Database Hygiene – A Very Sexy Topic Indeed

by Melanie, on 17 Nov 2020

When I told Matt that I was writing about clean databases, I jokingly tried to justify it as "a very sexy topic." He said: "well, some of the customer experience has to happen behind the scenes." So, maybe it doesn't quite qualify as sexy, but database hygiene is definitely an important and often ignored aspect of delivering a top class CX.

When strategizing how to grow your revenue in 2021, there are a few big levers you can pull – changing your target customer, doing more and/or different things, or removing internal bottlenecks that are slowing down your growth.

When the time is right, you will add to your headcount and increase your investment in marketing, sales, and customer support (and we've written before about our belief that many B2B companies consistently underspend on marketing).

However, it is ALWAYS the right time to work on reducing friction in your revenue architecture – the content, processes, and technology that result in sales and revenue generation.

You may be experiencing both external and internal friction.

External friction occurs at your direct interface with prospects and customers. How hard is it for an opportunity to convert? Do new users need better training?

Internal friction comes from behind-the-scenes structures such as teams with contradictory goals or incompatible systems that require manual data entry or create duplication.

Your company, like all companies, will have multiple sources of friction – things that add up to make life harder than it needs to be for both your customers and your team.

One of the most prevalent sources of friction that we encounter is messy databases. Dirty data is the bane of many employees', management teams', and customers' lives, which is why this edition of SPT is dedicated to understanding and tackling this particularly nefarious pain point. 

Here's what we're going to cover:

  • What do we mean by "dirty" data and why does it happen?
  • How does this negatively affect your people and your ability to generate revenue?
  • Ten things you can do to clean up your database – and keep it that way
complicated computer code

What is "Dirty" Data?

Having "dirty" data means there is incorrect or inaccurate information associated with some of the objects in your database.

Talking specifically about data that impacts the customer experience, this can mean any of the standard database objects: contacts, companies/accounts, and opportunities, or perhaps your custom objects.

Common examples are:

  • Typos creating invalid email addresses
  • Company records associated with contacts that no longer work there
  • Information stored in the wrong data field (e.g. job title in the last name field)
  • Duplicate records
  • Incomplete records (e.g. contacts missing a first or last name)

How Does a Database Get Dirty?

Inaccurate or outdated entries inevitably arise as people and companies change their contact information (especially email addresses) and employees move between jobs and companies. But there are several factors that can contribute to your data becoming dirtier faster:

Manual DATA Entry

The more manual your data entry processes, the greater the opportunity for human error.

Plus, it's not a great use of your sales' reps time. In a 2017 study, HubSpot found sales reps spending over an hour each day entering data.  No wonder they resist using a CRM system!

Sales Rep Time Breakdown - SP


A LACK OF understanding

Many users simply don't understand the systems they are using and the underlying data architecture.

This isn't just an IT issue. Everyone using a database needs to understand how it works. Whoever has a login needs to grasp the basics of what objects it contains, what's acceptable in each data field, and why they should want to maintain a clean database.

Make this part of onboarding new employees. Have conversations with users who struggle to keep their records clean. Some organizations have even tied this into employee performance evaluation and compensation.

Missing or Inadequate Processes

Let's say you sponsored a virtual conference and have received a list of registrants. Can you just import them from the spreadsheet? No! You need to look at it.

Events - and other sources - often provide data that needs some cleaning before you can import it. One big culprit for this is that people use auto-fill functionality to complete their registrations and the information gets out of date.

What if many of these contacts are already in your database - do you want to override the information you already have stored about them with whatever the conference is providing? What if your information is more accurate?

Clear processes are needed to manage these and other scenarios, otherwise your databases will be at higher risk of receiving and storing dirty data - and it won't always be easy to spot and fix.

The Negative Consequences

The bottom line is: dirty databases make it much harder for marketing and sales teams to generate and prove results.

Here are some of the more specific consequences you might face:

Lower Adoption

One of the most common reasons that CRM and marketing automation initiatives fail is because front line users choose not to adopt the system.

Anecdotally, I see this happen when they (a) don't see value in it for themselves and (b) find the tools too cumbersome to use.

Dirty data makes it less likely an end user will see value in the system – "I can't trust what it tells me" – and introduces extra steps – "I don't have time to reformat things or hunt for missing information."


When your team can't trust the data in the system, they will quickly become frustrated. This might come from external issues – perhaps they've stuck their foot in their mouth with a customer by relying on incorrect information – or internal tension – feeling like they're having to clean up other people's errors.

When this happens, morale gets dinged and the odds increase of your users losing the dedication and discipline required to maintain database hygiene.

Declining Trust

One of Harvard Business Review's main tips for a successful CRM implementation is to use your CRM system to drive revenue growth and as a sales coaching tool – not just for management reporting .

Transparency is always of value, but installing a tool to micromanage the process doesn't lead to happier employees and makes little if any difference to your customers.

Users who are suspicious of the motives behind a system will do their best to either find excuses for not using it or manipulate the outcomes (e.g. logging non-existent customer visits to boost their apparent performance).

The point of maintaining a clean database isn't to soothe your OCD tendencies or produce pretty charts for management, it's to have a positive impact on the business.

Clean data allows your team to create more revenue and grow your company. That comes from having satisfied customers and motivated employees. 

Lost revenue opportunities

Customers who experience inconsistencies and clunky handoffs between one part of your team and another are less likely to choose your solution.

This usually happens when one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing (e.g. marketing continues sending offers after sales has already begun progressing a particular opportunity) or someone fails to update other parts of the organization on the latest interaction with a customer (e.g. a request not to be contacted for a particular period of time or an interest – or lack of interest – in a particular type of solution).

Incomplete or inconsistent data can also result in your team missing renewal dates or cross-sell or upsell opportunities.

Perhaps the most damaging effect in today's digital marketplace is missing an opportunity to personalize the customer experience.

With 64% of customers expecting tailored experiences based on past interactions with a company (Source), dirty data can leave you looking incompetent or like you don't value the customer's business. Both are recipes for lost business.

Library in Stuttgart

HOW to Keep your Database Clean

1 / Involve end users in software purchasing decisions and implementation PROJECTS 

If your CRM and/or marketing tools lack straightforward, powerful database functionality, it's time to see what else is out there.

Consult your team to get a complete picture of how they interact with your systems and where they run into issues. Identify the root causes of database inconsistencies and list the functionality you need to eliminate – or at least, reduce – those points of friction.

Then, have conversations with different vendors about how their solutions would support your day-to-day use cases. Involve key staff in the process and consult a cross-section of users and managers before deciding which solution to implement.

Never underestimate the power and importance of UI/UX. The most brilliant and powerful software tool won't be helpful if people find it difficult or annoying to use.

2 / Train Your Team so They Can & Want to Use the System CORRECTLY

Provide initial training and ongoing refreshers so users can continue learning how the software can make their lives easier.

When we're training teams on new systems, we find combining training types works well. We start with group training sessions (usually organized by job function or seniority level), then follow up with 1-on-1 training as users begin digging into the system.

An important step is to build specific reports for each type of end user (e.g. sales reps, customer service reps) so that they can easily see how their numbers are improving as they use the system.

3 / Incentivize Employees to Use the System CORRECTLY

This typically applies more to sales and service teams than other groups. It's too easy for a front-line rep to store contact information in their email account (Outlook, Gmail) or a spreadsheet and 'forget' to update the CRM, whereas a marketer, for example, has no alternative but to use the database for marketing automation.

A common way of incentivizing sales team members to embrace and maintain a CRM database is to tie their variable compensation to customer interactions and properly logging deals in the system. Some companies will run CRM-based competitions to provide short-term engagement and morale boosts.

I look forward to a day when all sales staff see value in keeping a clean CRM, but even those of us who are practitioners and advocates sometimes get a bit lazy. We all need reminders and encouragement to stay on track with our good habits.

4 / USE systems that reduce manual entry and routine tasks

To minimize manual data entry, make sure your system automates tasks like pulling in contact data and company information.

When using more than one system – e.g. an ERP (enterprise resource planning) tool and a marketing automation and CRM system – use built-in integrations or third-party connectors to link the systems so that data can flow back and forth between them.

clean spray with neon # signEstablish clear protocols for how the systems get updated when someone makes a change, including designating one of them as the system of record for each data type and setting up role-based permissions for who has the authority to change each type of data.

5 / Connect Data Management Tools to Your DatabaseS

Even the best tools in the world cannot do everything. This is why every company employs a tech stack – a collection of tools that combine to satisfy its business needs.

When evaluating software products, pay attention to which other tools they integrate with – natively or through connectors. Straightforward integrations will make your life a whole lot easier.

In the context of database hygiene, look for integrations that beef up the ease and automation of database management. 

For example, Insycle integrates with HubSpot and provides additional rules-based automation and record management that isn't native within HubSpot.

Even if you have assigned a member of your team responsibility for maintaining your database – which you definitely should! – a tool like this will save them time and make them more effective by automating routine tasks and spotting database inconsistencies.

If you can't yet afford to dedicate someone's time to database maintenance, software like Insycle becomes essential and will help you stay on top of what can quickly become an unwieldy problem at a fraction of the cost of hiring another person.

6 / Create Data Management Workflows

Put in place software rules so that the system will catch non-standard data and update it to the correct format.

Why does this matter? As an example, when you run a campaign targeting a particular geography, your team shouldn't have to remember every possible variation for state or country names and abbreviations.

To get the most out of this step, be really, really, annoyingly specific. For example, how are you going to abbreviate states and countries? Will United States be captured as US, USA, U.S., or U.S.A?

Set up workflows to convert between common formats – for example, if someone enters "Mississippi" in the state data field, the rule will change it to "MS".

Removing the requirement for end users to always get the formatting right helps make their lives easier, too.

7 / Stay in Regular Contact with PEOPLE AND COMPANIES IN Your Database

One of the best ways to keep your contacts engaged while simultaneously validating your database is to interact with them. Send out emails, share your content, and find out what's happening in their world.

If some of your emails bounce (i.e. are undeliverable by the system), review them to understand why. Sometimes the recipient's IT email system will flag your message as spam, in which case you can write to each one individually, asking them to white list your address. In other cases, their email address or company affiliation might have changed. Use tools like LinkedIn to investigate and reconnect with them, if appropriate.

Don't be the company that sends an email eight months later and the recipient has no idea who you are or why you're in their inbox. That's a great excuse for them to delete the email or unsubscribe from your list.

Your team has put some real elbow grease into generating those records, so don't let them wither away on the proverbial vine of your customer database.

Plus, from a legal standpoint, you are not supposed to send a mass email to anyone with whom you haven't had contact in the last 12 months. So, stay top of mind and keep the relationships alive. 

(Legal note: We are not lawyers. Please consult with your legal team before emailing a dormant list.)

8 / Pay Attention to User Roles & Permissions

Be vigilant and only give users the access privileges they really need to do their job. Strong partitioning and user permissions should be an important part of your software functionality. 

We especially recommend limiting which users are allowed to export records from the database and not allowing users to share login details with each other.

When an employee leaves – whether terminated or leaving of their own accord – you should be able to cancel their credentials and have peace of mind that your customer data is protected. 

While some used to view access restrictions as a sign that the company didn't trust its employees, there are much broader implications today. Data protection laws across many jurisdictions have introduced legal repercussions if unauthorized users gain access to individual data.

9 / Regularly Check for Duplicates

People laugh when I say that duplicate records are database cancer. It sounds melodramatic, but it's true. Duplicates cause your company to overpay for software and prevent you from accurately logging a contact's history with your company.

Strong software will help you automatically identify duplicate records. However, set yourself a reminder – maybe once a month (depending on the growth rate and churn of your database) – to log in and process the duplicates it has flagged.

When a duplicate is found, you will have the option of choosing the "surviving" record. Good systems will help you merge duplicates while choosing which data to retain and which to discard.

(Side note: While we love a lot of what MailChimp has done, duplication of records is the area where we see many MailChimp users running into problems. Each MailChimp list functions as a separate database, which means that every time you upload a new list, you're creating duplicate records).

10 / Delete Contacts

Regularly remove unengaged and obsolete contacts from your database. You don't need extra cobwebs hanging around.

We all occasionally hear from "long lost friends" but expecting business contacts with obsolete email addresses (or those who have ignored your communications for years) to suddenly come back to life is wishful thinking. Besides, you can always add them back into the system if they do resurface and provide you with updated contact information.

Plus, most software companies will charge you by the number of contact records you store, so all those people who used to be of interest are now costing you money.

Photo Credits

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Tobias Fischer on Unsplash
Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash


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Topics:Database Management