Who’s talking to (or with) whom

In CBS Video: Not In The Conversation, John Battelle writes,

  Close readers will notice a trend in 2008 here on Searchblog: I’ll be posting stuff about conversations, and in particular how companies are doing when it comes to having conversations with their key constituents.

I want to look at it from the opposite side, asking How are customers doing when it comes to having conversations with their key companies?

More to the point, how can we equip customers with better tools for communicating with their suppliers — across all those suppliers’ CRM (Customer “Relationship” Management) systems? Especially when most of those systems are designed to deflect or prevent actual human-to-human contact.

For example, I would like a dashboard — or the technology and standards that would allow anybody to build a dashboard — by which I could manage my billing relationships with all my suppliers.

Right now my bookkeeper, my wife and I are together trying to figure out what the hell a bunch of Visa bill expenses are for. Visa bills tend to have a list of transactions, most of which have little or no useful information associated with them. Usually it’s just a phone number. Call that number and you get routed into the supplier’s deflection maze or to a machine where you leave message and nothing happens. Once in awhile you actually reach somebody. But even then the mystery sometimes only deepens.

Right now my bookkeeper is on the phone with Dish Network, which for some reason is charging us for two accounts, including one at a strange address where we’ve never lived. It’s very complicated. (Later… it was just solved, and we’ll get a check from them for having collected on the account that didn’t exist.)

I have other mysteries right now involving Sirius, 1&1, T-Mobile, SixApart, Verizon, Rhapsody and AT&T. All those companies have their own billing and CRM systems. In some cases (such as Rhapsody), I just want to cancel the service but don’t know how, since I lack any kind of paperwork (physical or virtual) on the “relationship”. In other cases I want to know exactly what I’m being charged for, since the charges are at variance with my understanding of what I should be paying (which in some cases is zero).

I think what we need is something like an API. Let’s call it an VRI: Interface. Through it I could know, and see, what I’m getting from each vendor with which I “relate”. On top of that the dashboard could be built.

An interesting thing here is that I really don’t want to have a conversation of the literal kind with most of these companies, unless there’s a problem. I do want to relate with them, however. That is, I would like to request or arrange for services, pay bills and occasionally make suggestions or provide feedback. Most of that does not require wasting the time of another human being. A lot of that could be automated. I believe that automation would be easier if there were a consistent way of relating established on the customer side. That would be one set of wheels that all these different suppliers would not have to invent and re-invent over and over again, each in their own different ways. There could be standard routines for querying transaction histories, or for requesting information about current service offerings, or turning services on or off or up or down.

Whatever we do, “management” needs to go both ways. For the good of both parties.

Okay, back to making calls and doing research and wasting three people’s time…

7 comments

  1. Stormy’s avatar

    I have a good one:

    I had a mortgage and two credit cards with Chase. When I refinanced the mortgage, the title company wrote checks to Chase for the (at the moment) balance on the credit cards. (I don’t know why.) Checks made out to Chase for my credit cards. In the meantime, I lost one of the credit cards and canceled it so Chase deleted all my online statements. The closing company wouldn’t reimburse the check amount until I proved the balance was zero but I didn’t have any printed statements so I couldn’t even prove I’d ever had an account!

    I eventually got my money back but I never understood why they wrote the checks in the first place.

  2. rexblog.com: Rex Hammock’s weblog » Blog Archive » links for 2008-01-04’s avatar

    [...] Who’s talking to (or with) whom? | Doc Searls How are customers doing when it comes to having conversations with their key companies? (tags: vrm cluetrain) SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “links for 2008-01-04″, url: “http://www.rexblog.com/2008/01/03/17423/” }); permalink | categories: All other | Time posted: 11:15 pm on Thursday, January 3rd, 2008 [...]

  3. Jon Husband’s avatar

    I like the VRI notion.

    Why cannot all key information on bills from vendors (say, by segments or industries) be standardized, like bar codes or calorie and nutrition labels .. so that then they can be entered, processed, analysed more easily with software and readable ink (say) ?

  4. Perry’s avatar

    Hey Doc,

    A dimension that intrigues me is how the consumer- to- consumer network fits into the “vendor relationship interface” ;perhaps a vendor relationship “network” interface dynamic is forming.

    More and more I find more value in the assistance of other consumers who possess a similar relationship (and beaten the path for me) to a company or a product experience (“i had that same problem, and here is how I fixed it”). The volume of user content is growing exponentially, and the world of CRM/customer support experiences seems like a major beneficiary. Then via search indexing, we’re increasing solving our own software support problems by logging other user experiences. Google indexing is adding the contextual link that ties us together. Perhaps low on value back to the original business, but appealing to the cost containment centric side of CRM.

    Should this not become a connected part of the crm/VRL value chain? It may be very productive to focus on how the network is well formed “around” the VRI, not just the consumer-vendor link. Maybe you’ve already gone there, I admit to jumping in via Battelle’s link.

    Perry

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Perry,

    I think in an ad hoc and peer-to-peer way we are solving lots of problems for ourselves and with each other. But I still think the big missing piece is equipping individuals with tools that support both independence and engagement. If our strength comes only in numbers, there’s still something missing.

  6. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Doc– it’s a noble effort. Yes, obviously, remembering passwords and URLs gets to be pain. Surely somebody like Quicken has thought about doing it. I guess they figured that user issues/exceptions were rare enough that there was no incentive to do this.

  7. digital dish’s avatar

    I think that most people get really mad and alienated towards companies that while their voice message system assures us “that your call is VERY important to us”; we kind of know that if our call was REALLY important to them, that they would at least have a *live* person for us to talk to…..

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