Serve customers better by using “Little Data”

It’s impossible to read a business publication, blog or LinkedIn post without seeing a reference to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).  Owners of start-ups and mid-size companies, without access to AI and ML techniques, might be forgiven for worrying that they are being left behind.  Fortunately, there are  approaches that use available “Little Data” that are practical and nearly as effective. 

The current AI hype is nothing new.  Ten years ago, consultants and IT firms were trumpeting the era of Big Data, giant data sets generated by consumer behavior online that could be decoded with the use of powerful algorithms.  Back then, I published an article in the PwC publication strategy + business that pointed out an important caveat:  most businesses, especially smaller and B2B oriented companies, operate in relatively sparse data environments and don’t have the large data sets needed for AI and ML techniques.  You can read the entire article here:  

What I proposed instead for early stage and mid-size companies was taking advantage of “Little Data”, information that is already being gathered about customers and prospects or can be created quickly and inexpensively. 

Here are some examples of data sources that can be leveraged by early stage and mid-size companies to generate customer insights: 

  • Sales and financial data to identify which products and varieties are best meeting customer needs 
  • Detailed call center information (entire transcripts, not just the customer service rep’s summary) 
  • Sales force input via interviews or CRM system functions already built in 
  • Inexpensive customer surveys, which can be generated by email, pop-ups on the website or in-person interactions at retail locations 
  • Trade shows, where B2B customers can be in engaged in brief surveys or small group discussions 
  • Online focus groups, where dozens of customers and prospects can be engaged in structured conversations and survey questions 
  • Social listening of publicly available conversations on forums, blogs and mainstream social media platforms 

Over many years of working with large, mid-size and early stage companies, I’ve helped marketing and sales leaders institute Little Data programs that led to material improvements in revenue from a modest investment of money and effort.  In one case, a craft brewer wanted to tailor its promotions to different types of restaurant or bar (e.g., sports bar vs. casual dining).  The sales leader asked sales and delivery staff to answer 10 basic questions about each outlet’s size, menu, number of beer taps, etc.  The information was then put through a simple algorithm that created outlet segments, leading to much more effective marketing and promotions. 

In another case, an RV manufacturer used social listening to gain insights into owners’ preferences for features, financing options and services that the manufacturer could provide.  This led to a highly popular and profitable subscription service that RV owners used to plan their trips and share experiences with fellow RV owners. 

One more example:  a maker of gourmet condiments wanted to expand distribution but was hindered by a large number of individual products, sizes, flavors, etc.  Data from the finance system was used to perform basic product profitability analysis.  A few online focus groups were used to gather information on customer product preferences.  The output enabled the company to focus on a handful of core products, driving 80% of revenue and expanded distribution. 

The theme running through these examples is more true today than ever:  a shift to more data-driven decision making – even when the information is incomplete or imperfect – can lead to powerful growth results.  Gut feel isn’t enough to compete successfully.  Learning to leverage all available sources of information–Little Data–is a foundational principle underlying most growing companies. 

David Meer specializes in data-driven approaches to growth.  He has advised leading corporations on numerous highly successful marketing campaigns and new product launches.  He is co-author of three articles in Harvard Business Review, including “Rediscovering Market Segmentation”, one of the publication’s top 50 best sellers.  

Downeast Growth Partners is a firm that helps mid-size companies grow to their potential through organic growth and acquisitions.  Downeast offers growth assessments, growth project implementations, acquisition diligence and post-sign acquisition services.  For more information please visit our website at   

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