Fueling customer loyalty with data: A Q&A with Pilot Flying J’s Chief Data and Analytics Officer Ameet Shetty

If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, then you know the feeling of relief that comes when finally spy a recognizable truck stop or service station to pull into. Whether to fill up the tank, grab a snack, or ask for directions, fuel stations are a ubiquitous part of automotive travel, and there are more than 150,000 of them across the country. Pilot Flying J accounts for 750 of those locations, serving more than 1.3 million people daily.

For Chief Data and Analytics Officer Ameet Shetty, the key to differentiating Pilot Flying J from the other 149,250 fuel providers across the United States is data. On a recent episode of The Data Chief, Ameet joined Cindi Howson to discuss how he organizes his analytics team, the importance of balancing accountability with innovation, and why the most successful CDOs are natural connectors. Read on for insights from their conversation.

Cindi Howson: How does a CDO become successful, regardless of their background?

Ameet Shetty: I think most of us are out there trying to learn what we don't know. We also try to surround ourselves with strong talent that fills in the gaps of the areas that we may not have the depth in. Make sure you bring a holistic team. If a group of leaders and individuals work together and row the boat in the same direction, they're going to accomplish some amazing things. I think if you're coming from the financial sector, you've got more regulation that gets in your way. If you’re coming from the quick-service restaurant space, it's harder to create that customer intimacy because you don't have as many easy touchpoints with the client.

Pilot is an exciting place to be because it's something in between. We're not nearly as regulated as most financial institutions, although we do have our fair share of things to be worried about. At the same time, we are able to create customer loyalty programs and closer touchpoints to our customers.

Cindi: Can you expand on how data could be used to create a better customer experience?

Ameet: I think the industry is still evolving, and when it comes to data and analytics there's tons of opportunity. We're in a business where how do you differentiate yourself? Well, you do it by knowing your clients better. And I think that's where the similarity is in the financial sector. You can go to anybody to get a checking account or a savings account. How do you make it different for your end consumer? Same thing for us at Pilot. You go to any gas station, but how do we make a better experience? I think what matters is that you feel we take care of you in a different way. 

How do we make a stickier connection? How do we create a better-personalized connection to our customers? We're thinking about what we can do with our app. We're thinking about loyalty programs. We're thinking about all those connection points so that we continue to have a consistent user experience. That's what data does, driving those insights to help us create those connections so that we aren't another commodity.

Cindi: Tell us your thoughts about the journey to the cloud for the data and analytics industry.

Ameet: I think the biggest struggle for anybody sitting in the role of the CDO is how you ensure that you're able to convince your organization to make those infrastructure investments that are foundational. If you aren't able to get access to all that data at the speed, volume, and all other components that you want, your ability to drive insights out of that data is challenged. Many of my peers continue to say it's still garbage in, garbage out.

You have to be careful because if your foundation, your infrastructure, or your governance aren't in place, then driving analytics and creating an impact gets diminished significantly. Our team is trying to think through what our best options are to make that client contact the most impactful. I believe that the digital app experience, combined with our loyalty program, is still one of the key avenues for us to keep investing in.

Cindi: Is there a way to ensure data centralization for economies of scale, but still meet every functional area’s needs? 

Ameet: At Pilot, we are doing things that make sense around creating the right governance and data stewardship all in one centralized team. We're also allowing the analytics to be as embedded into the business units as possible. There are areas where we can deliver data science capabilities centrally when it makes sense for us to do that, so the investment shared across multiple units makes a whole lot of sense.

However, if we've got an area where there's a lot of value or capacity like price optimization or other things we're going after, then we make those teams as decentralized as possible. They’re still working in partnership with a centralized organization that's creating governance -- ensuring that the quality of the data is optimal, storing the information centrally until we know where it's going, and knowing how the data gets accessed. All of those things we need to maintain so that we can ensure that we're working at the highest levels of quality and delivery.

Cindi: What is your view of governance in running the business of data?

Ameet: In the financial sector, governance means, "They're going to lock down my systems and controls and I can't do anything." It doesn't have to be that. I think governance can be about maintaining quality and ensuring that the right oversight is there. Due to all the security challenges companies face these days and the potential for breaches, there is some level of control that you want. But there's a balance to that; we don't want to stifle innovation. 

At Pilot, we want to have structure and make sure people own their data and are accountable for it. Our finance team needs to own financial information within the organization. Our HR team needs to own people data. We want to make sure each of those teams holds themselves accountable. That said, we don't have a heavy-handed data relationship management governance so as not to discourage insight.

However, if we do have things like PII data, we want to protect that. We ratchet up governance to make sure that we feel confident in our ability to control that oversight and keep it out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have it. There's a balance, but it goes back to the organizational model of the company. What is the culture of your company? What is the risk tolerance that you have? All those things have to be weighed, and then making the appropriate decisions as a result of those is the only way you can do it.

Join The Data Chief

Learn more from modern data and analytics leaders like Ameet by subscribing to The Data Chief today.