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How Well Do You REALLY Know Your Customer? Part I

How Well Do You REALLY Know Your Customer? Part I

There’s a delicate balance between getting the customer data you need to do a good job and asking for too much. Here’s how to make it work for your distributorship.


Whether you’re getting customers to talk about their biggest pain points, encouraging them to sign up for a monthly newsletter, or going over their last year’s worth of purchases, you’re gathering data from B2B customers that may or may not want to relinquish it. And while the B2C side of the equation is decidedly more personal and potentially intrusive, there is a balance between asking for enough information and asking for too much. 

A contractor that’s dealing with resource constraints, and the associated time and cost pressures that come along with those issues, may be more than willing to spill the beans about how those problems and how your distributorship can help. But a potential buyer who visits your company’s website to review product options and availability—and who has to fill out a lengthy registration form just to get to that information—may skip it and search elsewhere for a more frictionless experience.

Once you have the customer data in hand, there’s also the question of what you’ll do with it. Will it gather dust on a hard drive or server somewhere? Or, will you dissect it, distill it, make it actionable, and use it to provide even better service to your valued customers? The choice is yours, and it’s one that not all companies put enough time and effort into.

“It’s still amazing how many companies fail to truly make good use of data in the customer service industry,” Robert C. Johnson points out in 3 Ways B2B Companies Can Use Customer Data to Improve Customer Service in 2019. “A common reason is that service interactions – from live chat to phone calls and everything in between – happen too quickly for companies to make data-driven, informed decisions.”

Johnson goes on to say that B2B companies can use customer data to improve customer service in multiple ways, and that they should strive to utilize data to not only keep customers happy but also to save themselves time and money. Actively monitoring which channels customers are using, for example, and tracking the pulse of every customer relationship helps companies act quickly when problems arise. “The right data points can be critical to a customer service team,” Johnson writes, “enabling everyone involved to work less on assumptions and more on real facts.”

Just the Facts, Please

Chris Bergh, CEO of DataKitchen, Inc., a platform that manages analytics creation and operations, has worked with a lot of B2B companies that needed help getting a handle on their customer data. They also need help figuring out what to ask for, how to ask for it, and—perhaps most importantly—why they’re asking for it. In most cases, the issue of “asking for too much data” comes up because distributors aren’t using the information that they already have.

“Most companies just don’t know how to do it; data is accumulating in a variety of places almost too quickly for anyone to keep up with,” says Bergh. Other key challenges that B2B companies grapple with are:

  • The goalposts keep moving. Sales and marketing requirements change constantly and the requests for new analytics never cease.
  • Data lives in silos. It’s collected in separate operational systems and typically, none of these systems talk to each other.
  • Data formats aren’t optimized. Data in operational systems is usually not structured in a way that lends itself to the efficient creation of analytics.
  • The data is wrong. Data will eventually contain errors, which can be difficult to resolve quickly.
  • Bad data ruins good reporting. When data errors work their way through the data pipeline into published analytics, internal stakeholders can become dissatisfied. “These errors also harm the hard-won trust in the analytics team,” Bergh says.
  • Data pipeline maintenance is never-ending. Every new or updated data source, schema enhancement, analytics improvement, or other change triggers an update to the data pipeline. “These updates may be consuming 80% of your team’s time,” Bergh points out.
  • Manual process fatigue. Even in today’s tech-rich business world, the procedures for data integration, cleansing, transformation, quality assurance, and deployment of new analytics are “error-prone, time-consuming, and tedious,” Bergh says.

Another issue that comes up when B2B companies try to harness the right amount of customer data is the fact that most of these companies are used to “talking” to their customers, versus communicating with them via digital means. For an electrical distributor that relies on an outside sales team for most of its business development, for example, most of the customer data is stored in those reps’ heads. And while some of it may be communicated back to the home office—often using digital means—many of the most important tidbits go into the tribal knowledge vault.

A B2B distributor that suddenly finds itself up against a formidable online competitor like Amazon Business, for example, must start to drill down and get the answers to questions like: How do we become top of mind for our customers? Are we engaging with these companies enough via email, online, and in person? Do we know who our best customers are (by profit versus just sales volume)? And, how can we use this data to engage with even more of these target customers?

The answers to these questions can help distributors do a better job of harnessing the right amount of customer data in order to service those customers better, improve sales, solve customer problems, and compete effectively in today’s multi-channel selling environment. “Even if you use online techniques for gathering customer information, there are still so many other companies out there competing for their attention,” Bergh notes. Plus, if all you’re doing is collecting names and email addresses, there’s still more work to be done to ensure that those prospects 1) truly deserve the extra effort and 2) are going to become customers.

Bergh says one way around this challenge is to use a combination of Dun and Bradstreet data and even just basic Google searches to learn whether someone who visited your site is actually someone you should be engaging with. “By simply enhancing an email address with some company information (i.e., demographics, sales, target markets, years in business, etc.) via a process we call DataOps,” says Bergh, “you can take a more iterative approach to customer data, versus having to spend months building out a database.”


In the second installment of this article series, we’ll hear what one data expert has to say about striking the right balance between gathering customer data and asking for too much.


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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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