Most businesses and non-profit organizations rely on accurate and timely customer data to grow. Whether it be mailing lists, volunteer information, or customer trends, good data is the difference between success and frustration.
In our 16+ years of experience working with clients and their data, we have seen a great variety of methods to obtain customer data. Some are far better than others. Below you will find 5 tips that will prevent headaches and streamline your operations. Note that many of the tips below are not platform specific, so these rules apply for basic spreadsheets as well as complex applications on WordPress, Magento, or other web platforms.
1. Use Electronic Forms Whenever Possible
All too often we have seen situations where data is hand-entered onto sheets of paper and later has to be transcribed into a database or spreadsheet. Not only is this work extremely tedious, but also prone to errors from less than stellar penmanship or simple transcription errors. With the proliferation of tablets and mobile devices, there are numerous ways to collect data electronically at events like volunteer work parties, 5k races, and fundraisers. Even if it necessitates the investment of hardware, it will pay off over time from allowing staff to concentrate on more vital tasks than rote data entry. If using a WordPress site, you can set up a form with plugins such as Gravity Forms with very little effort that will also store the data on the site to be retrieved and organized later.
2. Keep Data as Standard as Possible
While it may not seem like a big deal when collecting data, keeping data standardized will become very important later on when the time comes to organize and sort the data. Probably the most common piece of data to be standardized is a customer’s state. Instead of presenting a user a text field to write in their state, always use a standardized dropdown box (many data collection plugins for WordPress will have this as a standard feature), so every person from New York will have a value of NY for their state. If you don’t you will inevitably have entries of N.Y., NY, and New York at minimum. Take it from us: at some point you will be very grateful to have this data standardized when the time comes to make use of it.
3. Always Use Separate Fields For First and Last Name
A universal field for most customer data collections is a field for customer name. Very often we see a database or spreadsheet for a single Name field, and the client then wants to organize customers by last name. With a single Name field it becomes very challenging and will require someone to create a program to extract last names from the list, and it is even worse if some customers decide to use a format of “Lastname, Firstname” in that field. Using separate First Name and Last Name fields from the start makes organizing and sorting customers downright trivial, and this simple extra step at the beginning will save a great deal of frustration down the line.
4. Assume the Customer Will Not Read Instructions
One of the most important rules of web design in general is to not force the user think more than they have to. From our experience, users will often not follow directions, no matter the bold and scary font used. If a user is allowed to do something, at some point they will try it. For example, if you have a text field for date of birth and it is clearly stated “Please use month/day/year format”, you will inevitably observe results like “1-5-1990”, “01/05/90”, “Jan 5 1990”, and so on. Organizing customers by data of birth will then become a challenge, and you will be forced to go through quite a few hoops to get this sorted properly, when a standardized format will render it trivial, allowing you to get back to more important tasks. An excellent way to keep this data standardized is to force all values to be the format you want them to be in. Many data gathering plugins have settings to allow for this.
5. Begin With The End In Mind
What exactly do you plan to do with the customer data? Will it be incorporated into MailChimp or some other mailing list platform? Will it be imported directly into WordPress to create new WordPress users? Will it be used to populate a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool like Salesforce? Prior to setting up any sort of collection system, take the time to determine how these other systems incorporate data fields and what formats they require. Most popular systems will have extensive documentation and/or support, and a little bit of research up front will save time and money when it comes time to make use of your data.
As we have demonstrated from the 5 points above, collecting and managing customer data is all about the details. It takes 10 seconds to pass around a clipboard and a pen with instructions to provide name, address, and date of birth at a volunteer event, but that initial 10 seconds will create 10 hours of work later on. While these tips are a good starting point, don’t hesitate to contact us for a more thorough review of your data gathering and integration practices.