Building your own early warning system


What do a bowl of yellow M&Ms have to do with the Distant Early Warning or DEW line? Both are ways to provide early warning systems of sorts. Let me explain.

The DEW line was a big deal back in its day. The idea was to be notified of any incoming Soviet bombers that were going to take us out by flying over the pole. The system of radar installations stretched across northern Canada and Alaska back in the cold war when both countries were stockpiling thousands of nuclear bombs. It would just take a few minutes for a bomber or a missile to reach our country, hence having a series of detection points closer to the source could provide a few minutes’ warning of an imminent attack.

The same could be said for the bowl of M&Ms. A friend of mine is a musician and explained the typical concert contract riders that specified a particular color of candy present in the dressing rooms or backstage. It wasn’t because the musicians were being prima donnas, as I always thought. “They wrote these riders as an early warning system. If a band showed up at a venue and saw the wrong color of candy, they knew they had better get out to the stage and spend some more rehearsal time. If the venue didn’t read the contract, it meant that other things probably wouldn’t be right for their show. It had nothing to do with their personal preferences,” he told me. Snopes quotes David Lee Roth of Van Halen, who put on some very complex shows, here: “If I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.”

Great idea, I thought. Those old rockers were on to something after all.

I thought about this as I attended the annual Teradata Partners conference last week in Nashville. I have been coming to this show for several years and find it very interesting, mainly because so many IT managers present what they are doing at dozens of sessions. This year’s show was no different, and I heard a lot of folks talk about they have developed their own early warning systems that they have put into place.

For example, what about tracking what happens to your worst customers? These are people that you want to know about, and try to fix their problem before they actually leave you for your competitors. Wouldn’t it nice if you could be notified about some issue in time to change their minds? That is one of the things that Teradata excels at with its various data warehousing and analytic tools.

One British clothing retailer has gone so far to set up its systems so that it can tell when an online shopper is calling its call center trying to complete an order. While that can be borderline creepy, it can help increase revenues and customer satisfaction rates too. Wells Fargo Bank has a number of executive dashboards that are used to track what banking products are used by their customers, as a way to see who isn’t really engaged.

Interestingly, the same systems can also be used to track what is going on with your best customers too.

So whether it is a bowl of candy or some multimillion dollar systems, think about ways that you can detect early trends and keep your customers.

5 thoughts on “Building your own early warning system

  1. David, Teradata didn’t invent this idea of customer tracking. Marketing automation technologies that do this have been around for some time. The big challenge now is capturing customer data across multiple channels, doing it at speed and being able to drive appropriate responses. The retailer who is tracking “events” or customer behaviors at the call center may have difficulty tying that together with what that same customer is doing on social media. Newer solutions that were designed after the emergence of the whole social explosion are around. (Full disclosure: my company does this.) Some of them (ours included) are using Hadoop to create data lakes that can be used to injest structured and unstructured data, combine it, and use it – maybe with machine-learning driven offers – to respond to customers automatically in real time. Getting across siloed channels and siloed data is the big challenge. Many marketers and companies are still thinking of customer interaction in the a “one lane at a time” approach, but that’s not how customers act…they cross lanes all the time.

  2. This point was detailed in Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (May 2014)

    In Chapter 7: What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?

    It was more about safety at the time than things going wrong – if the promoter had not bothered to read the details of the rider that included the requirement on M&M’s then they had not read the detailed requirement for the stage, lighting and sound systems that had expanded significantly and were placing more physical stress on infrastructure and any failure could result in severe consequences including death from falling/failing equipment

  3. Are you familiar with IBM’s Tealeaf product. It captures customer web sessions in real time and can signal whether customers are struggling with the web site or want to contact a human. It can also provide heat maps to show where customers actually go on the web site.

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