Leveraging customer data to drive business decisions


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 provided notes from the first session, titled How to Find the Most Profitable Growth Opportunities earlier, and below I’ll share details on the second session, titled Leveraging Customer Data to Drive Business Decisions.

What’s the most underused asset in an organization?

Customer data. Specifically tapping into the power of this data to build customer knowledge.

SAS’ Senior Director of Product Marketing, Nelle Schantz, led this discussion too. Lori was joined by panelists Stephan Chase (Vice President of Customer Knowledge at Marriott International), Mark Hodes (Senior Vice President of Marketing at Nextag) and Scott Sutton (now with ESS Analysis, Scott recently managed the database marketing team for The Venetian and Palazzo Resorts in Las Vegas, Nevada), to learn how these frontline leaders use predictive analytics to get the highest return on their marketing investments.

Nelle kicked-off the discussion by stating that so many of us today believe whole heartedly in the power of predictive analytics. Analytics drive our business forward. She said. “They allow us to convert data into business value.” After some brief opening remarks she jumped into the questions by asking the panelists to talk about how they are using analytics to drive their business forward and how they are converting data into business value.

Mark started with some context about Nextag. Nextag is an online comparison shopping engine, where they aggregate inventory from online stores and catalogs to help people make decisions about what to buy. Nextag invests money by paying for clicks from search engines, and they make money by getting people to click from their Website to a merchant (the merchant pays for this click activity). The delta is revenue. We can lose money every minute if we don't monitor our keyword bids Mark said. Analytics helps us optimize our bid strategy for hundreds of millions of keywords which are active at any given time. We have to leverage vast amounts of data in near as real-time as possible, so "analytics is at the core of how we make money."

Scott started by saying they create full views of the customer that visits their properties. We work to understand their behavior said Scott. We look beyond gaming data, to hotel data; retail data; dining data. What do customers do at certain times of the day? Once we have a full view of the customer, we start making decisions about how we can improve their experience.

Stephan said that Marriott has been working on finding out as much about their customers as they can, and they've been doing this for fifteen years. They focus on discovering the 'truth' about their customers ("Although there is no real Truth" Stephan said, only an approximation.) And then applying truth to answering questions like: what's going to make our customers happier? What offers will appeal to them? How do we get this in front of the customer at the right time?

Many organizations are migrating from a product-focused, to customer focused business strategy, and to that end, there is a huge focus on the customer experience... understanding it, improving it, and accumulating information to have a more complete view of customer behaviors across channels and products or properties (in the case of the hospitality industry). Nelle asked the panelists if they have found that this movement to a customer focused strategy is true of their company and if so, to briefly discuss the key strategies they are undertaking to move in that direction.
Stephan mentioned being focused on a retention strategy and talked about demonstrating the value of new Vs. long-standing customers. Customers have many experiences across a variety of touch points said Stephan. You can say and do something at every point. The question is, what is the optimal thing to say and do each time? Lofty, yes? But you can break this down to make it easier to answer. There are only a few categories here concerning what you can say or do, things like: you can use information to answer their questions. You can present them an offer. You can demonstrate that you value them as a customer. You can ask them something... When you think about this, you can start to get your head around determining the right thing to say or do during your interactions.

Scott fully agreed and mentioned this is similar to what they're doing at the Venetian. What type of games are the customers interested in? Is it a particular brand or style of game... Once we figure this out said Scott, we can improve our interactions. For example, we can communicate new games the customer may be interested in. Things like this can improve their experience. At every point, put the customer first. Think about how you can make them happy.

Mark commented that moving from product to customer centric is about viewing everything through the lens of the customer experience. "The only product we have is our Website" said Mark. We must evolve our product to be singularly focused on our customers. Personalization is a key focus. So is Social, like setting up a shopping tab in Facebook.

Today’s consumers – the NOW generation – have high expectations of the companies they do business with. They want things fast and accessible and that point brought us to the concept of “time.” As marketers, Nelle said, we have many degrees of time from “right” time to “real” time to batch files to monthly refreshes… and Nelle asked, I’m curious whether in your own businesses are you feeling a push to do things faster and if so, where have you found that time really matters (in which customer interactions or business processes?)

Scott started first. In the gaming industry, he said, we focus on doing things fast. But some things matter more than others. One big issue over the next few years is how do we interact with people when they are actually at a property of ours (rather than considering coming to the property). In this case, we have to be quick and make decisions to get someone the right offer. Offers to return to a restaurant they ate at earlier needs to happen while they have time to act on that offer.

Stephan said there is real-time decisioning, but there is also real-time action (and you don't need the former to do the latter). Do you have to calculate in real-time what to do? No, not always he said. Just make the information available. Often real-time is associated with short term too, focused on "let's make the most money now." To drive home the point that this may not be the best strategy, he made an analogy: Consider if I were to spend my days maximizing my personal happiness at every instant. It's guaranteed I'll be out of work, lonely, pathetic, and overweight. It's the same thing if an organization is trying to maximize profit at every instant, instead of looking to build long-term loyalty. "You can optimize your organization into the ground if you're not careful."

Nelle jumped in to say that maybe we don't need real-time decisioning all the time. But, she commented, you do need to deliver insight into the hands of people who need it at the right time, right?

Mark said that the hurdles here are really mountains. Some of his competitors have armies of people to make their data sing. But he doesn't. So he has to focus on right-time vs real-time to get data into the hands of the right people. But we haven't fully figured this out said Mark. Distributing BI to the exec team, being thoughtful about planning/forecasting. We're doing some things great. But we're probably still a little more reactive with the data that comes towards us than we should be.

In the hospitality and entertainment business and certainly in the online retail space, there is a great dependency to connect various pieces of information we know about the customers and our markets said Nelle. Whether that’s knowing what properties patrons frequent, and boutiques they shop in, to understanding their buying behavior. Doing that requires a bit of a marketing and analytics echo-system where we’re connecting all kinds of information from various places to get a full view of a customer. So, Nelle asked, how do you do that in businesses as complex as those that you’re in and what are the realistic hurdles you need to overcome in your organizations to get there?

Mark talked about this issue of augmenting data. He said too much focus goes to thinking like: let's collect data from website, then let's go to an external site to append demographic data, etc. Instead, Mark argued, what we need to do is optimize the data we already have, in our house. Look closer at how customers are using the Website. Understand the paths they take. Look at the transactional data. Once we've mastered this, said Mark, then we can go outside to append third-party data. His approach? Nail the website data first. Then get data from the other channels that they control. And then, and only then, consider appending data.

Scott said there are many different sources of information that have to be put together. We're trying to answer questions like "which customer is more likely to purchase a room and which needs to be comped?" These questions require a lot of data from internal and external sources to answer. The truth is out there, but we're not sure how close we are to getting to it yet.

Stephan mentioned that internal data is all over the place and it's often difficult to get it all together. Yes it's easy(er) if you have executive support. But not everyone does and it's very difficult if you don't. What he found, is that you should place a bet, and start pulling it together yourself. He learned that once he pulled together a critical mass of data, the owners of other data sources are now coming to him to be part of the consolidation, now that the value is being seen.

Nelle moved us to the topic of brands. Our brands, she said, have never before been so difficult to manage, and their health so important. In a virtual world where the consumer is so squarely in control, and where brands are being discussed, “liked,” “disliked” and sometimes hauled under the carpet in public forums like social media, how do we as marketers and analytics professionals manage brand health and tap into the power of social media?

Mark was quick to answer. If we can do social well in the next year, we could declare victory. It's a monster to do right. We just have to let it happen, and celebrate the good. You cannot control the conversation in the social sphere and it's best not to try.

Scott mentioned an example of an earnings call that mentioned they were cutting out room comps. This immediately exploded in social channels. This was tuff to manage said Scott. But you just have to be honest with your customers. Acknowledge they are there and that you've heard them. Don't fool yourself, customers can read through your BS. Don't dig a hole.

Stephan reminded us that word of mouth has always been powerful. And that we've never been in control of it, and we never will be. Doesn't matter if it happens at the water-cooler on in an online venue.

At that point we hit our time allotment and Nell quickly wrapped us up.

If you'd like to see some of the recorded content from the event, you can view the keynotes and opening sessions here: http://bit.ly/f9Rir4


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.


  1. Stephan Chase on

    Thanks, Justin,
    I really enjoyed this opportunity to share ideas.
    On a philosophical note I didn't mean to say or imply there is no real truth; only that we can't know what it is with absolute confidence.

  2. Justin Huntsman on

    Thanks for the comment Stephan – and thanks again for participating on our panel.
    According to Nietzsche, what we call truth is only "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” I’m not sure we can know anything with absolute confidence.

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