Practical advice on how to ensure that you get the maximum benefit of a customer database.
1. Make information gathering a habit
A field management service database requires buy-in and collaboration
In previous posts I have explained why a field services company operating in a business such as engineering, maintenance or onsite IT support needs a customer database to manage its operations and resources more efficiently, improve cash flow, present a professional image increase repeat business and improve customer loyalty. So I won’t be labouring the point here.
Instead I would like to offer some practical advice on how to ensure that you get the maximum benefit. This depends, of course, on selecting the field management database software that is best suited to your business. However, the people issues are equally decisive. Change management can be challenging, but it is a whole lot easier if you set out on the right foot.
Ensuring that your team understands why you are looking to build a database
In the first instance that means ensuring that your team understands why you are looking to build a database (for this purpose it is worth referring back to my previous posts on the benefits). Prepare yourself for the questions that will be raised. Above all, stress that the benefits will also be felt by your employees in the office and out in the field: less paperwork and paper-chasing, more efficient use of time, more interesting work, and scope for career advancement.
Think big. You are putting information in the hands of your field service engineers which may help them to become effective sales people as well as more efficient technicians. You might devise incentives and rewards for getting extra work through their routine service calls.
If you are currently using a less sophisticated type of technology to manage customers (such as an Excel spreadsheet), your admin staff might object that they are more comfortable with ‘what they know’.
In which case you should demonstrate the advantages of a state-of-the-art customer database, such as the ease of retrieving information based on specified criteria or the ability of different people to access and sort data without screwing things up for everyone else.
2. Understanding which data you should keep
Next, consider the sort of data you need to keep in the system. There are two basic types of data in a database.
Master data is the consistent and uniform set of identifiers and attributes describing customers and prospects (also suppliers and partners but for the purposes of this book we are focusing on customers). This includes names and addresses, telephone numbers, installed appliances (for an engineering or maintenance company), installed hardware and software (for an IT support company) etc. Of course, this information does change and can be added to, for example: when a customer changes telephone number or installs a new system, but it is basically stable.
It is vitally important to have what IT professionals refer to as a unique (or universal) customer identifier (UCID), i.e. a reference number or code that is unique to each individual customer. This will ensure that you have an integrated view of customers across all of your operations (servicing, sales, marketing, invoicing etc.)
The reference number or code should be included on all documents relating to the customer as this will significantly ease the admin burden. For example, if you ask your customers to quote the reference number when making a payment, this makes it much easier to reconcile paid invoices against bank statements and to identify late payers.
If you already have an accounts package, it is likely that you will first populate your customer database by importing its records (your software partner should do this for you). Thereafter you need to ensure that the two systems are consistent.
For example, if a customer’s telephone number changes, that change should be reflected in both systems. It probably makes most sense to keep the master customer record in the customer database and to use this to update changes in the accounting package.
Transactional data: relates to events. The relationship between master data records and transactional data records is therefore “one-to-many”. For each master data record you will build up a lot of transactional records over time: primarily things like service visits and safety certificates, but also interactions such as calls asking for advice or support.
Very important: Use your customer database to eliminate dual-entry of data. Manually re-keying in data back in the office can be painful and time-consuming. Instantly entering data from the field into your system will significantly reduce administrative work. This means that your engineers should be able to update master data as well as transactional data via their mobile devices.
Next, train your team to gather information consistently and with a great deal of care and attention, whether it’s an office person taking calls, a finance person creating invoices or an engineer on site.
Be aware that initially this may add to the workload; however, if your software is designed with forms and templates it will soon become much more efficient and less time-consuming than manual and paper-based information gathering.
For example, when an engineer makes a service call, the master data referred to above will already be included on the service report, as will the type of transaction (service undertaken). He will only need to add a couple of details and get a customer signature, and the service is ready for invoicing immediately.
3. Get your staff feedback
Encourage and facilitate employee feedback. Ask your team a few times a year to report on whether the database is still working as intended. Has your business changed, requiring an update to the template or system design?
Do your employees spot weaknesses in the database (for example, where you’re not recording something that you should)? This feedback loop can be invaluable as choosing a database isn’t the end of the story, checking that database continues to service your business well is an on-going task.
Also, employees feel more valued and that they have a stake in the success of the system if they are consulted. As a general rule of thumb, the least helpful input is from those who say the system is perfect and those who say it is completely useless! The best input comes from those who offer constructive criticism.
Make sure everyone has access to the information
Make sure everyone has access to the information so the effort isn’t wasted and everyone sees the benefits – it’s incredibly useful to all members of your team to have access to not just customer’s name, address and telephone numbers, but job history, service history and appliance information.
It can be the difference between the right or wrong decision for engineers when on-site.
4. Data quality
Understand what data quality means, how you should invest in keeping your house tidy (correcting records, updating telephone numbers, merging records, improving data quality by asking customers if their information is correct).
Keep data entry consistent: for example, make sure your team understands the rules around creating and managing your database, such as the correct address format (including postcode), inserting names in the correct fields and when to use capital letters.
If the data is entered correctly, you will not only make fewer mistakes, you will also be able to use the information to carry out intelligent searches of the database to conduct targeted promotional campaigns.
To err is human. Therefore you should work with your software partner to set up the system with sensible data validation and error messages – but remember, even the best software will not pick up every single error.
Data quality should be an ongoing process but it may make sense to employ a temp now and again (there are plenty of students looking for short summer jobs!) to do a check.
Know who has access to your database and what information they are authorised to view or extract.
Data is a valuable company asset, you have a duty of care to your customers (also covered by data protection legislation) and you do not want an employee to walk out the door with customer lists if s/he leaves your company!
Finally, establish a routine for doing a regular backup, and make someone responsible for ensuring it happens. Again, the data is a corporate asset – you would not leave cash lying around unsupervised so treat customer data with the same care.