Too much data and not enough insight means CIOs are awash in information but still don't understand what their customers want. Poetry can teach business lessons The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is about a sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage. A ship is lost at sea in dense fog and an albatross shows up and provides direction. However, after the crisis is over, the mariner shoots the albatross. Very soon the sailors lose their wind and get stranded. They run out of water, and everyone blames the mariner. To punish the mariner, his fellow sailors make him wear the dead albatross around his neck. The mariner spends the rest of his days telling others his story as a moral lesson. Dematerialized identity Coleridge's mariner lamented, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Strain our ears and we can hear the plight of the CIO; he has replaced “water” with “data”. The CIO, the new-age mariner, is surrounded by data and yet to him customer insight is out of reach. This mariner’s ship is decked with riches; tens of data warehouses and data marts, hundreds of databases, and thousands of spreadsheets. Yet the customer is increasingly elusive. The CIO spends millions on trying to make this abstract customer more real to his stakeholders. Yet the banker does not know if the customer on the phone also has an investment account; the insurer does not know his customer’s wife has a home insurance with him as well. Many of the readers may be nostalgic of a bygone era where the shopping world was much simpler; smaller shops, familiar products, and the friendly neighborhood shopkeeper. We really felt like a real customer. We were visiting our own local Cheers; a place where everybody knows your name. As customers, we lost our identity when our names and addresses got replaced by unique IDs. Using databases as repositories, we created our own version of the Star Trek Transporter. Now customers can be dematerialized and bottled away. To the Customer Service Representative (CSR), the customer became a unique ID (aka Account No) and to the rest in the back office we became a data entry. And thus the customer became soulless to the enterprise. The albatross: the customer’s soul killed by IVR and CSR From that simple world of knowing your customer from the 80s, we have now created a dazzling array of box stores, and virtual online cornucopia that attempts to quench our insatiable desire for newer and newer products and services. The enterprise has effectively created a fat-free supply chain, a global distribution infrastructure, and mountains of data. Real customers became more and more abstract as we started hiding them in bits and bytes somewhere in the many databases of the organization. We rationalized that this new breed of customers deserved nothing more than the Interactive Voice Recorder (IVR) and an occasional Customer Service Representative (CSR). We assumed that killing the albatross – the customer’s soul – was a small price we had to pay. Rematerializing the customer through better service Organizations have realized that the world has changed; cheaper products by themselves will not attract more loyal customers. We live in a commoditized global marketplace; there is always somebody else who can provide the same product at a cheaper price, and your mobile phone will find it for you instantaneously. Personalized services are back in vogue and are increasingly possible through careful analysis of various customer touch points. The mobile, social, cloud, and big data are all creating a plethora of data that can help understand the customer. TrendWatching, in its 2014 prediction, suggests that ‘No Data’ – delivering brilliant service without excessive data collection – will earn you consumer trust, and profits won’t be far behind. Chief Digital Officer should promote customer advocacy Organizations are increasingly creating the role of a Chief Digital Officer. The CDO role is considered transformative and is all about analyzing the data and how it relates to the business and customer experience. Gartner predicts that 25% of organizations will have a Chief Digital Officer by 2015. Nevertheless, the increasing number of data privacy scandals such as NSA, Lavabit, and Silent Circle is impacting credibility. Although customers want recommendations and personalized services, they also need to be assured that the data is safe. Listen to the customer; every bit of data is a customer’s proxy. Don’t forget the lesson of the mariner’s story. Don’t kill the customer’s soul; respect privacy and protect data, for without the albatross there is no business.