This round table, set up by CIONET in cooperation with Salesforce Belux, was hosted at Uurblauw, a gastronomic 'dining room', a concept with a particular name in a unique location in the heart of Leuven. There were 14 of us. A diverse group in which the voices of digital leaders - CIO, CDO and CISO, DPO - Marketing executives, Operations, and a representative of the Flemish government were heard. This diversity around the table was obviously due to the theme of the evening, i.e. customer intimacy versus customer sovereignty. Or, to put it differently: how do organisations deal with the tension between, on the one hand, their need for comprehensive knowledge about the customer - to build up a relationship with him and be able to predict his behaviour - and, on the other hand, the customer's 'sovereignty'; his (growing) demand to determine what can be known about him, how he does or does not want to communicate and how strongly he wants to commit himself to the organisation with which he does 'business'.
Customer data are a key asset
The first premise of the debate: customer data are a vital asset to all organisations. Everyone is in complete agreement on this. But where are those (customer) data, and how and by whom are they processed? How are companies organised to deal with this valuable material in the best possible way?
Sophie Pollet, VP of Marketing & Portfolio Strategy at Telenet, told the story of Telenet that made the strategic choice in 2020 to become large-scale 'agile'. This went hand in hand with a company-wide (data) transformation precisely as Telenet acknowledged (customer) data as the real assets of a telecom company like them. Whereas customer data were previously spread across various parts of the business, the choice was now made to centralise it in a team of data specialists. Besides managing the data (data foundation), the team is responsible for 'data acceleration', generating insights for the various business departments. The ownership of the data - content and quality - remains with the business. This initiative went hand in hand with setting up a 'data evangelisation' programme to show employees how to use data correctly and extract added value for the customer. Telenet turns data and insights into a proposition to the customer: for example, by advising him to switch to the most appropriate - sometimes cheaper - subscription formula. All to build a long-term relationship of trust.
According to Peter Soetens, CIO of Mediahuis, the issue of handling customer data is a complex matter in his organisation. Mediahuis is an international group of cross-media brands. In Belgium, these include well-known newspapers such as De Standaard, Het Nieuwsblad, and Het Belang van Limburg and regional television channels such as ATV, Robtv, and radio stations. Like Telenet, they work with a centralised data management team, a concept they now want to roll out internationally. The challenge, however, lies elsewhere. Each medium effectively needs data about (the behaviour of) the customer to do personalisation: from the marketing campaigns and the news feeds to their mobile users (the limited space of a mobile screen obliges a selection of information). At the same time, the data strategy must be differentiated; after all, the 'sensitivity' differs not only per country and per medium but also per specific target group. Peter gave the example of the NCR Handelsblad, which deliberately chooses not to capture or analyse the online behaviour of its customers, as this would conflict with the profile of their specific readers.
Show the customer what is in it for him
One of the best ways to deal with these sensitivities is to show the customer (or citizen) what benefit sharing data brings them, says Jan Smedts, Deputy Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Jan Jambon and responsible for the digital part of Flemish policy. And here, the government has an additional hurdle to overcome compared to the business world. After all, citizens are, by default, sceptical about sharing data with authorities. It is not associated with a positive consumer experience. In other words, the government has quite a job of gaining enough trust from the citizen to make data exchange possible. However, as soon as citizens notice that they are getting a significantly improved service from the government thanks to data exchange, they will naturally change their minds.
According to Eric Goris, CIO of Ethias, building trust is also a core mission in insurance. How data is exchanged with customers is a process that is built up step by step. At the beginning of the customer lifecycle, this is done cautiously and based on little data. As the relationship grows and the customer gets involved in handling files and claims, their awareness grows that the correct and complete exchange of data with the insurer is in their own interest. The customer has then crossed the Rubicon: he becomes much less reticent and will share data with his insurer in complete confidence. Here, of course, comes another challenge for the insurance company, namely the correctness of the data provided. Mistakes can creep in, either accidentally or ... intentionally. Therefore, identifying fraud is an integral part of data management in every insurance company.
An ethical discussion
Each sector indeed has its specific data-related challenges. According to Alain De Maght, CISO and DPO in the IRIS network of hospitals, in the health care sector, these are unquestionably the regulations in force on medical secrecy and confidentiality versus the ever-increasing need for data exchange between the various players in the industry, including the government. The discussion about who exactly is the owner of data - the patient or the physician - and what information can or should be shared is - certainly in a medical environment - the subject of a thorough ethical discussion.
Permitting the use of one's data should be linked to a specific purpose and for a particular duration. That is the model that will become the standard, according to Jan Smedts. The initiative for defining those standards should indeed lie with the authorities. The Flemish government's setting up of the data utility company (datanutsbedrijf) fits this same philosophy. The government sees it as its task to facilitate the smooth and correct data exchange between citizens, companies and organisations.
"The issue of customer data management is very high on our company's agenda", confirms Koen Willems, CIO of Sodexo. Its catering division is making the step from a purely B2B to a B2B2C or even B2C service. In the US, meals are being delivered directly to employees, whether or not via the company that is buying Sodexo's catering services. This brings Sodexo into the realm of the typical data challenges of retail, such as customer loyalty, feedback loops etc. The global strategy of Sodexo is clear, but the local marketing team still has to translate it to the local context.
Compliance is not the purpose, key is what is best for the customer - Sophie Pollet
The question whether the need for compliance with laws and regulations such as GDPR puts a brake on sales and marketing activities initially met a harsh response. According to Jean-Pierre Bernaerts, the law is a given and has to be respected as such. Moreover, regulations such as GDPR were drawn up with the same intention as the companies have, namely to protect and win the consumer's trust. And according to Sophie, you even go beyond the regulations if that is in the consumer's interest. Andrew Pease, North Europe CTO Data Platform of Salesforce, is convinced that GDPR can or should be a competitive edge for Europe. At the moment, we are experiencing a growing pain, but Europe will soon realise what assets trustworthy data and trustworthy AI can be in the global market. Jan Smedts also endorsed this. According to him, legislation and regulations have so far paid too much attention to data protection and not enough to data sharing. Hence the initiatives such as the data utility company. After all, swift and safe data exchange has become a lifeline for economic and social functioning.
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