The Observer: Treating Customer Data Like The Gold Mine It Is - InformationWeek
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Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: Treating Customer Data Like The Gold Mine It Is

Compliance rules may force companies to deal with 'gap management' and handle customer data the way it should have been treated all along, Lou Bertin says.

The statement was offered matter-of-factly, with no discernible rancor. "We're treated like sewer workers. We're told to just keep the [stuff] moving." The speaker was an attendee at an InformationWeek roundtable and as astonishing as the blandness with which he offered that assessment is the fact that the "stuff" he and his colleagues are told to "keep moving" is customer data collected by one of the world's largest banks.

So much for the notion that customers are royalty.

The subject under discussion the day our friend tossed his bucket of reality into the mix was, in fact, the art and science of not merely maintaining effective customer relationships but cultivating those relationships into perennial assets. With all the brave talk of how customers are indeed kings and queens and how getting closer and closer to customers is the ne plus ultra of strategic enterprise behavior, we were provided an invaluable lesson in what's really wrong with this picture.

Tellingly, when the comment was offered it didn't draw a shocked silence from the couple dozen of his senior-level counterparts in the room or anything else reflecting surprise. There was, instead, endorsement (expressed less colorfully, to be sure) and reinforcement of the sentiment.

The issue, it seems, is the enduring and -- based purely on anecdotal evidence collected over the past several years at reader gatherings great and small -- growing gap between those overseeing information technology initiatives and those actually executing those initiatives. It's always fascinating to be around those at the top; the CIOs, CEOs and various and sundry VPs and directors we're lucky to have as part of the extended InformationWeek family absolutely never fail to be sources of remarkable insight and the fruits of some of their labors are demonstrable, indispensable components of their enterprises' successes.

The old saw has it that people who like sausage and people who like newspapers should never watch either one being made. Add the category of "IT execution" to that adage and you'd be far closer to the truth than any of us would care to admit.

Does it qualify as news that there's a huge gap between those at the top and those who fill purely "executional" roles? Hardly. There's always been a chasm between those at the top and those rungs and rungs lower on the management chart. With the world showing no signs of adopting utopian models anytime soon, that will continue to be the case.

Does it qualify as news that there's a huge gap between what we're "supposed" to see and what's behind the curtain? Just think back to the reactions of Dorothy and the Wizard. Better still, just look at their very different reactions when the flimsy curtain that separated illusion from reality was pulled down.

This isn't intended as a screed about how some IT workers are poorly treated (though some undoubtedly are underloved and underfed, that's probably a case of shame on them for enduring such "abuse"). Nor is this a lamentation about potential breaches of customer data security (though it makes me a bit queasy to think that big chunks of my financial behavior are characterized as "stuff" to be kept flowing down the pipeline).

Gap Management
What's ultimately unsettling about all this is the very real, almost palpable gap between enterprise positioning and customer reality. Again, there's nothing new there. There always has been and always will be verbal embroidery offered by organizations as they attempt to convince us that they're really better than their competitors; that their financial futures are bright, that they really put the customer first. All of us, it seems, are capable of speaking the facts without speaking the truth.

Happily, there's help at hand that will help close the gap between image and reality where issues of customer data security -- to my thinking, perhaps the most vital indicator of how companies really value their relationships with us -- are concerned. It's called compliance and it has more companies turning themselves inside out and upside down than they'd like us to believe.

The threat of falling on the wrong side of the regulators on any front has lots of C-level shorts tied up in knots and ultimately that's a great thing because it's going to force a lot of long-overdue rehabbing of what had often become shoddy day-in-day-out behaviors and practices. Just as the Y2K dilemma led to bottom-up overhauls, the compliance mandates coming from so many fronts are forcing organizations to truly practice as they preach when it come to what really matters, which is to say "us."

A couple years ago, a former senior-level executive at the very financial organization whose put-upon employee offered the assessment at the top of this little missive laughingly shared his pet peeve about ATMs: "If banks really cared, they would know I speak English."

Linguistic preferences surely are part of the "stuff" that has to be kept moving down the pipes, but through threat or genuine insight, enterprises will be forced to treat that customer data less like "stuff" and more like runoff from a goldmine; residue that has terrific value for those diligent enough and smart enough to capture every last bit of value from the process.

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