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Customer knowledge - collection issues and solutions

One of the main problems with any form of knowledge management system, even a customer knowledge system where the data is apparently already available is that to make it work, data and information has to be added to the database on a continual basis.

Software, in the form of middleware, and data collection tools can overcome the technical issues. However, organisational challenges can be more important in creating a customer knowledge system, with three well-documented hurdles to data collection that need to be overcome:- knowledge hoarding, apathy and fear.

Knowledge hoarding and silos

The first problem of collecting knowledge is that of "knowledge hoarding". Because they say knowledge is power, so the people who have knowledge of your customers in this definition would hold all the power in your customer relationships. For this reason these people can be very reluctant to share this knowledge with others in your organisation.

Unfortunately this hoarding has a cost. For instance what happens when a person with this knowledge walks out the door - does your customer relationship go with them? How do you know you are really delivering value to this customer, other than on the say-so of the person hoarding the knowledge?

The main solution to hoarding is to make sharing knowledge prestigious and valuable so people want to contribute. If you use a system of peer-review, this can include incentives on the number of articles accepted, or the number of times an article is viewed. You can also make the information valuable in it's own right by allowing systems of commenting and on-line customer brainstorming allowing others to contribute to the success of the account or the pitch.

If other people are sharing knowledge and information it becomes far more useful for you to do it since you gain from other people's work and you can see how making information available to others is itself useful. It is a peculiar economic fact that although retaining information creates short-term monopoly situations in actual fact releasing information creates the scope for others to trust you and work with you because of your openness and obvious expertise.

Apathy and inaction

The second major problem with collecting knowledge is apathy. If I know something about the customer, why should I write it down for someone else. I've got better things to do with my time.

To overcome apathy, two elements are needed. Firstly, you need to make the system as easy as possible to use. The easier something is to do, the more frequently it will be done. Secondly, the system needs to be made visible to everyone together with praise for those who are making the system work.

A major problem with many data collection exercises is the black hole effect. Essentially what happens is that initially people put time and effort to providing information for the system. Unless they get some feedback to show them that the information was useful they become disincentivised the second and subsequent times they are asked to help. What's the point if apparently no-one sees or uses the work they put in?

The feedback should be more active than basic reflection (I heard you said X), and should include some effect (so we're going to do Y). Sometimes the feedback is just a question of making the information visible (I heard you say X, so we told everyone). Simple systems of news flashes, newsletters and follow up actions means that customer knowledge is made visible and dealt with. In this way staff get direct results from the effort they put in and so would be more willing to put that effort in again.


The third major problem with collecting knowledge is fear. What if what I tell you is wrong? What if what I tell you is bad news? What if what I tell you isn't what you want to hear? What if the customer says something we don't like?

In sharing information, trust is a big factor. We want to encourage openness, but what will happen if that openness gets you in to 'trouble' or you find yourself coerced to do something you don't like?

How and what we communicate tells other people a lot about ourselves and most people like to control their self-image. There is thus a strong barrier to sharing information for the first time. The first disclosure is likely to be a dip in the water. Fuller disclosure will only come if the environment for sharing information seems safe. Consequently the culture of the organisation and the management style in place will have an enormous impact on who and how information is shared.

For help and advice on building customer, competitor or marketing knowledge systems such as our Cxoice Insights Platform contact

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