Customer database management

Keeping your customer information accurate and up to date is vital. Failure to do so could result in costly and possibly embarrassing mistakes. Vicki Arnstein reports

Customer data deteriorates rapidly. In fact, if you fail to maintain it, you will find that much of it is useless within three years.

By failing to keep your information up to date, you could be throwing money down the drain by attempting to reach people whose details have changed. You could even commit a major faux pas by trying to contact someone who has died.

Other good reasons for regularly cleaning your data include deleting duplicate records and ensuring spellings are correct.

"Sending correspondence with a prospect's name spelt incorrectly is not going to create a good impression," stresses Sue Lupton, managing director of Sue Lupton Consulting Ltd.

Update your records

Under the Data Protection Act you have a legal responsibility to ensure that your data is accurate and, where necessary, is kept up to date. Updating your database helps you comply with the rules, but also benefits you by avoiding wasting resources contacting someone who has 'gone away'.

It is possible to keep your database up to date by ensuring that you check client details regularly, updating your records as soon as you become aware of changes.

"If you've never cleaned your data, I'd recommend getting professional help the first time," adds Lupton. "There are all sorts of issues, like how to get data out of your system and get cleansed data back in. A professional company will be able to help."

Professional data-cleansing bureau can screen customer data against a range of files, including the national change of address file, and register of the deceased.

However, as Lupton points out, the results aren't always 100% accurate. The national change of address file, for example, only takes into account people who notify Royal Mail that they have moved (about one third of people who move each year). To help combat this, some bigger bureau now list information as "guaranteed" or "assumed".

Delete with caution

If you are cleaning your own information and have had something returned, or if a cleansing exercise with a bureau returns data as a probable 'moved-away', Lupton advises against deleting the information straight away.

"Put it in a separate folder until you can ascertain whether the customer really has moved. Perhaps leave them out of a planned direct mail exercise to save wasting money on printing and postage, but contact them separately by phone or email to check whether they are still interested in your services," adds Lupton. "Never delete data unless you are sure it is no longer useful to you."

You should, however, remember that another of your obligations under the Data Protection Act is to keep data only for as long as is necessary. This means you should regularly review what data you need, how long you need to keep it for and means of securely updating, deleting or archiving data.

Above all, Lupton believes there really is no excuse for failing to keep your data clean. "People are much more aware of data-cleansing issues now. There is also much more help available, services that will screen your data to tell you how clean or dirty it is for free - before you've even spent a penny. There really is no reason not to keep your data accurate," she concludes.

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