Finding, understanding, engaging and eventually knowing your customers used to be so simple. A business had mailing and phone lists, tracked appointments, visits, invoices and purchases and taught employees to remember loyal visitors. It was all about delivering the personal touch. How quaint.

A Brave New World

Today's world of mobile devices, social networks, messaging apps, online retailing, recommendation engines and geo-aware shopping guides means that customers can come from anywhere, start and resume interactions on different venues, leave public feedback on others and expect the entire experience to be seamless. Retailers have labeled it the omnichannel: communications and transactions across multiple touch points spanning the physical and online worlds.

What started as a retail phenomenon -- providing the ability to shop online and pick up in store or, conversely, to order unusual or odd-sized items online that are not stocked by the brick and mortar location -- has rapidly spread to every other form of customer interaction. Airline travelers expect to be notified of flight delays and gate changes via smartphone apps or text message. Befuddled buyers calling a technical support desk want to shift the conversation over to a chat window while sharing their desktop screen. Customers complaining about a faulty product on a company's Facebook page expect an email or phone call offering a replacement.

Consider the Customer

Everyone wants ads, information and promotions specifically tailored to their wants and needs. All of these require stitching transactional, application and messaging data from multiple sources into a unified customer experience. It's what some in the industry now call the "customer journey," which encompasses the entire lifecycle of a business relationship: browsing, evaluating, buying, using, supporting, repairing and upgrading.

It's a powerful vision, but one that's deceptively complex as it involves gathering, organizing, correlating and analyzing data from many sources -- the quintessential big data integration and analysis problem. Generally in the form of log files or transaction records, the right data can provide insight into and context for what customers actually did or intended versus what they or the company thinks might have happened. But making sense of past data is only part of the omnichannel challenge.

Truly delivering on the seamless customer experience involves the contextual part: anticipating what the customer is likely to do or need and predicting it in real time. Proposing to switch a user's cell phone plan to one providing global roaming does them no good if the offer comes in the next bill, after they've returned from a two week trip and racked up hundreds of dollars in roaming charges. Delighting the customer means contacting them the first time you notice their phone accessing a foreign network, thus preventing problems, angry customers and potentially lost business.

Putting Data to Work 

It all starts with data, something which most businesses have plenty of. According to 451 Group storage analyst Marco Coulter, data shows that enterprise storage capacity is growing faster than Moore's law with many firms already managing over 10 petabytes. Much of the growth is due to machine-generated data, just the kind needed to correlate customer interactions across channels and derive meaning and insight from a jumble of transaction records and log files. And make no mistake: log files can be a jumble.