Systems of Record: Who Really Owns Your Data?

One thing you start to notice as you work at different companies is how each handles their customer data differently. “Differently” may mean better or worse, but mostly just refers to each company’s unique brand of chaos. The truth is, most organizations are pretty bad at this. Big enterprises are generally “good” at the concept, meaning they value data and work hard to collect and save it, but often have super complex and cumbersome ways of doing so. Hence the large market players like Oracle, Salesforce, and the myriad of consulting companies alongside. Small companies are often “more agile” or “quicker” — but often rely on ad hoc methods and lose a lot of data as they bounce around different tooling solutions.


Let’s define the problem for a minute. By defining an end goal, and deconstructing all the ways businesses fail here, we can perhaps find some ways to improve this. The central thesis is this: Customer data is key for any business. Customer data is defined as products purchased, customer service inquiries, product preferences, billing history, contact history, contact roles, family purchase history, etc. This sounds obvious.


In practice, it’s very hard. The goal then, is having all of this data readily available to be used when needed. Consider a Customer Service representative setting up or working through issues, or reporting systems to build reports, models, or train AI systems. “Real-time” channels like ads or coupons or “next best offer” type scenarios also need ready access to the data. And all of this data needs to be rolled up nicely for executive and board level summaries.


Optimized data systems: Let’s find strategies to get there.


Here comes the hard part. Even in simple businesses, the data is spread across multiple systems. The explosion of purpose-built SaaS applications has made much of running a business easier -- but on this front, it means your data is in a bunch of disparate systems, many of which have very minimal APIs or export options or require manual work. Matching data across systems is no easy task. Tools like Zapier have exploded in popularity to help -- or something like MuleSoft or Snowflake in the enterprise world.


My last few companies were built very much on top of Salesforce.com. I also spent some time working there. My personal opinion is that it’s the best and also the worst solution out there. There's an old quote that says “there’s the systems you complain about, and then there’s the systems you don’t use”. Salesforce very much applies to the first part of that statement.


When your business operates in such a way that you can create solid integration paths and use the Salesforce ecosystem as a connector, it’s a great tool. Inside sales, call centers, fully integrated processes -- the power of the AppExchange and Salesforce as an industry standard -- it’s hard to use something else. Trust me, I’ve tried. It is expensive though, and also a small price to pay. However, if you’re forced to use it manually,  it can be a pretty tough tool. Here we’re talking about more outside sales, high touch relationships, concierge level service or sales. It’s not great in those use cases. The UI is cumbersome, with not enough ways to create simplified or specialized flows for everyday users. I can say that the Salesforce internal instance is just as messy as yours or even more so. (Actually I think this is a market opportunity -- hint hint!)


More recently I’ve been spending more time inside HubSpot and a few other tools like Airtable, etc Pipedrive is another one I always liked. These are much simpler and easier to use. For smaller businesses, they probably make more sense.. The key here is that whatever you choose, invest enough to set it up properly and connect the data that is needed. I previously founded Broadly.com, which is in many ways a CRM for small businesses, although more disguised as a messaging app. It tried to solve these issues for the particular use case of a local service business.


Many founders I know don’t seem all that worried about getting the data right. Some aren’t technical -- this seems too “in the weeds” of a problem for their visionary selves. Or, the very technical founder who thinks this problem is beneath them — “this is just a boring problem of sales and support. IT can solve it”. I disagree with both. Well-run businesses have well-established data systems. The CRM is often that system. Make sure someone owns this and owns it well.


Or is CRM just sales software?


If your business has a strong sales and support component, make that tool your center. In most cases, that’s  your CRM. If the core of the business is something different -- e-commerce, consulting, etc -- make that system your primary. Just make sure the sales systems and other ancillary systems both get some data back and send some data in.


Here’s the real point: If you use multiple systems, and I’m sure you have good reasons for doing so (I’d still advocate for less systems where possible), you will need to define clear ownership handoffs. Make one system a true master. Link them together. Build some syncing (and we know that’s hard and requires effort)!


Make this a goal for 2021. Your long term business health will thank you later.