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 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75


When Big Data Isn’t an Option

Other companies have used little data successfully as well. In one case, a maker of industrial coating products had limited data on pricing broken down by customer and region. As a result, it couldn’t build robust price elasticity models using classical regression analysis. By using other analytical techniques, however, the company was able to identify specific areas in which it could improve pricing and service policies. It moved to a value-based pricing approach to ensure its most profitable customers were receiving the highest service levels. Implementation in one business unit in one region alone yielded a 4 percent increase in sales.

In another instance, a regional health insurance company trying to differentiate itself through outstanding customer experience realized that its call center was a potential source of data about customer pain points and potential solutions. The company took full transcripts of the calls—not just the summaries entered by service representatives—and applied available text-mining algorithms. From this data, the company was able to improve the format and language of its written communications, and streamline the call-center process. In addition, it uncovered an opportunity to introduce storefront locations in certain neighborhoods in order to improve its customer interactions and increase customer retention rates.

Even large companies are able to make use of little data techniques. The Chinese large-appliance giant Haier uses information gathered by service technicians to drive innovation. In the late 1990s, some technicians, for example, found that rural customers were using their washing machines to wash vegetables, leading to clogs. Haier used this information to develop a new type of washer, which the company says is “mainly for washing clothes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts.”

With the right mind-set, virtually all sources of information can be exploited to improve products, the customer experience, or a company’s profits. Little data techniques, therefore, can include just about any method that gives a company more insight into its customers without breaking the bank. As the examples above illustrate, mining little data doesn’t mean investing in expensive data acquisition, hardware, software, or technology infrastructure. Rather, companies need three things:

• The commitment to become more fact-based in their decision making. This commitment is often spurred by a sense that competition is heating up or the company is falling behind changing customer habits and preferences. But fact-based decision making can be an important source of competitive advantage for market-leading companies.

• The willingness to learn by doing. Since little data applications are not commercially available via third parties, companies have to use trial and error. However, once a few priorities have surfaced, a series of pilot projects will give the company useful experience and, with a little luck, some early successes that can inspire the rest of the organization.

• A bit of creativity. To generate richer data, companies need to get creative, in part by tapping into the customer interactions that take place naturally. For instance, retailers can intercept shoppers in store locations for quick iPad-assisted surveys. Any website with a registration form can add questions that reveal preferences beyond the basic data usually collected. Call-center conversations are another opportunity to gather data on a particular topic, and the text can be mined for greater insight into the customer. Some companies create advanced user panels of savvy customers to get input during the R&D process for new products. Others rely on their sales representatives to report trends in customer preferences and competitors’ activities. The bottom line: Companies have to put in the extra effort required to capture and interpret data that is already being generated.

Companies often start the journey by picking a product, a region, and a problem that needs attention and running one or more pilot projects. This allows executives to demonstrate to themselves and the rest of the organization that the return on effort and cost is justified. Once companies start investing in analytics, they almost never stop, because the things they learn drive improvements in the business that more than pay for the analysis. The activity becomes self-funding. In some cases, companies that start with little data end up recognizing the value of the resulting insights and expanding their investment to incorporate larger data sets and more advanced analytics. For others, little data is all that’s needed. In either case, the benefits are clear: Executives get insight into what they can do to improve their competitive position, or—to put it in terms that a Marine Corps colonel might appreciate—identify what might be charging up the hill to surprise them. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

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