Getting Smart With Big Data

How smaller companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated about analyzing multiple forms of data.

May 10 2013 by William J. Holstein

Even a true believer like Hussey warns, however, that companies can make mistakes in plunging into big data analytics. One caveat is that some companies collect data but then don’t know how to take action on what the data is telling them. They become paralyzed. “If the data isn’t put into action, you’re not going to get a rate of return because then it’s just data for data’s sake,” Hussey says. “You’re not truly engaging and interacting with customers.”

Another trap is not building in the capacity of staff to interpret mountains of data. “I don’t believe any software allows you to just push a button and get all the right answers,” Hussey says. “The software world takes you up to a certain point; and then, it’s up to analysts, who take you the rest of the way.” He notes that there is a national shortage of statisticians and data analysts.

When done correctly, building data sophistication into an SME company can allow it to punch above its weight. Very few CEOs worry about their rates of return on this type of investment because it fundamentally changes the nature of the company and its products, as happened at Sub-Zero. CEOs can see huge payoffs in productivity, product quality and innovation. The bottom line? It makes big sense to get smart about Big Data.

A Data-Driven Airport Service Company

GroundLink, a limousine car service based in New York City that caters to “road warriors” around the world, has come up with some winning technologies on its own steam, thanks, in part, to research and development offices in India and Serbia. GroundLink allows customers to order pickups at airports from their smart phones and then track where their driver is on the screen of their handheld devices. That avoids the age-old dilemma of arriving at an airport, not finding your driver, calling the limousine company to find the driver but never really knowing when the car will show up. Altogether, GroundLink handles more than 1,000 pickups a day in 75 countries around the world.

CEO Bruce Rogoff relies on an outside vendor, 89 Degrees, to really dig in and try to understand who his best customers are. “We want to get more of the best customers and pay less attention to the others,” he says. “We are a data-driven organization.”

GroundLink provides its own data to 89 Degrees, which then combs through various public and private-sector databases, including those of credit-rating agencies to draw profiles of the most active customers. Thanks to its advanced analytics software and hardware, 89 Degrees can overlay GroundLink’s data with that of many other databases. “Are my customers investment bankers in Westchester [an affluent county north of New York City] or consultants in Boston?” Rogoff demands to know. “What is their job title and household income? Do they live 10 miles from airports or 20 miles? Are they tennis players? Are they platinum Marriott people? Do they have a particular status with United Airlines?” One discovery: a surprising number of his customers own golden retrievers.

Once it has an accurate portrait of a customer segment, GroundLink tries to craft a specific marketing campaign to reach them. “It’s not just knowing that I serve a bunch of frequent fliers; it’s a question of, how do I speak to those people?” Rogoff explains. So the company started offering 1,000 airline bonus miles to customers who were found to have a particular loyalty to an airline or a particular interest in amassing bonus miles. The key, he says, is not just collecting information—but learning how to act on it.