It's getting difficult to pick up a business magazine, attend a conference or even walk through an airport terminal without encountering the topics of Big Data and analytics. Everyone from IT companies to phone carriers seems to have something to say about what are currently the hottest topics in the technology sector.
But, just like many hot topics, they mean very different things to different people. From scientists and researchers to mining companies and bankers, all are figuring out what they mean and how to use them to achieve competitive advantage.
The combination of Big Data and analytics is a natural fit. By collecting large volumes of data and examining it with sophisticated analytic tools, it's possible to achieve insights into trends and behaviours that have previously not been possible.
When it comes to customer relationships, the Big Data stream can flow from many different places. Sources include customer surveys and histories, chat transcripts and IVR logs, past transactions and wider market research. Collected data can be in structured or unstructured form and comprise everything from text and graphics to audio and video files.
Once this data is collected, analytics tools can be put to work. While some can extract useful historical trends, others can be forward looking and predict what customers will seek in the future. This is the real power of Big Data.
Armed with the understanding provided by such predictive analytics, businesses can work to improve customer interactions, increase retention rates and, over time, boost profitability.
Customers will respond positively to organisations that adjust their approaches and offerings based on a greater understanding of their intent. Offers can become more personalised, communication more pre-emptive and relationships longer lasting.
The combination of Big Data and predictive analytics also ensures customer data is collected and analysed from a variety of different channels. Gone are the days when a customer will interact with a business in just one way, such as a physical store.
Instead, customers increasingly want to have an omni-channel relationship. They may want to start a transaction via a website, check out a product in a physical store, and then receive post-purchase support over the phone.
Businesses need to be sure they can collect information gleaned via each of these channels, combine it with existing data, and then analyse it to ensure customers have a satisfying experience. Achieving a single view of the customer has become paramount.
Sophisticated predictive analytics tools can also constantly learn from the growing volumes of customer data, refining their output as more interactions take place. The result is better customer service and more effective future planning for the business.
For limited time only
However, businesses looking to make use of Big Data and predictive analytics to achieve these kinds of benefits must realise they only have limited time in which to act. Customer expectations are changing quickly.
Gone are the days when customers accepted a one-way communication flow from businesses that applied a stock-standard approach to everyone. Customers are now basing their expectations on the levels of service they're experiencing from new-generation companies such as Google and FaceBook.
These internet giants are adept at tailoring their offerings to specific individual requirements. By harnessing the Big Data they have collected, such companies are constantly learning more about their customers and shaping their outputs to suit.
More and more, customers are looking to interact with businesses that can anticipate their needs in this way. If a business can't deliver a better overall experience, it risks losing out to one that can.
At the same time, the rates at which data volumes are growing is becoming a challenge in itself. Consumers, many armed with internet-connected mobile devices, are generating exabytes of new data every day which must be gathered, stored and analysed.
Often it's not possible to know ahead of time what data is going to be of most value to an organisation. New questions might arise that require data stores to be analysed in different ways. For this reason, many take the approach of collecting and storing as much as they can so that it is ready to be put to valuable use in the future.
There's no doubt that the sheer volume of available information will continues to grow at an exponential rate, in both structured and unstructured forms. This means tackling the challenge of Big Data is not an easy task, however, the potential benefits for the businesses willing to try can be very compelling.
Ananth Siva is the managing director (Asia Pacific) for 7