Is Your Decision Support Tool Your Best Friend?

A best friend can be trusted to provide sound, honest advice and won't let you down in a pinch. If you manage or use a marketing database — whether for customer analysis, segmentation or list rental — one of your best friends should be the decision support tool which provides access to database information. But what should you look for when choosing your DST?

Like a friend, it must be easy to interact with your DST and get feedback, even to hard questions. Getting answers to basic questions like the number of 12-month buyers or the distribution of inquirers by state must be a snap. A tool that's a real friend also responds to complex queries containing multiple nested statements and conditions. Intuitive point and click icons will help properly input and sequence statements. They will guide you through the query process and make it easy to add or delete conditions or correct mistakes.

Drop down menus will describe each non-intuitive value in a field using easy to understand wording. You will be able to select data elements by selecting these descriptions or by entering known values. Full Boolean logic (=, >,<, etc.) must be available to apply to the entire file or to a segment. A really good friend will even tailor logic to each field. For example, a state select can be = or ' to a state(s) but can't be > or < states, while a date or dollar field can be defined by these and many other mathematical terms.
A good DST responds to simple queries in seconds and to complex questions asked of an extensive multi-million record file in a minute or two. It will let you know immediately if there is a mistake in how you formatted your request. The option to batch requests and have them run at a time you designate is the sign of an especially flexible friend.

Your DST should let you save output for future manipulation or share it with co-workers. It must make it easy to export responses to a PC-based worksheet, statistical, geographic or graphic program. Further, your DST should include some output options without manipulation in a secondary application.

Users should be able to select report formats showing distribution of values (number and percent), and cross-tabs, and to calculate means and averages. Reports should look “professional”. They should allow for row and column sub-totals, perform limited row/column value manipulation, and provide some graphics functions (e.g. pie chart, line graph). Users should be able to store desirable formats and run them on new data after updates.

If your file identifies customers, prospects, etc. at the individual name and household or corporate level, or if the database houses information on multiple businesses or divisions, the DST should make it easy to extract wanted information at the desired level and let you switch between levels or businesses quickly.

While a DST can be purchased or developed internally, it is most often offered in conjunction with database maintenance services provided by service bureaus. When acquiring your DST from a provider, make sure a “help” capability is built in and that a support staff is available at least during expanded business hours. Training classes, preferably at multiple levels, are critical. A users group meeting once or twice a year is a big plus. Make sure that software is routinely upgraded since even the best tool needs


Check for multiple installations and a pool of satisfied users. Few advanced users suggests a tool in test or a client base that hasn't pushed the product's limits. Either can be a problem. Call references to confirm satisfaction and tool strengths and weaknesses. Confirm there are users with applications like yours. A tool used mostly by banks or fundraisers won't be a good match for a cataloger and vice versa.

Once you acquire your DST, its up to you to ensure it meets or exceeds expectations. Do this by constantly using it and challenging its limits. Experience suggests that many buyers, once they acquire this “friend,” take it out for a drink or perhaps to dinner, but then let the relationship slide. Recognize that no matter how well designed no DST can be mastered in an hour or two. All require ample “play” time to learn system complexities.

If you make the effort to learn and apply a superior DST, it truly can be a lifesaver … and a friend for life.

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