Companies are finding the most profitable growth opportunities


In this panel discussion, a diverse group of companies from different industries are finding profitable growth opportunities through analytics. We’re joined by:

  • Jim Foreman, Director of Circulation Analytic, Staples
  • Halina Karachuk, VP Innovation, AXA Equitable Life
  • Barb Buettin, Director, CRM – Enterprise Information Management, Chico’s
  • Nelle Schantz, Sr. Marketing Director, Program Management, SAS (Moderator)

Nelle:Let’s discuss the organizational role of an analytics team. There are a lot of roles that analytics teams can play: service provider role, consultant role, domain experts - what is the common role for analytics in your organization and where should it play?

  • Jim: Our team plays all three of those roles. The challenge is to balance all of the roles to get to all the opportunities we can. Typically, you have an initial conversation with a customer that has a particular business question; they have a definite agenda and you provide info they’re looking for. But in that process, I can’t remember when we didn’t discover something that they didn’t ask for that provided insight - it creates a value add. Customers come back for more exploratory analytics. If you can do that enough, you’ll get a seat at the table when the questions are being asked, which means you can answer questions more quickly and proactively. It’s more efficient to have the partnership. We don’t want to be order-takers.
  • Barb: When we were really profitable, we weren’t looking at analytics, but the retail crash (during the economic downturn) forced us to take a new look. SAS helped us with a transformation and now it’s top down: The CEO walks around with customer data in his pocket. It’s my team, so we are going to seize the day. Tor us, it’s never about the first question, it’s about being a strategic partner and figure out what the customer wants. We’re driving good relationships within business; we go above and beyond just pure execution and create value. Still, our role is transitional – we’re moving away from order taking – that approach is not going to get us anywhere.
  • Halina: I’ve seen the extremes in how analytics fits in an organization. In our industry (life insurance and annuity products), analytics are just starting to be addressed. I previously worked at American Express, where analytics are the crown jewel and an organizational asset. In my current company, we’re a scrappy organization. There’s no commitment to talent and infrastructure right now, but we can have more success with leaders who are further along in believing analytics can make a difference. We’re finding leaders internally who have an affinity and appreciation for analytics and working with them. It helps us to have successes in other parts of the organization. Our challenge is that our company is very sales driven– this is the type of business that can be more scared of analytics than any other.

Nelle: What works better – a decentralized or centralized - or hybrid approach - to analytics?

  • Barb: We’re evolving – having subject matter experts that understand the business and data is very important. This is where the center of excellence (COE) approach works. We started with the marketing team – they are going out and doing some of their own analytics. After they reach a certain point, they come to the COE. We’re teaching them to fish and retrain them to think about approaching business problems from an analytic perspective. Because our team is so lean, we need to make sure that analytics are in the hands of the right people.
  • Jim: There’s value of the “power to the people” approach. I’ve been in centralized units where analysts spend a huge amount of time on non-value added work. It’s important, but the routine work should be pushed down to the individual teams. Analytic resources need to be focused on the right activities.

Nelle: You’ve got tons of data to get through. How do you advise your team on where to focus to drive the best business results and identify the most profitable opportunities?

  • Halina: Understanding the organizational strategy is essential. We identify which leaders in our organization appreciate analytics. We recently worked with a business unit that had completed a transformation, working closely with their lead to tie the data together to help define their pricing strategy. It was an engaged partnership – he was the right person to work with and his organization was read. This is the type of work we want to put our resources on. The first part is aligning to the corporate strategy and the second is finding business units that are ready to embrace.
  • Jim: Having the right customer is key. I challenge my team – business people often cast a big net when they’re asking questions. They’ll ask a broad question like “sales are down – why?” We’ve got to understand the real drivers of those business questions. We’ll find those areas to focus on and start concentrating there.
  • Barb: In our business, the retail brand presidents would like “levers” to change their business, but it doesn’t work that way. There are multiple things that we need to help them understand. Rather than the strategy coming from the top, it’s bubbled up from the customer level. The strategy is driven around customer insights that change the strategy. For example, we found a correlation between customer retention and associate retention. Sometimes the insights take you down a different path.

Nelle: All of the online activity around customer research and social networking – how are you handing these changes/trends and adjusting the analytic strategy?

  • Halina: We don’t sell direct, so we see a lot of customers and prospects doing research on our products. Even though they have a financial advisor relationship, they want to validate. What I find is that we’re dancing around the edge: We’re not sure what do with the information because it doesn’t drive the sales process. Because we are so sales oriented, how do we use data in a way that doesn’t diminish the financial advisor role? Trying it out and making smaller plays is important. Right now, we’re looking at what can we do without making major investments.
  • Barb: With the huge growth in our online business, it’s definitely a strategy, but it’s also important to integrate that online data with other customer data. We need to tie the online browsing experience with in-store data. We’re trying to eliminate the competitiveness of the online channel versus in-store internally, but we found that customers that leverage both channels do buy more. We need to encourage cross-channel model, but is challenging to pitch to channel leads.
  • Jim: Same with Staples. Our circulars are a good example: people are now looking more at online offers versus newspaper supplements. We have large growth in site visits and we need tight integration between direct and in-store. They’re complementary – we need to leverage these two very important assets together.

Nelle: Customer databases are critical, but companies spend so much time getting it “just right” and it never reaches that state. How do you continue to drive marketing and balance ongoing data management projects?

  • Barb: We’re currently using SAS’ on-demand model, which allows us to focus on the business. For data integration we have a standard production model: The team can evaluate data and turn it around quickly, see if it works or doesn’t before it goes into a production model.
  • Jim: You need to have right tools at your disposal – it’s exciting to see where all the new data is coming from. We use SAS at Staples – our analysts don’t need to know where all the information lives; it’s been provisioned for them. SAS Enterprise Guide has been a very effective tool for them.
  • Halina: We have a very big challenge around that, but we don’t need a perfect solution. We have a number of legacy policy administration systems where it’s tough to pull data out. We need to decide what’s important from those systems. Even so, we can still pull critical pieces and create opportunities for financial advisors and help them find cross-sell and retention opportunities without the perfect IT infrastructure.

For more, you can read Chico's and Staples' success story on the SAS site.


About Author

Rachel Alt-Simmons

Business Transformation Lead - Customer Intelligence Practice

Rachel Alt-Simmons is a business transformation practitioner whose expertise extends to operationalizing analytic capabilities vertically and horizontally through organizations. As the Business Transformation Lead for customer analytics at SAS Institute, she is responsible for redesign and optimization of operational analytic workflow, business process redesign, training/knowledge transfer, and change management strategies for customers. Prior to SAS, Rachel served as Assistant Vice President, Center of Excellence, Enterprise Business Intelligence & Analytics at Travelers, and as Director, BI & Analytics, Global Wealth Management at The Hartford. Rachel Alt-Simmons is a certified Project Management Professional, certified Agile Practitioner, Six Sigma Black Belt, certified Lean Master, and holds a post as adjunct professor of computer science at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. She received her master’s degree in Computer Information Systems from Boston University.

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