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What Are You Doing With All of That Unstructured Data?

What Are You Doing With All of That Unstructured Data?

Why those emails, complaint calls, Word files, and social media feedback should be factored into your electrical distributor’s overall data management approach.


We hear a lot about the data that electrical distributors are using internally and sharing with both customers and suppliers—the kind of information that’s meant to be captured, stored, organized, and analyzed. Be it product attributes, pricing information, or customer data (contact names, company names, zip codes, etc.), this “structured” data is usually stored in databases and then retrieved, revised, and updated as needed.

But structured data is only part of the data game. In fact, it makes up just 15-20% of corporate data, according to Datamation. But what about the rest of the information that distributors generate, disseminate, and use on a daily basis? It all falls under the umbrella of “unstructured” data, or all of those Word files, PowerPoint presentations, videos, email, audio files, and social media postings that employees develop (or receive) and then store on their computers, devices, and corporate servers.

What is Unstructured Data?

The good news is that unstructured data isn’t as intimidating as it sounds, nor is it anything that we’re not all used to working with on a daily basis. Encompassing a wide swath of information, files, and electronic communications, unstructured data includes:

  • Text files: Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, email, logs.
  • Email: Email has some internal structure, but its message field is unstructured and traditional analytics tools cannot parse it.
  • Social Media: Data from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
  • Website: YouTube, Instagram, photo sharing sites.
  • Mobile data: Text messages, locations.
  • Communications: Chat, IM, phone recordings, collaboration software.
  • Media: MP3, digital photos, audio and video files.
  • Business applications: MS Office documents, productivity applications.

Representing 85% or more of all of the corporate data that firms are generating and using, unstructured data flows freely through the typical enterprise but isn’t always easy to harness and leverage. A field salesperson who maintains customer files on his own computer, for example, has a veritable goldmine of unstructured data at his fingertips, but can’t readily share it with anyone else. And a marketing manager who handles all of an electrical distributor’s social media postings probably isn’t gathering all of that information (and, more importantly, customer feedback and input that comes in via social) and sharing it with the sales team via a centralized platform.

“Unstructured data is typically not something that most distributors think about when making operational business decisions based on sales channel data,” Earl van As, VP of marketing at Vancouver-based Conexiom points out in 2018 State of Distribution – Turning Challenges into Opportunities. “Distributors look to typical digital touchpoints like e-commerce for customer behavior data that informs strategic decision making. However, with up to 80% of orders still being placed via email, a large portion of insights are missed.”

“An enormous amount of transactional data is missed because most orders come through via email,” van As continues. “Reorganized and analyzed with the right tools, however, it delivers a true view of customer activity like buying trends, key customers, volume, and timing—all of which can help with forecasting and inventory management.”

Ferreting Out the Hidden Information

With unstructured data comprising 85% of the typical distributor’s total data reserves, it makes sense for them to pay attention to how all of this information is gathered, stored, and used. With the Baby Boomers retiring in droves and taking much of their “tribal knowledge” with them, for example, now is the time to start mining those veteran brains for the data, information, and knowledge that will help keep Gen X and millennial workers—and all who follow them—from having to reinvent the wheel.

“There is a lot of valuable ‘hidden’ information in unstructured data,” says Kavita Ganesan, Ph.D., founder of Opinosis Analytics. “For example, if an electrical distributor looks deep into the customer support data (from call centers, support tickets, emails, etc.) that it has collected over the years, it will actually find patterns of customers’ general problems or what prompted a call.”

With that information in hand, the company can actually take an educated guess at what the customer wants from the products or services that it purchased. For example, if hundreds of customers have complained about slow shipment times, it means that they want things to happen at a much faster pace. “This type of hidden information can help you innovate and start providing superior products and service experiences to your customers,” says Ganesan, who points to these sources of unstructured data as good starting points for distributors:

  • Customer support – emails, call center, support tickets.

Use it for product innovation, to fix problems in the organization, and to understand customer pain points.

  • Customer experience data – user reviews, social comments, surveys.

Use it for product innovation, to fix problems in the organization, and understand customer pain points.

  • Logs – search logs, page views.

Use it for understanding what type of items people are looking for, your best-performing pages, worst performing pages. 

  • Website – blog and search

Use it to start recommending relevant content from your existing blog posts to make it more interesting and engaging; make your search experience much better with cutting edge; keep customers on your site longer.

Wrapping Your Arms Around the Data

With all of the unstructured data that’s swirling around them on a daily basis, electrical distributors have a lot of options to choose from:  customer complains that come in via phone, email messages, people writing about them on Facebook, and the problems that customer service reps are logging.

One of the best aspects of unstructured data is the fact that it hits on points that companies can’t get from their structured data. By taking an aggregated look at any of the bullet points listed above, for example, distributors can readily pick up patterns and trends that they can then use to improve their processes. “This, in turn, helps companies improve their product and service lines,” says Ganesan, “and make better organizational decisions.”


In part 2 of this article series, we’ll take a look at specific ways your distributorship can leverage its unstructured data.

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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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