advisor's role or ability to provide value. Nelle suggested taking a trial/error approach to move to a point of improving the customer experience without diminishing the sales advisors value add.

Barb said that for Chico's they've had 40% growth in their online business. So it's important to integrate online data with other customer data. We need to get better at communicating that multi-channel shopping increases sales for everyone - it's not competitive.

Jim see's the same thing at Staples. One scary moment for them in terms of marketing was with the Sunday circulars, which "is big for us" said Jim. Newspapers are declining because more are turning to online news sources. So there's a big push to build up our online efforts and we're seeing great growth here. Most people will not see a chair online and buy it - they want to feel it and sit in it. So we could never close our retail presence to sell online. It's a balance. Both channels are so necessary and they shouldn't be seen as competing for sales.

For many organizations, customer information and customer databases are leveraged very heavily to drive good business decision making, yet it seems like an ongoing quest to assemble datamarts that have all that we need, and they are never quite as robust as we need them to be. "As analytics leaders" Nelle said, how do you navigate through that, and continue to run a business while retooling and refining your systems to keep the business growing?

Barb said that SAS pays a big role in helping them do this. "We operate onDemand with SAS." This has worked great for us, SAS runs the system and we focus on our business. Today, data comes at us from every direction, yet we're able to integrate all of it very quickly. "It's been a dream!"

Jim affirmed you need to have the right tools are your disposal. Who thought of text messaging campaigns five years ago? "Not to pitch SAS," quipped Jim, but one thing that has made SAS so effective at Staples, is that I don't need to know where all my data lives. SAS hides all this complexity. SAS Enterprise Guide has been so effective in getting our analysts up to speed quickly.

Halina reminded us that you don't need the perfect solution to be effective. We have some old technology managing some of our systems she said. You need to decide what's really important. We have more than 100 administrative systems. But we're still able to pull the right data for our advisors to help them find opportunities. It's not a perfect infrastructure, but we make it work.

After a short audience Q&A session, Nelle wrapped up by asking one final question of the panelists: When it comes to customer intelligence, looking ahead, what's the next big thing to conquer in your business?

Halina said she's challenged with how to make mobility to work for her sales force. Sales is not interested in analytics or details, but mobility can make this consumable, in a valuable way.

Nelle, ever quick, made the analogy: "It's like when I put medicine in applesauce for my six-year old!" Yes laughed Halina, just like that.

Barb mentioned her largest challenge is social media and trying to figure out the real next step. It's now a two-way conversation with customers. As they recently learned, interaction between associates and customer is a special bond. So they're testing new ways to use iPads to support this two-way interaction.

Jim reminded us that marketing is all about optimizing relevance and timing of communications to customers with the aim of driving better results. With so many new channels, every interaction is now an opportunity to capture new data. Figuring out how to leverage and integrate this new data is the next big thing.

With that Nelle wrapped up the session. Stay tuned for details on the second, afternoon session! And in the meantime, if you'd like to see some of the recorded content from the event, you can view the keynotes and opening sessions here:


About Author

Justin Huntsman

Customer Intelligence Marketing Manager

I'm Justin Huntsman, a field marketer on the SAS Customer Intelligence team. I'm the editor of the SAS Customer Analytics blog, where my colleagues, friends and I discuss the challenges today’s marketers face in finding profitable growth opportunities, taking the best marketing actions, and maximizing cross-business impact.

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