Recently, I was invited to facilitate a workshop to learn about customer data uses, flows, and needs. It was an interesting idea, so I agreed.
"Know your customer" has become a hackneyed phrase in fairly short order. One of the post-9/11 bundle of laws, intended to gain anti-terrorism assistance from the public, was a "know your customer" mandate requiring financial institutions to better understand who their customers are and where their money comes from. Like many things we do in this automated life, it seems to have quickly lost its meaning in favor of a single massive data collection effort...like when my bank of many years -- which has seen my entire transition from debt to net worth through both my business acounts and the deposit of every paycheck -- asks me for id.
The workshop was intended to provide an opportunity for a fairly large group of data architects to hear a group of customers talk about their business day and tasks; how they interact with each other; and what they want. It was my job to draw them out over the course of two days, to find slices of life to talk about and elicit tremendous detail. It was expected that we would have an accelerated opportunity to gather needed data elements and identify system access requirements.
With facilitation, the customers opened up about their work lives. They described a tremendous amount of human interaction to obtain information. They described phoning folks in other parts of the organization to find out information they wanted. We, the folks with strong information technology orientation, thought we were making a break-through, identifying systems to which these customers could or should get access.
What happened next was unexpected. Wen we sought to validate these system access requirements, the customers repeatedly and politely told us we misunderstood. They repeatedly explained that they liked to get information in this unautomated fashion. They liked the opportunity conversation gave them to get context -- group meaning of terms, background for the way information is gathered, information that's inappropriate for permanent records, and other related information.
Since then, I've been thinking about what it really means to know your customer. As the provider of services, it's not enough to learn your customer's business. And, it's not enough to spend time in their space and observe them at work. You need to do those things but, in the end, if you really want to give them what they want, sometimes you just need to ask.