So you're ready to take on the next game-changing business to business (B2B) marketing analytics project… maybe setting up some marketing tests, perhaps testing a predictive response model, or even thinking of trying your hand at text mining. You start the project by creating a list of your business customers and counting them. Sounds simple, right?

However, as you survey the state of customer data at your company and begin really digging into the details, the question you will likely find yourself asking over and over is this: "Who is a customer, anyway?"

  • You discover that Sales aligns customers to geographies. National accounts can be split into East and West territories, or divided across subsidiaries without a need to explicitly tie the accounts together. Sales departments uniquely understand how customer buying decisions are made: for example, whether a retailer makes its buying decisions centrally, or individual stores should be treated as separate customers.
  • Marketing is most interested in aligning customers strictly to a legal ownership hierarchy that will make it easy to integrate externally sourced lead lists and automate data processing. It maintains lead lists, customer models, and installed base data using externally available demographic data from companies such as Dun & Bradstreet or Experian.
  • And (to throw another wrench into the machinery) the Services organization tracks individual corporate users or sites with entitlement to maintenance services, adding many more "customers" without aggregating the sites in a way that's consistent with Marketing or Sales.

With those different approaches, you realize that there is no simple answer to the question, "How many customers do we have?"

Accurately tracking customers is critically important to the operations of Sales, Marketing, and Services. However, the business can realize much more value if customer data is linked across the company, helping you to really understand your business by enabling…

  • Tracking of new customers, to understand where the business is growing
  • Cross-selling opportunities
  • Customer models and segmentation
  • Unambiguous marketing lead lists that tie to sales responsibilities
  • Predictive models that prioritize customers for upgrades and renewals
  • Customer lifetime value analysis calculations

A Proven Approach

This article offers a proven approach that will enable you to define a customer in a way that's useful across the company.

To define a customer, first think about what you want to know about them. There are three primary categories of customer information:

  1. The customer name, location, and contact information.
  2. Transactional information around what customers bought, when they bought it, what channel they purchased products and services through, and ideally what site they bought it for.
  3. Customer hierarchy data, including numeric keys that show how different sites, affiliates, and subsidiaries tie together for an end-to-end view of the customer and the customer's interactions with your company.

In our example, and very likely at your company, there will be a great deal of information in the first two categories. In fact, the problem with understanding just who is a customer will likely come when customer contact and purchasing information is replicated across organizations, and the third area, the customer hierarchy, is neglected or there is no single standard available to draw together customer information from across the company.

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image of Vince Stuntebeck

Vince Stuntebeck leads a business intelligence and analytics team at Hewlett-Packard. He has over 12 years of experience in analytics across multiple industries. Reach him via

LinkedIn: Vince Stuntebeck


image of Trevor Jones

Trevor Jones is president of Hoopla Systems and a senior associate with Taligent Consulting, in Ottawa, Canada. He has spent 20 years helping clients harness technology and information to better understand their customers. Reach him via

LinkedIn: Trevor Jones