In the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) landscape, we’ve seen a shift in focus from pure technology to an emphasis on data content and quality. Companies of all sizes have found that no matter what they invest in technology, if the data input to a marketing database or to a CRM system is incorrect, then the benefits of a CRM implementation can never be realized. So, how do you ensure that the data your firm will be importing to a marketing database or CRM environment is accurate? Our experience has shown that incorporating sound data hygiene and integration practices into your CRM system design is vital. Definition of Data Integration: Let’s first define Data Integration. We define Data Integration as any process that results in cleaner, more accurate customer and/or prospect data. These processes can range from simple data hygiene tools, such as National Change of Address (NCOA) that have been available to marketers for years, to merge/purge deduplication to relatively new, referential data linking services. Let's look at each one of these services in a little more detail. Data Hygiene: This category includes the U.S. Postal Services products available from all of the leading data processing firms, as well as supplementary services often offered in conjunction with the USPS clean-up services. • National Change of Address (NCOA): This is a file of movers who’ve filled out a change of address form at their local post office. While extremely valuable, it’s important to note that a good percentage of moving consumers and businesses do not take the time and effort to submit this form. • Supplementary Change of Address services: Many of the NCOA service providers also compile additional sources of address changes (such as those provided by magazine publishers or cataloguers). Additionally, many of the NCOA suppliers have developed programs where they are able to identify more Nixies (bad addresses) even if they cannot provide you with the current address. These types of services can be an excellent addition to the USPS NCOA service. • Delivery Sequence File (DSF): Another USPS product offered from a handful of large data processing firms, DSF is a file of every delivery point in the country. You can use this tool to understand simple deliverability of your address data. Additionally, you can obtain a better understanding of your address data by examining DSF flags around address type (i.e.: commercial, residential, vacant, and seasonal addresses). • Locatable Address Conversion System (LACS): Yet another USPS offering—this process converts rural route addresses to a physical street address, enhancing the deliverability of that address. • Address Standardization and ZIP Code Correction Processes: The leading service bureaus, over time, have fine-tuned these processes. Through rigorous editing of input addresses, they are able to maximize the number of records where a ZIP+4- code can be applied. Additionally, they can often employ services that correct elements of the address or append apartment numbers if this data is missing in your input file. Merge/Purge De-duplication Services: This is the process of comparing multiple input files and searching for duplicates. Service providers employ either off-the-shelf software or highly customized proprietary logic to maximize data matching. Many can process both consumer and business data in one process. Other key considerations when evaluating merge/purge providers are: 1) their flexibility in reporting and 2) your ability to customize the matching algorithms. Additional benefits of an effective merge/purge solution are the identification of Prison, APO/FPO and DMA Do Not Solicit addresses. But the most important consideration when choosing your service provider is their matching ability. Does the selected firm identify the maximum number of duplicates? And, are those duplicates accurate? Referential Linking: Referential data matching is offered by data compilers that maintain a reference database of historical and current views of a customer, such as prior addresses, aliases and other name variations. These referential linking providers (Experian and Acxiom are the two biggest) use the power of their rich data stores to maximize the accuracy of matching and linking data on disparate databases, thereby providing the view to your total customer relationship. The primary benefit of Referential Linking is that it assigns a unique and persistent identifier to each record. This persistent ID is vital if you are maintaining a customer/prospect database environment. Additionally, you’ll benefit from additional matches that merge/purge does not recognize. Further, Referential Matching providers also facilitate real-time data access, as they commonly offer real-time data access and matching services. How do I implement these services? Now, that we’ve provided an overview of available Data Integration tools, let’s review which tools are necessary for your specific business needs. We’ll discuss how to use the available address hygiene services, when simple de-duplication processes are sufficient, and provide a check-list of business needs that may point you in the direction of exploring more sophisticated referential data linking. Finally, we’ll point out some of the pitfalls realized in our experience in working on some complex programs. How Do I Take Advantage of Address Hygiene Services? • We recommend using all or most of these services regardless of your other data integration processes and needs. The address hygiene tools are inexpensive and easy to integrate with either merge/purge de-duplication and/or referential linking services. In fact, they are typically a standard component of these other services. • In regards to frequency of the tools, we’d recommend minimally quarterly processing of your complete data files. On top of that, we’d recommend running the processes prior to a marketing campaign to enhance delivery and response. When is Merge/Purge enough? • When you don’t need the ability to track data over time. • When it supports a one-time marketing program (such as a direct mail campaign or a outbound telemarketing program). • When the focus is on keeping customer acquisition costs down, as opposed to retaining and tracking the data. When do I need to consider Referential Data Linking? • You need this service if you are serious about understanding the complete customer relationship. For example, if your firm has experienced acquisitions and mergers, this service is imperative. Your customers expect you to be aware of the entire relationship you enjoy with them. Oftentimes, if your organization is organized into product or segment silos, these relationships are not clearly understood. You need to use sophisticated Linking services to identify and link the business relationships. • When you’ll be importing customer and/or prospect data into a marketing or operational database. As stated previously, if you’re investing significant resources into a CRM system, you need to have an accurate understanding of your customers and prospects. Plus, the persistent identifier that is provided by these linking technologies allows for easier data management. • When you know that your data is old and out-of-date. Because the Referential Data Linking services include historical versions of names and addresses, they will actually match on your out-of-date information. You can then obtain a current, best name and address, allowing you to update your customer/prospect data. Pitfalls to Avoid: In summary, there are a variety of tools available to ensure data integrity. Referential Data Linking is by far, the most accurate and lends itself well to a CRM environment. However, the technology is relatively new. There are pitfalls to be aware of. Following are some questions you should ask yourself and your chosen service provider: • How does the system handle commercial addresses? It’s a fact that Referential Data Linking technologies were developed in the consumer environment. And, it’s a fact that there are hundreds more sources of consumer data than there are sources of business data. The leading providers are still in their infancy of fine-tuning business matching, and the lack of data makes matching even more difficult. If you are a b2b marketer, we recommend that you employ rigorous data testing prior to choosing a service provider to ensure that these services will meet your needs. • Do you have the infrastructure in place to manage data changes? The benefits of a persistent identifier can only be realized if you have the internal abilities to maintain and tract prospects and customers. If this environment doesn’t exist in your firm, extra costs involved in Referential Data Linking may not be justified. • Does your provider commit the resources to support the project from the design through implementation of the solution? Because every company is different, these solutions usually need to be somewhat customized, depending upon your specific requirements. Ensure that your provider is not only able to bring out their “A” team during the sales and design process, but that that team or a reasonable facsimile of it, remains dedicated to your process after implementation -- as your firm begins to fully use the process in your environment. • Does your provider fully understand your needs? It seems simple but we’ve seen many cases where the project is in the testing stage and it is discovered – at this late date prior to production – that there are “issues.” If your provider has done a good job in the design process, fixing the problems should be simple “tweaks” to the system. If this turns out to not be the case, you can lose valuable time in re-design and re-test prior to getting a solution that delivers the expected benefits.