Keeping your business data clean

Information is the lifeblood of your business.  (Well, actually that’s probably cash, but you take my point!) Keeping your business data clean is something that will reward you in a number of ways, so here are a few tips to help you avoid the most common pitfalls.

Getting data in the first place

Obviously the easiest way to collect customer data is to get the customer to do the work and enter it all for you!  However, whilst this works well enough for collecting their names and addresses, potentially it is not so reliable for other details.  Many customers will leave out telephone numbers, date-of-birth and so on as they think that it’s none of your business.  If you force them to provide that data then they may go elsewhere.

For example, I have been know to leave sites that insist on both an email address and a mobile phone number – I don’t want to be getting endless marketing texts.  Email is far easier to ignore, and to filter out the rubbish.

There’s no single answer to collecting data, as what you need differs from business to business, but my suggestion would be to collect it bit by bit if you can.  Build up a picture of your customer or client as your business relationship progresses.  That way you are not only getting valuable data, but you are also getting it on the people you trade with most.  There’s little advantage in gathering the life history of someone who will never buy from you again.

Tidying the data up

This is important.  Quite often your customers will enter details in lower case, for example, so when you use that data for anything it looks pretty poor: fred bloggs, 1 the high street, anytown, ab1 2cd

It’s simple enough to put some validation into your system that converts the input to ‘proper’ cases – normally a capital initial for names and addresses.  In Excel, there is even a PROPER() function that will do this for you, so you can extract data, tidy it up and put it back in.  There is little excuse for having this sort of data being output from your systems.

Telephone numbers can also be a challenge, especially if you get Excel involved!  Be careful if you pull data out into Excel, as if there is no space in the phone number it will treat the field as an integer number and strip off the leading zero, and you may end up saving it in that format and wrecking your data.  If there is a space between the code and the number, then Excel will leave it alone as it sees the cell as text.

The top tip for extracting data from a system to tidy it up is not to use Excel in the first instance.  Normally the data comes out as a CSV (comma-separated values) file which has a tendency to automatically open in Excel as Office pinches the file association by default.  Better to use a proper text editor, like Notepad (already part of Windows) or NotePad++ which is a downloadable editor with many powerful features.

Using editors like these will help to keep the formatting of the data free from corruption, and is often a good starting point.  You’ll need to move to Excel for some of the actual fixes, but at least you’ve evaluated your data without breaking it!

Storing the data

The big question about storing it is where will it end up?  You may not care, but some businesses will be regulated, and may have to keep the data in the EU.  Therefore if you are backing up a database, and storing that backup on the cloud, check where it is stored.  Even though your main system may be in the EU, if you bung the backups onto Dropbox or Google Drive, or some equivalent service, they may end up anywhere, so be careful if it’s important to you.


A lot of telesales companies, especially, rely on the fact that people are unsure of the regulations to get away with calling you when they shouldn’t.  If they say that they are calling you because you have previously bought something from them, this is not acceptable under the regulations unless you have explicitly told them that you do not object to being called.

Equally, if you ask them to remove your number and stop calling, then they are legally obliged to do this.  They must suppress your number (as opposed to deleting it) so that if it comes up again, there is a notification on their system that you have asked not to be called.

These are cases where, as a marketing operation, you simply have to keep data clean, or you can end up in trouble.  Mailing lists and telesales data needs to be regularly audited, not only to ensure its accuracy, but also to check that the person concerned has not recently signed up with the Telephone Preference Service, or some similar organisation.

I could go on for pages about compliance alone, so if you want the ABC, and some useful case studies, see this useful guide from Experian – it tells you how to approach a variety of scenarios, one of which might suit you.


I could, unsurprisingly, go on about data for weeks – it’s one of the things that I do (work with it, that is, not go on about it) but it is so important to most businesses, and there are a lot of pitfalls.  Superficially, you have the presentation side of things that we have covered here to an extent, but then you have the information that it can give you about your business.

And that’s a post for another day …

If you need help, advice, or just an honest opinion, about any data issues, please contact me here (using upper and lower case, please!), or call 01438 832724.

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