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WEB ACCESS SYSTEM REPLACES CUSTOMER SERVICE DEPARTMENTS.

Let's face it, data warehousing isn't sexy. After all, what can be alluring about a mass collection of data? But just like the old saying "beauty is only skin deep," businesses are starting to realize there's a lot more excitement left in their relationships with their data warehouses and some are actually finding creative ways to keep the flame alive and make money in the process.

"The Internet has really been the key to unlocking the potential of data warehouses," said Bob Conway, the Connecticut regional director for Pinnacle Decision Systems, a professional services and software development company in Middletown, Connecticut. "By adding Internet flexibility to data warehousing, businesses are finding that they are tapping into previously unknown revenue streams."

Typically, data warehouses have only been utilized by employees for simple query functions. But now, smart businesses are harnessing the power of their data warehouses in other creative ways that directly impact their bottom line. Some are using extranets, which are Internet-based systems that allow company personnel, customers or vendors to tap into secure data from any Internet connection. This allows companies to give people access to such things as inventory and sales information at any time, anywhere, while reducing internal personnel overhead and improving customer satisfaction.

"Using business-to-business Internet systems, companies are offering their client businesses access to data 24/7, to do things like log on and check shipping information," said Conway. "Instead of having to staff an entire customer service department, the company now just to turns on its Web access system. Suddenly, that company is offering clients a value added benefit at little cost."

Wal-Mart is one company that is leading the way. They started out with a data warehouse project and turned it into a series of information systems. Wal-Mart uses the system to collect data about inventory and sales and by allowing broad and external access to that data, they have successfully written information programs that allow vendors to analyze sales. Now their vendors use this information to re-stock Wal-Mart's shelves.

Another way companies are using their data warehouses to make money is by tapping into their "Information Exhaust." A company invests heavily in the collection of essential data and believes it is only of interest to their operation. "Data is almost never exclusive in nature," said Conway. "Businesses can be assured that their data is of interest to others as well. If you can somehow sell or leverage that information, you can generate additional revenue with almost no associated cost. Many corporations, large and small, have discovered this lucrative side business."

Conway said there are plenty of examples of businesses using their Information Exhaust to generate revenue. One is credit card companies that sell their customer information to catalog companies and other retailers. This information includes such things as buying patterns and household profiles.

"Data warehousing isn't restricted to discrete data anymore," Conway said. "We're no longer just talking about storing financial and statistical information. Data warehouses now store multimedia, like graphic images, audio and video. All of this data is searchable and can be combined into an elevated piece of knowledge. There is a website called arttoday.com which uses a huge data warehouse to allow users to search for photos, animation, backgrounds and all sorts of graphic images. The sky is the limit for what you can store and sort."

Even though there has been a large increase in business-to-business uses of data warehouses, companies still haven't fully utilized data warehouses for business-to- consumer functions. "I think companies are now starting to think of how to use their data about customers for Business Intelligence," said Bart Sterman, New York regional sales Manager for Pinnacle. "Unfortunately, many companies still view data warehouses as expensive monoliths that are controlled by their IT department, with huge upfront costs and a long time period before payback. But with Business Intelligence, we're starting to see companies broaden their appreciation of potential ways for leveraging their investments in data warehousing."

One example of Business Intelligence is being played out in the financial sector. Banks have tremendous client lists stored in their data warehouses. Some are using that data to target market other banking services such as financial planning and insurance to their customers.

"We are just starting to see creative uses of data warehouses for business-to-customer applications," said Sterman. "Companies are currently interested in getting information to their customers on a read-only basis. In these applications, they ask a question, like how many cars are in the inventory, and get an answer. It's passive. The customer has no ability to input data into the data warehouse nor to view other information stored in the system. But I see that changing in the next few years. Soon, customers will be able to ask about the number of cars, find the exact model they want on-line and then place an order in the dealer's system. The system will then automatically order another car to take the place of the sold vehicle at the dealership."

"There are other uses for data warehouses that many companies don't think about, said Sterman. "We've seen some businesses using Internet-based data warehouses to help gauge public opinion of their product. For example, some fashion houses are putting pictures of their new fall line on the Web and allowing distributors to have a sneak peak at the clothing. This gets them some pre-show sales and gets them advanced reaction at the same time."

So what is the bottom line payoff from data warehousing? Access to consistent, timely, and relevant information will benefit every aspect of a company's operation and finances. Combine information about internal resources, a directory of who to contact and where to find assistance that is relevant to your staff. Turn everyone into a knowledge worker and marketer. Leverage external sources of information available via the Internet, both public and private. Improve your understanding of target markets and potential new markets. Enable your clients by letting them manage their own accounts and queries. Disseminate information about your corporate vision because bright ideas and innovative solutions can come from anywhere when a common understanding of the company's goals is effectively communicated. The easiest avenue for improving quality is to subject your data to broad scrutiny. A data warehouse environment is the viewing platform.

Sterman tells his customers that coming up with innovate uses of their data warehouses is a three-step process. The first step is to pull together what you already have. Look at it and then create a new business process that leverages that collective information source. Lastly, take action to distinguish yourself and your data in the marketplace. If you can think of something that is interesting and useful, chances are someone else will agree with you.

"Of course the biggest challenge is keeping that information up-to-date. The information must be timely, complete and consistent," said Conway. "Every employee must be on board with the system and be working for the same goal. The downfall for data warehouses and data dictionaries is that once something falls to 98% correct, it's worthless. Companies must be vigilant to keep their data warehouses up-to-date and current. If they don't, their systems will be failures, no matter how creative and innovative they are."

Pinnacle Decision Systems is a privately held professional services and software development company that provides complete, creative IT solutions for information management needs. The consulting division uses the latest technologies to design and develop Internet-based business intelligence systems incorporating client/server and data warehousing applications. It creates custom software for Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies with an emphasis on decision support systems. The company's software development division designs, develops and markets software products including HQ Intranet - The Company Communicator, Golf Insight, an on-line golf improvement system, and PinnPoint Plus - The Utility Tool for FOCUS. Pinnacle Decision Systems is headquartered in Middletown, Connecticut with additional offices in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Its Web site is located at www.pinndec.com.

For more information about data warehousing and how it can affect the bottom line, call Bob Conway at (860)632-7766 or visit Pinnacle Decision Systems' website.
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Comment:WEB ACCESS SYSTEM REPLACES CUSTOMER SERVICE DEPARTMENTS.(Industry Trend or Event)
Publication:Online Product News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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