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Customer Information is Your Company's Life-Blood - Part I

Companies today that are seeing the greatest return on information have recognized one thing: A customer-centric business strategy is doomed to failure without an IT infrastructure to match. In other words, if customer information is the life blood of today's business, then you have to keep it safe, secure, integrated and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The health of your company and of its CRM solution depends on the data storage infrastructure supporting it.

There is no doubt that the reasons to invest in CRM are sound. Business managers understand that keeping customers over the long term is the key to profitability, with increasing emphasis placed on the lifetime value of the customer.

The rationale is that by paying attention to and recording interactions with customers, you can strengthen and deepen customer relationships. It's what "One-to-one Marketing" gurus, Peppers and Rogers, call a "learning relationship."

Insights gained from customer interactions become fodder for the next product or service customization. The products being offered then meet customer needs better and better, which in turn fosters more customer loyalty, and so on.

But what if you had gathered years of customer data yet had no way to access it, no way to analyze it or to integrate it across multiple business channels or processes?

U.S. office supplies company Staples, found itself in just such an unenviable position a few short years ago. The company had installed a database soon after opening the nation's first office-supply superstore in 1986, but the technology at the time was quickly overwhelmed by the company's rapid growth and the resultant volume of information. At its worst, a simple search of the database entailed scanning more than 10 million customer records. Complex queries could take several hours, even days, of computer time.

A customer-centric business strategy is doomed to failure without an information technology infrastructure to match.

Although the Staples story is not uncommon, information storage technologies have vastly improved in the last few years, and companies are now tapping into mountains of data in ways undreamed of in the past.

The companies today that are seeing the greatest return on information have recognized one thing: A customer-centric business strategy is doomed to failure without an information technology (IT) infrastructure to match. In other words, if customer information is the life's blood of today's business, then you have to keep it safe, secure, integrated and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To be customer-centric is to be information centric

For the U.K.'s Virgin Direct, which sells its financial services directly over the telephone, having the right information at the instant it is required can make the difference between a lost opportunity and a new customer. Though it is a highly competitive marketplace, financial services is a fairly simple product to deliver-the challenge is perfecting direct telephone sales.

Many companies that have launched direct telephone-based operations make the mistake of thinking that the same products and the same people, with a telephone stuck in the middle, add up to a direct operation. Virgin Direct's success is due in part to its investment in its people and in the systems that support them--systems that have been built to focus on the customer rather than on any one financial product.

At the heart of the Virgin Direct business lies a vast database of information on over a quarter of a million customers housed in Symmetrix Enterprise Storage systems from EMC. These storage systems are networked to the PC screens of Virgin Direct's call center staff, enabling them to create an immediate rapport with potential customers, based on logs of previous conversations.

The company's lifeblood is the ability to understand what makes a customer call, what they buy, and how long will they stay with them.

By ensuring that its data--the core asset of its business--is secure, reliable and accessible, Virgin Direct is getting the best possible return on information.

Providing the right information in the right place at the right time

The ability to move data across multiple platforms is an essential element to any successful CRM initiative. In order to provide the right information in the right place at the right time, the organization must have a complete, unified view of its customers-regardless of which channel the interaction takes place in. Another key element in any information infrastructure is the ability to scale.

With CRM and other business intelligence applications, companies are now collecting data at astounding rates. Obviously, there must be a place to put all of that data. But more importantly, if it is to be used effectively, it must be quickly and easily accessible at any time of the day or night.

The movement of data across diverse platforms, scalability, 24/7/365 availability, and creating a unified view of the customer-all are essential for an information infrastructure. But users need to do more if they are to build a single information delivery system.

As businesses build more extensive storage networking environments, a truly effective information infrastructure must be able to integrate information seamlessly from either a Storage Area Network (SAN) or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) environment, or from direct connect technologies using a single, unified set of management tools.

ROI means back to basics

In the future, the importance of information will only continue to grow. Already, the world's top companies, including many of the largest financial institutions and telecommunications companies, have recognized that fact and are using enterprise storage systems.

"If you are really looking to build a rock-solid information infrastructure," says Forrester Research analyst Joe Butt, "most companies will look to a provider that offers intelligent storage systems. The level of intelligence within the system, the incredible customer service, zero downtime, the practically instant recovery-you can just do a whole lot more than you can with a general-purpose server."

So, in the end, achieving the highest return on information boils down to the basics. Those companies that are building a solid foundation for their data storage and retrieval needs stand the best chance of surviving and thriving in the turbulent economic times that lie ahead.