Few people call themselves "consumers." Consumers buy or use a product, service or solution. Period. The word connotes a one-way relationship between seller and buyer that fits poorly in today's connected marketplace.

"Customers," however, do far more than merely consume. Depending on their needs, experiences and desires, customers are more inclined to get involved in the marketplace.

Today's technology offers ample opportunities to start conversations with and among customers, fans, foes, competitors, and the press—any person or group who cares to listen and, perhaps, act on the messages received.

Every hour of every day, directly and indirectly, customers place calls, send emails, complete surveys, and talk among themselves online in blogs, product forums, and myriad social networks. They share their thoughts about products and services, their likes and dislikes, and their hopes for future offerings. Customers tell companies about product failures. They request help. And they offer opinions about their experiences that may contain valuable insights for organizations that listen.

However, customers aren't computers. They don't think like databases. And they rarely write with perfect grammar. More challenging still is the volume of all that freeform correspondence. By some estimates, 85% of the information companies collect is not in a form that they can access or analyze—it is unstructured. The Gartner Group reports unstructured data doubles every three months while seven million web pages are published every day. This cacophony presents the one of the biggest challenges companies face today.

This much is known by most large customer-facing organizations. The market is flooded with software that attempts to tag, sort, search, organize, and manage much of this unstructured data. But discovering the facts in this data—"who," "what," "where," "when," "how," and most importantly "why"—is a challenge that leaves most companies scratching their heads.

Companies conduct customer surveys, focus groups, and interviews hoping to capture some sense of it all, only to pass along the results to marketing, sales or research to develop a product, service, or response on the ideas.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Bean, PhD is the director of data science and research at PayClip Inc., and an industrial adjunct professor at the University of Utah.

LinkedIn: David Bean