Microsoft Envision/Ignite 2017: Speakers Stress Proactive, and Responsible, Customer Data Strategies

ORLANDO — On day two of Microsoft’s Envision conference, speakers addressed the benefits and challenges of using customer data during a time of worldwide economic uncertainty and rapid technological changes. In the future, organizations will be expected not only to develop strategies for acting on data, but defending their rights to use it, promised Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, during his afternoon keynote.

Standing before a packed crowed at the Orange County Convention Center Hilton, and preceding the appearance of former first lady Michelle Obama, he pointed out that 2018 will present a huge focus on privacy, when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into play. The law will matter not only to companies that run some of their operations in Europe or who have customers and employees in Europe. “If you’ve ever heard of Europe,” he stressed, “this matters to you, because it is setting a global standard, and it is increasing all of our responsibilities and our duties to protect data and it is also increasing the penalties we will pay if we don’t do it right.”

In agreement was Lisa Peets, a partner at Covington and Burling’s technology and media practice, who advised attendees during a morning talk to pay attention to data regulation policies and to hold open communications with those making the laws to influence the direction it goes in in the future. “It’s incredibly important for companies—and I’m not just talking about technology companies, but in a wide range of sectors—to be talking to regulators, not so much about what you’re doing internally with data, but enough to understand the transformation,” she said.

The GDPR, in many ways, was developed in a vacuum, Davis stated, because regulators didn’t fully appreciate the direction the world would be headed in three to five years, and the benefits developing cities could have from openly collected customer data. “Pretty much everyone in this room is going to depend on this information to better develop their products and serve their customers,” she said.

Customer data is an essential ingredient for improving customer experience, analysts present at the conference agreed. During a breakout session titled “Modern Selling Revolves Around the Customer,” Steven Casey, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, said that companies can track customers’ digital behavior to sell to them at a time when they’re increasingly controlling the nature of the buying cycle. Engagement data, for instance, which illustrates how and when a customer has interacted with a company’s marketing collateral (whether it’s a blog post on its website, or an email containing a whitepaper), can reveal key insights into the next moves sellers must take to accelerate a sales cycle. “The better I know the customer, the more customer-obsessed I am, the more power I have in the relationship,” Casey stressed.

Melissa Davis, research director of data and analytics at Gartner, said that the research house has found that the No. 1 area in which companies are investing to improve the customer experience is customer analytics.

Davis noted that just because a business has customer data and access to affordable tools to act on it in near real time doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be thoughtful when using it, lest it enters the “creepy zone” and risks losing trust and loyalty. For instance, if a company is trying to cross-sell or upsell a product to an existing customer, it can plan out strategically when to do so. If it’s a service scenario, or fraud has been detected, the real-time factor may be the wiser choice.

Davis outlined an action plan companies can take to start creating an effective single view of their customers. “Data collection is not an IT plan; it’s a business plan based on decisioning,” Davis said. “What type of decisions are you trying to make, and what kind of value are you expecting to get? Customer analytics cuts across multiple stakeholders and business processes: marketing, digital, customer service,” and beyond. The first step is to get stakeholders together and talk through your plan and strategy to develop a vision. Then, a company can start to solve small issues, get quick wins, and develop near- and long-term road maps.

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