Why companies are struggling to build a ‘single customer view’

Investing time, resources and money to create personalised and valuable customer experiences can reap big rewards, but there are challenges in aligning data for a business-wide strategy


Organisations that invest heavily to build a data-driven “single customer view”, enabling personalised experiences, are likely to reap huge rewards. And I can vouch for that.

At the risk of offending family and friends, by far the greatest highlight of a recent birthday was receiving a personalised celebratory email from the captain of the football club I have supported since I could kick a ball. 

While it was a surprise to see his grinning portrait and accompanying message landing in my inbox, it triggered a giddy response. The feeling of being unique and valued overpowered any rational scepticism that my Premier League team’s superstar skipper had taken the time to congratulate my age milestone. 

This nifty, cost-effective note, made possible because the club somehow knew my birth date,  emboldened my trust and loyalty. I duly spent hundreds of pounds in the online shop on kits, mugs and hats, and marked with a flag the email, which I often click on when needing either a mood lift or guidance.

Businesses will score if they use real-time data to communicate with customers at appropriate times, and it comes across as sincere and authentic, says Adam Spearing, chief technology officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Salesforce. “Brands can build trust through meaningful interactions with their customers, anticipating their needs and delighting them,” he says. 

“Having a 360-degree customer view is crucial for enabling brands to have more personal and contextually aware interactions with customers. The more valuable an interaction is for a customer, the more inclined they will be to continue to trust a brand to use their data appropriately.” 

Spearing warns there is “a fine line”, though: “Only if brands use the data respectfully will they gain that trust.” Herein lies the main challenge with building a single customer view.

Slow and steady wins trust

There are myriad benefits to investing in digital identity specifically to build a single customer view by unifying all relevant data into a centralised profile. Done well, aside from improving all-important customer trust and loyalty, it can guide marketing, boost customer service, better model consumer habits and, therefore, generate more accurate predictions and increase revenue.

Yet there are many pitfalls to dodge to obtain this view. For instance, brands need to connect all historical data with real-time behavioural data, which means digital identities should grow organically over time.

“Achieving a single customer view remains a huge challenge for many businesses due to the multiple touchpoints the average customer faces when dealing with an organisation and the rapid rate at which data is generated,” says Gavin Laugenie, head of strategy and insight at dotdigital, an omnichannel marketing automation platform.

He points to a recent Experian study that found 92 per cent of companies do not have access to a single customer view. Laugenie says this “staggering” figure is mostly because the many touchpoints result in fragmented and siloed data. “The key to getting around this is by adopting technology that not only allows you to communicate with all of your data touchpoints, but pool the data and enable you to use it quickly and easily,” he says.

A single customer view will provide the foundation from which an organisation can “easily read the data and plot the right messages to send individuals as they navigate their unique journeys with you”, says Laugenie. Once armed with the data, it is crucial not to bombard customers, though.

“It’s a continuous process and that mutual sharing process will generate trust, which is essential, especially for older online shoppers,” he adds. “Slow and steady will win the race.”

Rising appetite for personalisation

Benoit Soucaret, group creative director at LiveArea, a global customer experience agency, concurs. “Good personalisation shouldn’t appear personalised at all,” he says. “Instead it should appear fortuitous, delivering value to a consumer at the right time, in the right place, in the right way. 

“It is less about selling consumers products and more about complementing their life experiences. At no point can it appear disconcerting, intrusive or annoying.”

There appears to be a rising appetite for personalisation, according to research published by the Data & Marketing Association (DMA). Some 39 per cent of consumers are “personalisation fans”, a group whose members prefer offers to reflect their interests instead of being surprising. A further 33 per cent appreciate both personalised offers and those that are more random. Only 28 per cent do not favour personalisation. 

“This strong desire for personalisation is encouraging for brands wanting to strengthen their relationship with existing customers,” says Tim Bond, head of insight at the DMA. But he identifies something else brands seeking to build a single customer view must beware: poor quality or misused data. 

Consider how, in January 2020, Aviva addressed its entire email base as “Michael”, proving that mistakes can creep in, even with basic data. “The assumptions, errors and insults will be amplified with each step more personal,” says Tom Kennedy, M&C Saatchi’s senior art director.

Bond agrees: “For a centralised profile to have meaningful value, businesses must have a system in place that can analyse data on previous interactions and combine it with insights from real-time user journeys. Only then can businesses truly understand a customer’s preferences and values.

“Having the right data, consent and preference management processes in place is imperative for businesses that want to guarantee and gain the maximum value for and from their customer data.”

Connecting online and offline data

In particular, marketers understand the merits of a single customer view, according to another recent DMA study. Such a system enables brands to offer more personalised experiences (45 per cent of respondents recognised this as a benefit) and increased transparency (44 per cent gave this the thumbs up). “These are two key factors in fostering long-term customer loyalty and trust,” says Bond.

Consumer expectations in this area are also rising. Some 78 per cent now expect consistent interactions across departments and four in five won’t buy from companies they don’t trust, a report from Salesforce shows.

Given the uptick in demand for customer personalisation, there is an urgent need for businesses of all sizes to evolve for the digital age. “The growing prevalence of ecommerce and multichannel customer journeys through 2020 only increased the importance of understanding your customers’ digital identity,” says Matthew Avery, enterprise sales manager at Infinity, a cloud-based call-tracking platform. 

Avery argues that many businesses are not taking advantage of the technology now available to connect online and offline data, including telephone calls and point-of-sale systems. “If you’re currently only monitoring the touchpoints where customers finally convert, you risk neglecting your understanding, and optimisation, of pivotal engagements higher up the sales funnel,” he says. 

However, Megan Jones, senior strategist at R/GA London, worries that some larger companies, where departments work in silos, are simply not set up to maximise the potential of a single customer view. “Legacy organisations struggle to execute these grand visions,” she says. “This failure can be caused by many reasons, including a lack of digital talent or poor data proficiency. Ultimately, it comes down to a lack of strategy and understanding.”

Clearly, for those who have their sights set on crafting a single customer view, the road to glory is fraught with challenges. To help guide the way, perhaps business leaders can make use of an inspirational personalised email from their favourite football team’s captain, too.