“Lies, damn lies, and statistics” is credited to Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli, and others; regardless of where it originated that sentiment can be held by a business owner drowning in data.

Data can anchor your business, but is that anchor securing your business firmly or dragging it down? It’s all in how you handle the information.

First, consider what you need to learn, what you want to dig out of the data. You have to ask the right questions to get the answers you want. If you don’t collect the right information, then the exercise is pointless. Think ‘garbage in, garbage out’, this is usually applied to computer programming, but it also fits in this case. Ask the wrong questions, get the wrong answers.

“Don’t measure anything unless the data helps you make a better decision or change your actions.” – Seth Godin, Squidoo

What kinds of things can you use the data for? Finding out what customers are buying, who is buying it, what else they are looking for, if they’re satisfied. These are just a few of the insights that data mining (examining and analyzing information) can provide to your business.

Where does this information come from? You can get these facts and figures from social media, databases, surveys, and so on. The list just keeps growing.

Once you have the numbers, then what? Manage it the best you can with the resources you have. Sometimes it’s an employee compiling lists of names and email addresses, other times it’s organizing several metrics with the latest CRM.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” – Jim Barksdale, Netscape

Privacy concerns need to be kept in mind. Keep your data secure and be honest and up front with your customers when collecting information from them. Tell them what you are collecting and why.

Remember that collecting and analyzing this information is not everything — you can’t rely on it to the exclusion of all else. Blend it with your experience, insight, observations and plans. Find a balance, don’t rely on it too much, but don’t neglect it.

“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Fourteen per cent of people know that.” – Homer Simpson

If you understand your customers better you can serve them better. That’s the bottom line.