Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dead Men Pay No Bills

There should be more data quality horror stories out there. No, really there should. When we data quality practitioners struggle to get stakeholder buy-in for our initiatives it's good to have a few in the kit bag to pull and illustrate the problems poor quality data can have. So, to that end, let me share a recent experience.

Mid-afternoon late last week my phone buzzed with the arrival of a new text message. It came from a number I didn't recognise: "Steven, we refer to our demand for payment of last week sent to your address in Midway Point. If this amount is not paid by Wednesday at 5PM legal action will be started. Please contact us on xxxxxxxx and quote reference number xxxxxxxx to arrange payment." My first thought was wrong number or phishing attempt. Either way I wasn't going to action the request. Odd though - my Father is Steven and he had a Midway Point address. Odder still in that he died almost 5 years ago.

Curiosity got the better of me. A phone call to the provided number revealed that it was in fact a debt supposedly owed by my Father to a local electricity retailer. That bill had been dealt with years before when the lawyers were wrapping up Dad's affairs, why was a debt collection service chasing payment now and why / how on earth were they chasing me?

This is squarely in brand damage territory. Not the stuff of front page headlines, but certainly fodder for those trashy tabloid "current affairs" TV shows, and certainly capable of causing some degree of negative sentiment, brand avoidance and customer churn. Putting the commercial implications aside, it also has potential for emotional distress. Five years since Dad's passing gave me the space need to see the absurdity of the situation, but I suspect a more recent death would cause unnecessary upset for the person receiving the payment demand.

Looking from the outside in I can only make educated guesses at what is likely to have happened to get to this point. Here goes:

1. I know the company replaced their customer care and billing system between Dad's death and the payment demand. I assume there was a data migration exercise at the same time. Could it be that some part of the data associated with Dad's account wasn't migrated successfully, or even attempted to be migrated at all? Perhaps only the structured transactional data was migrated and the non-structured data attached to the account, such as notes advising of his death, wasn't migrated, or lost its association during migration.

2. There has been a concerted push from the major shareholder of the utility to recover debts recently. What if some form of data matching had been applied in order to find my mobile phone number (previously not associated with Dad's account) and use it as another communications channel to attempt to recover the debt. Dad and I share the same first initial and last name, we have at various times in the last forty odd years shared the same address and we were born in the same month of the year. Did we somehow become fuzzily matched as the same person? I'm all for finding ways to get value from your data in new ways, but it's got to be based on solid foundations - if the data quality is not understood, acknowledged and good enough then the insights gained may well be flawed.

Who knows what really happened - I'm guessing as to the chain of events that transpired. But I am sure of one thing - this is one bill that won't be paid.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting (but all too common) post Scott.

    I've had similar experiences, for example my newborns national health identifier was mistakenly matched with a child of the same surname and date of birth about 250 miles away, taking a whole team of people to resolve the problem but causing a great deal of stress as we worried about the implications as we started to receive someone elses healthcare appointments.

    In days gone by we would have silently lamented these problems in closed circles but thanks to social media we now have a platform to share (and blame) those involved.

    I think we need to air these stories and hopefully, we'll see progress, even if it does feel almost glacial in speed at times.

    Glad you got the issue resolved but as you say when these DQ issues hit close to home it makes them all the more stressful.