3d cubes

Quality is everything

4th February 2016 • Features

by James Lawson, Contributing Editor

Even putting aside the forthcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation, there is no excuse for poor data quality, however the fact remains that many data users still seem blind to the benefits of clean, up-to-date data, which leaves the data industry with the task of training and educating users – with online forums playing an important role.

Graham Clark | Sales Director, helpIT Systems
Martin Doyle | CEO, DQ Global
Mike Fox | Director, UK Changes
Cyril Law | Solutions Director, Callcredit Information Group
Derek Munro | Head of Strategy, Experian Pandora
Martin Rides | Managing Director, The Software Bureau

Though the benefits of good data quality management are clear, many customer data users still fail to realise them. Even if they adopt relevant software, internal skills and processes may not be sufficient to exploit it to the full. How can we educate users and the market in general to change this?

“The biggest challenge for clients is often understanding they actually have a problem with their data,” says Martin Doyle, CEO at DQ Global. “In some ways it’s denial, in others it’s ignorance. Internally, no-one wants to take ownership of this poisoned chalice.”

EDQ’s latest research provides a host of stats to back up the need for action, like the fact that 97% of businesses still suffer from common, easily-remedied contact data errors. Almost two-thirds of businesses have no coherent, centralised approach to DQM and almost as many only spot errors when employees or customers report them.

EDQ also reiterates its 2014 finding that organisations could increase profit by an average of 15% if their data was of the highest quality. Amongst the issues at one client site, the company discovered £800,000 of unbilled services and €4m of suspected fraud.

With those kinds of incentives, it’s no surprise the report found that 84% of companies plan to make some sort of data quality solution a priority for their business, either through implementing a new system or by improving what they already have. But though technology is a vital part of any DQM programme, you first have to find the source of the problem before it can be put to work effectively.

“You have to understand the data flows and touchpoints in the client’s business,” says Graham Clark, Sales Director at helpIT Systems. “For example, do you they have address validation for their web forms? Where are the pain points and which anomalies have led them to come and work with you?”

Post-sale, software vendors obviously need to train new users in how to use their packages but practically helping their clients find a way through their issues tends to quickly become the main goal. At DQ Global, that typically involves some training at the outset and then continuing support. How to improve the internal data quality infrastructure is a big part of this.

“That’s most often about tuning the software to their needs to get the most out of it but consultancy is always part of the engagement,” says Doyle. “We normally give verbal advice then they look at their processes internally.”

Disjointed information flows and a lack of management attention are often the chief culprits. Each time data is passed over from one function to another or to external suppliers, it has to be in the correct format and specification.

To achieve the well-defined data flows, monitoring, reporting and responsibilities associated with good data governance, everyone should know what their roles are and be suitably trained to carry them out. But according to Derek Munro, Head of Strategy at EDQ, 32% of business staff lack the required skills – so training and organising teams is frequently part of his company’s engagements.

“We offer training in the methods they can use and refer to how other companies have approached their projects,” he says. “One example is to get them to use consistent vocabulary and terminology to get points across accurately to colleagues. A small misunderstanding can make all the difference.”

However, the effectiveness of any consultancy or training in instituting a strong DQM infrastructure and ethos depends largely on the client’s own internal motivation. Many companies are happy to go back to business as usual once they have patched up the issue that led them to a vendor in the first place.

“People tend to come to you when they are desperate,” says Doyle. “So it tends to be short-term pain they want to get rid of rather than a longer term aspiration to manage their data better. We try to educate them in building a DQM culture and to take ownership.”

Outsourcing regular cleansing to an expert MSP often substitutes for a rigorous in-house DQM regime. But working with a service provider can also be a quick way to get things moving internally as they can impose their own processes onto a company.

“We go in at CMO, CTO and CIO level, looking at people, process and technology throughout the data lifecycle,” says Cyril Law, Solutions Director at CallCredit Marketing Solutions. “That includes everything from metadata definitions, MDM and data governance to helping identify the data owners and administrators throughout the business.”

Partnering with a service provider means that consultancy and training are always available. For example, CallCredit runs workshops to educate stakeholders in the matching rules and definitions used across customer and prospect data.

“We help set desired specifications for data and profile incoming records to make sure they comply,” says Law. “That lets us identify problematic data before it causes any issues.”

UK Changes takes a similarly supportive approach as part of operational work with clients. “We have run small conferences on data management and have an extensive customer care network,” says Mike Fox, Director at UK Changes. “All of our Account Managers understand the data value proposition and can offer advice and support on best service selections to meet specific project goals.”

UK Changes is now engaging directly with senior decision makers to understand their business objectives and illustrate more clearly the vital role that data plays. This initiative has already borne fruit with a number of clients.

“Senior management have become more aligned to the requirement for good DQM policies following our extensive review and feedback on their operations,” says Fox. Beyond this kind of direct client support and consultancy, he also points to the need to spread the word about DQM more widely and provide educational content to novice users.

“It is important that the industry continues to play its part in raising awareness of the value of DQM,” Fox says. “We play our part through promotional activity, website content, customer support and involvement in industry-led actions, such as the DMA Data Council and sector-specific working groups.”

Education is what the Software Bureau’s Cygnus Academy initiative is all about. Open to anyone in the industry, the Academy offers three levels of accreditation via training courses on data processing for direct mail production using the company’s Cygnus application as well as more general data hygiene.

“At the end of the Advanced level course, the user will have a significant knowledge of advanced features,” says Martin Rides, Managing Director at The Software Bureau. “That includes scripting techniques and a much better appreciation of industry best practices, specifically the ‘green’ aspect of direct mail and data cleansing.”

EDQ is a leader in providing content, some of it rather creative, like the online data quality maturity model that allows organisations to benchmark their processes and procedures against other users. Another example is the data quality checklist inspired by the most common questions people ask about the subject.

EDQ runs client roundtables at its London HQ, bringing in experts to present and lead discussions. The company also blogs frequently, raises awareness through surveys and employs specialists to write white papers, making them available for free on its own website and elsewhere.

“On sites like Data Quality Pro, the DWI or DAMA’s forum, you can get a broad range of information, view webinars and are able to exchange advice and experiences,” says Munro. “Quite a few of us are on forums like that or LinkedIn groups, and will contribute to those discussions.”

Online portals, forums and LinkedIn groups have now largely supplanted more traditional sources of information like trade shows. “Online forums are definitely the way forward,” Munro says. “The benefit is instant, they don’t have to wait for the event.”

The Software Bureau is a good example here, recently launching the first data hygiene and data processing educational forum on LinkedIn. But though bodies like DAMA do produce lots of great content and forums are vital resources for new and existing users alike, they are largely preaching to the converted. Could trade bodies like the DMA and IDM do more to get the word out on DQM?

With the Data Council and many best practice guidelines, there’s no doubt about the DMA’s good intentions. For its part, the IDM offers its Award in Data Management, the first professional qualification in the UK that recognises the importance of customer data. “I think there’s still a fair bit of immaturity in this industry,” says Law. “There’s little formal individual certification in areas like data quality management and the DMA and IDM could do more to help develop them. DataSeal is good but it accredits a company rather than an individual.”

There’s certainly no shortage of standards and regulation: the DMA Code of Conduct, the ASA Code, the IoF Code. But Clark makes the point that, while “a good standard”, the likes of DataSeal are entirely voluntary.

Only Principle 4 of the Data Protection Act explicitly states in law that companies must maintain customer data. Clark singles out Royal Mail as the only player in direct marketing that requires data processing to be carried out prior to the use of its services.

“Industry bodies like the DMA are doing all they can to promote good data quality practice and they take a lead with their suppression products,” Clark says. “But we would like to see guidelines that require regular data cleansing for all members and have sharper teeth for non-compliance.”

He notes that increasing pressure and recent large fines from the ICO plus the forthcoming European data protection legislation are already making a big different to client awareness of data quality. Rides echoes this, noting the effect of the 2015 fallout after the tragic death of Olive Cooke following repeated cold calls by charities.

“The negative media coverage received by the direct marketing industry has had one big benefit: the spotlight has very firmly fallen on data: its provenance, how it is maintained and how it is used,” he says. “This means that over the last quarter of the year we have seen a massive upsurge in client interest in DQM.”

This kind of external spur might help overcome the inherent lack of interest many marketers have about data quality. Engaging the emotional extroverts typically drawn to marketing roles on what is a relatively dry subject has always been a struggle. Marketers may just want data to work as they want but they can’t just leave the responsibility to others.

“The problems are often because they have the wrong people looking at data quality,” says Munro. “Traditionally it has been left to IT but that is clearly not working. The business has to be involved.”

Data’s pre-eminence in digital marketing helps here and the appearance of roles like Chief Data Officer and Chief Marketing Technologist is encouraging. Where they exist, they should provide the best route into the business for any DQM message.

Training, consultancy, educational content, forum posts and industry standards: they all have a role to play. As DQ Global’s Martin Doyle says, “It’s all part of driving data quality awareness up the food chain from the basement to the board room.”

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