Big Data sometimes appears to be a solution that is looking for a problem. It sometimes looks like a technology that has very little use in the real world of business and technologists are rushing around the world looking for examples of how it can be applied.
But I was having a conversation this week with a Big Data expert and I asked a question about customer service in retail – isn’t this one of the areas where Big Data is having the most impact. He agreed that it is one of the most affected industries, but for several reasons.
Everyone knows that customer service in just about every industry has changed. Consumer goods used to feature a telephone number or email address you could use to ask questions or complain. Now customers will use many different channels to comment on a product and many of them have no direct link to the manufacturer.
Customers today are familiar with at least six channels when contacting brands; email, voice, chat, Twitter, Facebook, forums and review websites. These are just the main channels being used now. Many brands are interacting with customers on other social networks, such as Pinterest or Instagram, and other communications tools, such as Whatsapp, are rapidly being adopted.
So customers are using many different ways to communicate. Often there is no formal notification to the brand involved – the brand is just expected to find the question online.
And now consider the retail industry. All these communication changes are taking place, but also the way people want to purchase items. They might buy in-store, online for delivery, online with collection in-store, they might want to return or exchange an item in-store even though it was purchased online.
The communication chain between a brand and the customer is far more complicated than a decade ago, but so is the supply chain. Enter Big Data. These real-life business problems are exactly where Big Data is moving from concept to daily use.
If you want to analyse a complex supply chain in real-time and explore how your customers prefer to shop, how they behave, where are items missing, then all these questions can only be analysed with an enormous data set that is constantly changing.
Likewise for the communications with customers. If they are communicating anytime from anywhere on any channel then there is an analysis function you need just for monitoring communications, but by employing Big Data techniques you can also predict and focus on the most important channels.
I think that 2015 will be the year when we finally stop talking about Big Data as the exception and start considering it just a part of business as usual – in any industry.