What Is a Customer Data Platform (CDP), and How Can It Improve Customer Service Performance?

This Article originally appeared on Customer Contact Advisor on January 22, 2021.

We’ve all been there: waiting for a support rep and providing the details of our account, including answering security questions like the name of our mother-in-law’s cousin’s plumber’s cat. After going through detailed troubleshooting steps we’ve already tried, the rep needs to transfer our call to another department only to go through the same steps, including name, account number, serial number of our equipment, model number, color, capacity, day of the week we purchased it, and on and on.

This scenario repeats itself many times per day across organizations large and small. Why is this the case? What is so hard about knowing who we are, gathering some basic information, adding that to our contact record, and handing all of that off to another department?

When the Right Hand Doesn’t Know …

Here is a real-life scenario based on my own experience (which I describe in my new book The AI-Powered Enterprise). I had recently refinanced my second mortgage with my bank because it had initiated the option to lower my rate as a way to encourage loyalty. So far so good. I then received an offer from the same bank to refinance that loan. Moreover, when I approached the same bank about a car loan, I was told the bank doesn’t finance car purchases. Yet I subsequently found out that my car dealer used that bank to finance the loan I got for the car I bought! Not a great experience for me and also costly for the bank. It wasted money marketing to a customer who had already refinanced a mortgage and lost a potential direct loan for the purchase of a car that might have helped strengthen its relationship with a customer.

The Elusive ‘360-Degree View’ of the Customer

The answer to this kind of misstep is the so-called “360-degree view” of the customer. With this view, every part of an organization is aware of all customer interactions, behaviors, experiences (both good and bad), and past purchases or equipment owned. Surfacing this information allows for a smoother customer experience, lower support costs, and the ability to better serve the customer with additional products and services.

Most large enterprises have different business units, functions, products, and solutions. Frequently, companies grow through acquisitions, so integrating the various systems is typically more challenging than might initially appear. Digital transformation programs seek to integrate siloes, but doing so can be difficult with legacy systems, custom applications, and customer experience technology stacks that are complex individually and collectively. New offerings may be tried at first as a market test before being brought into the full set of offerings, and sometimes, those offerings use one-off, ad hoc, or software-as-a-service technologies, adding to the problem of obtaining a comprehensive view of each customer.

Integration (or the Lack Thereof) Is the Culprit

In other cases, as marketers bring new tools to the experience, not enough time and money is spent to ensure seamless integration. The result is that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, and the customer experience is disrupted. Service reps may not have the information they need or responsibility for a new offering, and therefore, costs and efficiency are impacted.

Enter: the customer data platform (CDP). A CDP integrates and consolidates information from the many systems a customer interacts with. These interactions can include website visits, social media posts, online advertisements, e-mail marketing, and more. The goal is to create a unified customer database that allows for a complete view of customer interactions and harvests “signals”—the “digital body language”—as customers traverse their journey and do business with the organization.

What’s the Difference Between a ‘CDP’ and a ‘CRM’?

You may be thinking: “Isn’t that what the customer relationship management (CRM) system is for?” Well, yes and no. The yes part is that CRMs are focused on sales and have an account structure that allows for sales interactions. The CDP is more focused on individual interactions across diverse channels and technologies the CRM may not be integrated with. CDPs are designed for integration. While many CRMs can provide visibility into sales and support processes, they typically do not consolidate data from multiple systems and then allow those data to drive marketing interactions. There are many reasons for this: the sheer number of touch points and tools, the complexity of integrations, and the CRM’s ability to utilize data from those tools. For example, website behaviors are data-intensive. Trying to make sense of “click path” behavior data in a CRM would be overwhelming. However, purpose-built tools can make those data more actionable.

CRMs leverage CDPs to unify disparate sources and customer identifiers to avoid duplicate records. For example, someone could be J Smith in the e-mail system, Jon Smith on Facebook, and Jonathan Smith in the CRM. The CDP would track these interactions as one person. Having a complete understanding of the customer and his or her needs requires synchronization of all the customer touch points.

Signals from multiple systems that touch the customer (e.g., social media listening, e-mail marketing, campaign management, etc.) are integrated and consolidated in the CDP, which then personalizes marketing messages and allows the service rep to see problems from the customer’s perspective rather than from one siloed process or department.

The Bottom Line

Be cautious about listening to vendors’ wild claims about return on investment, but don’t hesitate to take a judicious look at these platforms. Building out the needed infrastructure with a CDP is not a trivial effort, but the benefits are significant: improved efficiencies; lower support costs; and happier, more loyal customers.

Meet the Author
Seth Earley

Seth Earley is the Founder & CEO of Earley Information Science and the author of the award winning book The AI-Powered Enterprise: Harness the Power of Ontologies to Make Your Business Smarter, Faster, and More Profitable. An expert with 20+ years experience in Knowledge Strategy, Data and Information Architecture, Search-based Applications and Information Findability solutions. He has worked with a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies helping them to achieve higher levels of operating performance.