I've written, talked and thought about data management for an entire decade now. In that time, I've collected examples of how data – and the processes for managing that data – can affect our everyday life. For years I used the "Have you ever gotten multiple pieces of mail from the same company?" example to show how poor data quality can lead to a simple, but costly, error. Yet, as data becomes bigger and more complex, my eye is always on bigger and more complex examples. And I found one this weekend.
On Saturday, I got into my car to run an errand. Instead of firing up, the engine failed to turn over, giving me the tell-tale sign of a dead battery. After a quick jump start, I went to a large auto parts chain store, where you can buy a new battery, and (thankfully) get it installed.
After confirming that the battery was dead, the sales associate found a new one and rang up the purchase. Before handing me the receipt, she started a well-rehearsed statement.
This battery comes with a warranty. Hang on to this receipt, because our systems aren't integrated. If you go to another store, this will be your record that you bought the battery here.
I stifled a chuckle. It's 2013, and a fairly large auto parts store still has silos of data at each franchise. So, I knew that if the battery died while I was away from my home store, I needed that receipt to make things right.
The spread of data across chain stores is nothing new, but many companies have identified and fixed the problem. To get it right, they needed a consistent and repeatable way to manage and govern data coming from its stores - then feed that data back to guide better sales and support efforts. It's not easy, but it can have a positive effect, as I found the next day.
On Sunday, I went to a department store to return a pair of shoes. While I was digging for my receipt, the clerk said that he was able to find my purchase history based solely on a credit card swipe. This included both online and offline purchases made with that card. Ultimately, he made an exchange without me producing a shred of paper. Easy? You betcha.
Two stores. Two very different experiences. On Saturday, I felt edgy knowing that the only way to show that I bought a car battery was a flimsy receipt now resting in my glove box. The next day, a receipt didn't matter. I had my credit card, and they could link my customer history to that one piece of data.
Is good data management a determining factor in every one of my buying decisions? Obviously not. I still bought the battery. But, before I buy another important item for my car, their return policy will enter into my decision-making process.
My personal preferences aside, I wonder how many man hours this auto parts company wastes on reconciling purchases. Or how they manage suburban areas like mine, where returning items might be a chore if there are multiple stores within a short drive of many residents. Data silos can have a material impact on the company, and I began to wonder what else they could refine with better data processes.
At the same time, I wonder if the auto parts chain has a data management team – or merely pockets of data stewards – just itching to take a crack at this dilemma. Probably so. I can imagine analysts seeing returns as a source of inefficiencies, but they are unable to see which technology can fix the problem. The IT side might understand how to make it work, but they don't have the business vision to pull it together. It's a place where every organization has been in their data management journey.
What's the solution? It sounds trite, but once organizations shift their thinking about the value of data, good things can happen. The successful companies I've talked to in the past decade view their information as an asset on par with buildings, production assets, IT systems and spare parts. It's just another asset that has to be managed. They pull in business and IT teams to work the problem and find a solution. Data requires effort and commitment, just as any other business asset.
Sounds easy, but any data management pro will tell you it's deceptively hard. But if you make it work, you can win a few more customers, and maybe keep them longer. And save us from keeping a car full of receipts.