What is Customer Data Management?

Customer data management (CDM) is the way that brands keep track of, store, and use all of the information — collected from every digital and offline touchpoint — about their customers. CDM can quickly become quite complex in the e-commerce space and for any brand that communicates with customers across their website, mobile, social media, and other channels.

Obtaining AND maintaining clean customer data is a critical component of CDM. Without accurate and authentic data, management of it is useless. Brands that ignore CDM or don’t keep processes to maintain clean data do so at their own peril.

The same can be said for CRM (Customer Relationship Management) data. If a brand is not properly assessing the interactions between the business and their consumers, they run the risk of basing sales decisions and tactics on unreliable data.

This post will explore the best ways to collect, store, use, manage, and derive value from your customer data, plus offer tips to ensure data cleanliness.

Why Is Customer Data Management So Important?

First-party acquired customer data is the lifeblood of your organization. It’s the truest form of information about your customers because they gave it to you in confidence and in exchange for a promise of value, in anticipation of information about discounts or deals, or directly during a transaction.

Customer data that you collected is owned by you, and is, in fact, one of your greatest assets and competitive advantages. Though it may seem obvious, customer data is literally the fuel to your communications.

Customer data links various touch points, connects the dots between numerous disparate interactions, events, and instances, and creates that illuminous “360-degree view.” All is made possible by clean, well-organized, well-kept customer data. Successful organization and management of your data isn’t something to skimp on.

Common Challenges of Managing Customer Data

Challenges are inherent if you collect pretty much any amount of data. Why?

Because customers are people, and people aren’t stagnant. They move, they change, and they never cease to be in motion.

Thus, the data they produce never stops either. Here’s a key point to understand which many brands (understandably) haven’t fully grasped quite yet — successful data management is a fluid process. Data is not solidified in stone. It’s in flux, it’s revolving and changing.

Managing massive amounts of information constantly in orbit isn’t an easy task. It’s like trying to pin down a housefly as it elusively flies around your house, while simultaneously trying to understand why it’s there, where it’s been, and where it’ll land next. Other challenges include:

  • Trying to manage all your customer data manually
  • Using disjointed tools (especially separate platforms for each channel) to collect data
  • Understanding which data has meaning or is actionable, and which to ignore
  • Validating your data
  • Keeping data up-to-date, clean, and accurate so it reflects the truest portrait of customers
  • Keeping customer data secure — remember, since you own it, you’re liable for it
  • Achieving all of these points across massive databases of hundreds of thousands of records

I’ll touch on some of these concepts below.

7 Best Practices for Customer Data Management

Best practices for successful customer data management span a wide array. Here are 7 items to think about.

1. Collect Data in Adherence to GDPR

For too long, many brands have been using poor data collection practices to get as many registrants, sign-ups, and transactions as possible — without a plan for how they would communicate with those people going forward.

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) fundamentally changes things in terms of how we collect data and what we can do with it. You need to be able to document all the data about the people who have given you their personal information. If you can’t prove consent, you have to re-permission your database.

Related Content: The Definitive Chapter Guide to Re-Permissioning Campaigns for GDPR [Examples]

When collecting data, creating your overall customer acquisition strategy and when designing entry points on your website, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be transparent in how you plan to use data
  • Keep data organized in a way that reflects which communications each user has agreed to receive
  • A preference center is the outward expression of this idea and allows customers to indicate their preferences (and it’s a great gateway to gather more data)

All of your customer data — old and new — will need to comply with GDPR. We now must be more deliberate and calculated in our approach to data collection.

2. Monitor Data Integrity, Relevance, and Freshness

Data cleansing is one of the most critical aspects of customer data management.

Related Content: Data Cleaning: Tips and Tricks for Accurate Data

Customer data management goes hand-in-hand with data cleansing. Keeping up-to-date information about customers is important for several reasons:

  • Since customer behavior is fluid, and the data provided reflects the movement of customers’ actions, it’s probable that information will change
  • You should always seek to communicate with customers on their terms and using channels they prefer. You don’t want to reach out to customers in ways they don’t prefer. Data helps shape those preferences so your technology can execute.
  • Cleansing processes will help “weed out” contacts (most commonly email addresses) that aren’t engaging, or whose information is no longer correct.
  • Data cleansing corresponds with more personal and accurate communications. You need factual and correct information about customers.
  • The process of data cleansing will enable you to be more effective. Usable data lends itself to easier and more actionable campaign building, segment creation, and freer creative and strategic thought (because you’ll have more time).

Too often, brands do initial data upload, configure data feeds, enrich and update their data, and then leave things and processes unattended. But what if a data feed gets broken? What if faulty data is being fed? What if data collection stops working?

Data maintenance should never be forgotten. You wouldn’t leave your children unattended; so, don’t leave data unattended. Monitor data feeds at least daily, if not hourly. A flow of incorrect data can result in a lackluster customer experience which will negatively impact reputation and revenue.


“You may have the best car, but if there’s bad fuel flowing into it or no fuel at all, you can’t drive. Therefore, it’s imperative to set up data watchers and alerts in order to tackle any bad data easily, early, and to avoid any negative consequences. Carefully plan migration of data feeds and data collection scripts in case of moving to new platforms to ensure seamless transition. Last but not least, keep thorough documentation of all processes and feeds —in the modern world, teams change all the time, and you want to make sure new hires understand what was done in the past and can build upon it.”

Alex Bekhterev • Program Manager at Emarsys

Related Content: How to Obtain, Maintain & Use Clean Customer Data

The takeaway here is two-fold. First, collect offline registrations, online account creation, email sign-ups, and SMS data capture with the goal of creating a clean, valuable, addressable customer database. Aim to capture data in legitimate, honest ways. That way, it’ll be good and clean at the onset.

Secondly, regularly clean your data — find the source of errors (mix ups tied to legacy data, old data capture methods, existing data entry points, etc.), figure out the root cause, and determine the steps needed to correct it. Prioritize existing issues, then focus on fixing historical data.

3. Choose Necessary Data Carefully

We live in an age of data abundance. There’s so much data — 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day. 90% of the data in the world has been generated in the last two years, and “big data” is an inevitable result of the exponentially growing number of digital channels out there.

Related Content: 5 Big Data Examples to Boost Your Next Email Marketing Campaign

So, data isn’t hard to generate or obtain; rather hard to organize, decipher, and make sense of. Where do you even start, and how do you decide what data you need and which you don’t?

Well, this is where data management and organization become important. Which categories of data are of most value to your business?

Are you collecting or storing information about contacts that you don’t even use? For instance, are you collecting physical mailing addresses of people? Do you need these to successfully execute on your strategy?

Choose which pieces of data are business critical, and start there.

4. Gather All Available Customer Data Into a Single, Unified Profile

Imagine trying to put together a hundred-piece puzzle, but only having 60 or 70% of the pieces.

While you might be able to get a good sense of what certain areas represent, or even see certain parts quite clearly, the collective creation will elude you and is incomplete. You need a holistic, complete view to get the whole picture.

Customer data management works in the exact same way.

One cause of disconnected data and the resulting fragmented experience is the use of multiple point tools to collect data. You’ll never have a completely unified profile as long as you use multiple channel-specific tools to collect data.

Daniel Eisenhut

“Understand where the ‘parts’ of your customer data are stored. Email response might be with your ESP, web behavior data with your trigger solution, web analytics and purchase data across online and offline in your ERP, mobile response data with your app provider, print and catalog mailings with your print provider, etc. But what is your source of truth when you need to combine all of these data points to talk in unison and real time with one another? Can you truly gain actionable insights, and create audiences and content for personalization that build meaningful moments in time with your customers?”

Daniel Eisenhut • Vice President of Services and Support at Emarsys

Unified customer profiles are the epitome of effective customer data management. You need a complete profile to understand the entire picture of who your customer is. They aren’t a sliver of the data you have about them; they’re the whole of ALL of the interactions they’ve had — including email clicks, in-store campaigns, website browsing history, mobile interactions, and so on. And you need to not only understand all of these, but also how they relate to one another and work together.

This phrase that I keep hearing around “right time, right place, right message” is real, and it is possible. But it’s the complete view of the customer paired with intelligent automation technology that enables this kind of communication to manifest. Thus, the pinnacle — a “360-degree view” or holistic profile — of CDM enables and is a needed precursor to a seamless, omnichannel, connected customer experience.

That’s the promise of a unified profile, and why it’s mission critical.

5. Use Data to Understand Shoppers’ Online (and Offline) Buying Habits

Brick-and-mortar stores are no longer the kings of commerce. Online commerce and the digital data generated in the virtual sphere needs to, in essence, be “linked” with existing or continuous offline information.

Ultimately, you’ll want to be ready and able to interact with customers across every touchpoint with an acute awareness of browsing habits, product preferences, buying history — all so you can better anticipate and predict what customers might want next.

Rich customer data allows you to understand where and how customers engage so you can make the most of the short time you have to interact with them.

Tracking interactions across channels can also create a fuller, more complete picture of a specific audience segment. Creating highly focused segments allows for even more targeted campaigns. All of this data serves to help marketing campaigns perform better and increase ROI.

6. Identify Where the Customer Is In the Purchase Journey and Personalize It

To elaborate on the previous point, customer data management helps you pinpoint moments in time where you can personalize elements of the customer journey.

The proverbial “personalized customer experience” is as broad and vague as it is abstract. It’s more a figment of our vernacular than an actual reality. No customer journey is personalized, to a tee and to perfection, 100% of the time — at least not in 2018.

In reality, these instances and interactions of personalization will, for the most part, be predetermined and decided upon by you and your team along with the empowerment of marketing automation technology which can personalize portions of a customers’ experience.

While we’re getting closer to truly one-to-one experiences, we’re not quite there yet. But data does allow us to understand where customers are, and how to personalize certain interactions to the best of our ability — and this is both better than the alternative of stagnant, uniform mass messages as well as the best that we can do.

7. Keep Customer Data Secure

Lastly, data security is a vital component of any customer data management project. You’ll want to have data back protocols in place, and also take security measures to encrypt and protect your most valuable business asset.

Data breaches aren’t overly common, but they are threatening to your continuity as a trusted brand when they do happen. Confidential or private information — like credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, health information, financial information, and the like — needs to be secure at all times.

One way to thwart data security concerns, especially from an internal perspective, would be to institute tiered or leveled access to customer data, as well as setting editing privileges to only a core few. Aside from security and privacy reasons, restricting access among employees to data will keep formatting/storage consistent and “untouched.”

Protect, protect, protect. Work with IT and keep your organization’s data safe and secure the same way you’d protect personal items in your home — the things you can’t live without. Because that’s what data means to your organization.

Final Thoughts

For marketing technology geeks like me, the notion that customer data (and how you manage it) is our lifeblood is soothing and also makes perfect sense. Data is the systematic undercurrent that connects everything we do for our customers, as we help them through their journeys with our brand.

Without data, we can do little to create a deeper meaning for customers. Interactions would be meaningless, uninformed, dull, and uninvolving.

The massive generation of quintillions of bytes of data from dozens and dozens of sources AND our increased ability to collect, manage, and make use of it is, indeed, the miracle of marketing.

Successful customer data management should be among your chief concerns. Doing it correctly with honesty and authenticity plus with constant refinement remains a challenge and opportunity. Approach this chasm with eagerness. You certainly are not alone.

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