Is This The End Of CRM As We Know It?

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You know all that CRM data you've been so lovingly collecting from loyalty programs, special offers, POS systems and any other way you could find to gather shopper information? It's about to be put at risk by a data broker—and not in the way you expected. Acxiom, one of the world's biggest data brokers, is opening a portal this week that will let consumers see much of the information that Acxiom has about them and where (in general terms) it came from, as well as the ability to correct it. The portal will also let consumers opt out of having the information used in the future.

What's that have to do with your CRM data? Simple: Acxiom is doing this to get out in front of federal regulation. The example it sets may well end up as the model that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) uses for all non-credit marketing data. Unless you're ready right now to give your customers access to their data—or at least a big chunk of it—that data is at risk.

Acxiom's portal, AbouttheData.com, is supposed to go live on Wednesday (Sept. 4). According to a story in the Sept. 1 New York Times, data that's accessible to consumers will include education level, marital status, number of children, homeownership status, property size, mortgage amount, vehicle make, model and year, investment information, recent consumer purchase categories, and special interests of members of the household.

Each entry will have a clickable icon for learning whether the data came from self-reported consumer surveys, warranty registrations, public records or other sources. The portal will also let consumers correct or suppress individual data elements or opt out entirely from having Acxiom keep marketing data about them.

Yes, that really is the end of CRM as we know it. It's a combination of transparency, a calculated gamble and a little bit of duplicity. The transparency is letting consumers see their files. The calculated gamble is that they won't opt out. And the duplicity? That's in "letting" them correct their files so they'll be more accurate. How generous, huh?

In fairness, this is a far more clever approach to impending federal regulation than claiming, as much of the brokered-data industry does, that letting consumers see their files would be too expensive and technically difficult and would probably lead to more fraud and identity theft. Maybe those are honest assessments, but once Acxiom opens that door, those excuses will be gone.

And that, in turn, means the FTC will be able to look at everyone else who gathers consumer data and judge them according to Acxiom's yardstick—including every retailer with a loyalty program.

What can you do? First, if you haven't already, scrub your CRM data—even before you look at Acxiom's portal. It's something you should have been doing all along, so if you start that right now you'll have at least some level of plausible deniability. ("Bad data? Oh, maybe we had some, but we purge that regularly." Starting when? "Don't ask.")

Then take a careful look at exactly what Acxiom is serving up. Keep in mind that it's not everything Acxiom has—the scariest stuff, including information derived from specialized data analysis, isn't part of the public view. Also pay attention to how detailed Acxiom gets—or doesn't get—when it comes to the information itself and its sources. If this is the yardstick you'll be measured by, you want to know how finely it measures.

Finally, start thinking about how you can let customers see their information if the FTC requires that or you simply decide you want it. Do you have the chutzpah to require that customers join your loyalty program to see any data you have on them? Is there a way to make recent purchase history a perk of the program, complete with a calculator to show how much they've saved in the last month or quarter? And don't forget securing the data. (Really, don't, or you'll find out how nasty the FTC can get.)

The good news is that you'll look more transparent and thus more trustworthy. Chances are, your opt-out rate won't be any worse than what's already possible because of your loyalty terms and conditions. And your loyalty customers already trust you enough to collect that data. The biggest difference: They'll be able to see what you've collected. Most won't bother. Most of the rest won't care. And for the few remaining, which would you rather have: them opting out or the FTC checking in?