Businesses large and small, new and established incumbents alike, are investing billions of dollars in their data infrastructures. They’re all racing to leverage their digital systems and tools to engage customers across every channel in productive, personalized conversations, because their leaders recognize those conversations – and in particular the human element of those interactions – are the key to revenue growth, higher profitability and greater enterprise value.

Before the explosion of e-commerce and the advent of social media in the early 2000s, businesses were limited to in-house transactional data housed in various IT systems and applications. Today the quantity of information from those sources is dwarfed by the volume of posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, not to mention location data beamed from mobile devices, wearables and IoT-enabled machine-to-machine communications. The volume of that unstructured data is expanding rapidly—Gartner Group estimates that the world supply of unstructured data will grow 800% by 2022.

To reach today’s digital-first customers and engage them with relevant offers during their buying journeys, business leaders and their teams, assisted by sophisticated analytics, multichannel attribution models and other advanced tools, are poring over mountains of social media posts, email mentions, mobile apps and other digital interactions information to identify how and where to engage customers as they proceed through journeys that routinely hop from one channel to another. It’s a crucial task for any company that wants to cement customers’ brand engagement, lift revenue and profitability, and make themselves heard above the noise of competing and conflicting messaging.

Digitally savvy companies concentrate vast resources, including AI and the IoT, to sift through that data to find potential touchpoints and contexts for gaining customer’s attention and persuading them to buy. These capabilities give the digital leaders a crucial advantage to acquire new customers and boost the lifetime value of the ones they already have. And with 99% of unstructured data going unanalyzed, according to IDC, that advantage is likely growing daily.

By letting the data go unanalyzed, other businesses are missing a huge opportunity to better understand customers and their buying journeys. Acquiring, analyzing and acting on data from unstructured and structured sources alike can spell the difference between capturing a potential customer’s attention and interest and falling off the customer’s radar screen.

Intersections on the customer journey

Although the data-handling processes are complex, when orchestrated the right way, they can deliver simple, memorable, personalized customer experiences that make those customers want to come back for more. Consider how a consumer-packaged goods company uses AI to offer customers personalized recipes featuring its products, basing the recipes on weather, past decisions, personal preferences and even the contents of customers’ pantries. Or how a global financial services company is using AI and natural-language processing to interpret and sort customer queries. These technologies can automatically resolve simple issues like change-of-address requests and route more complex queries such as billing disputes to human customer service agents, improving efficiency and customer satisfaction. And then there’s the auto insurer that leverages unstructured data such as accident-scene photographs, customer accounts of accidents and weather information to assess liability and fast-track claims for single-vehicle accidents, helping customers get back on the road faster and freeing up human claims specialists to attend to more complex cases.

In each of those use cases, the customer journey intersects with various connected devices and data networks. Companies need to learn to collaborate with other members of the IoT ecosystem—and the various communications networks over which they transmit data—to ensure a seamless customer experience. They’ll likely need to coordinate the responses of their customer care teams to resolve service issues.

Such innovations require freeing data from functional and departmental siloes and making it available across the organization when and in the form it’s needed. That’s a massive and ongoing transformation project that business leaders, not the IT function, need to own. This is an important opportunity for business leaders in an organization, not just IT specialists, to align their strategies with the processes, roles, workflows and metrics that will enable the business to manage unstructured data to deepen the understanding of customers and engage them with the right message at the right moment.

Of necessity, businesses who start with the information architecture they have on hand are finding ways to repurpose and simplify its components for the new age of data. From that baseline they can orchestrate the other connected technologies they will need to make the most of the data acquired from both their own systems and unstructured or semi-structured sources.

Taking personalization to the next level

Making the most of that data means, among other things, using it to create detailed and accurate customer profiles. Those profiles incorporate behavioral data derived from sources such as geo-location services, social media, wearables and RFID tags, as well as the usual information about name, gender and age. Think of how an online fashion-accessories retailer could use that data to learn of a customer’s purchase of a new blouse and follow up by offering the customer a deal on the perfect accessory for the garment even before she has left the store. Or how a transportation services provider could deploy geo-location data, digital twins and RFID data to plan routes, schedule maintenance and allocate resources and assets to make supply chains more efficient. For all practical purposes, the potential applications are endless.

Data-driven, customer-centered businesses aren’t built overnight. And for the most part they’re not built only by the people within the four walls of the business, no matter how skilled or capable they are. Few businesses have all the necessary skills, talent and capabilities. That’s why most businesses try to work with an advisor that understands both your business and how to design, implement and operate data acquisition and analysis systems and organizations. Of course, we hope you’ll agree that Hitachi Consulting fits the bill and we welcome the opportunity to discuss harnessing the power of data to engage customers and propel your business to new heights. For the sake of your business and your peace of mind, don’t travel the customer journey road alone.

Next up: Now that you’ve engaged your customers, it’s time to leverage your data resources to give them an experience they’ll return to again and again—and bring others along for the ride. We’ll explore how.