silo-ization

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Thanks to Keith McArthur for clueing me in on Cluetrainplus10, in which folks comment on each of Cluetrain’s 95 theses, on roughly the 10th anniversary of the day Cluetrain went up on the Web. (It was around this time in 1999.)

The only thesis I clearly remember writing was the first, “Markets are conversations.” That one was unpacked in a book chapter, and Chris Locke has taken that assignment for this exercise. Most of the other theses are also taken, so I chose one of the later ones, copied and pasted here:

71. Your tired notions of “the market” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere. Doc Searls @dsearls

Ten years later, that disconect is still there. Back when we wrote Cluetrain, we dwelled on the distance between what David Weinberger called “Fort Business” and the human beings both inside and outside the company. Today there is much more conversation happening across those lines (in both literal and metaphorical senses of the word), and everybody seems to be getting “social” out the wazoo. But the same old Fort/Human split is there. Worse, it’s growing, as businesses get more silo’d than ever — even (and especially) on the Net.

For evidence, look no farther than two of the most annoying developments in the history of business: 1) loyalty cards; and 2) the outsourcing of customer service to customers themselves.

Never mind the inefficiencies and outright stupidities involved in loyalty programs (for example, giving you a coupon discounting the next purchase of the thing you just bought — now for too much). Just look at the conceits involved. Every one of these programs acts as if “belonging” to a vendor is a desirable state — that customers are actually okay with being “acquired”, “locked-in” and “owned” like slaves.

Meanwhile, “customer service” has been automated to a degree that is beyond moronic. If you ever reach a Tier One agent, you’ll engage in a conversation with a script in human form:

“Hello, my name is Scott. How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Thank you for asking. I’m fine. How can I help you today?”

“My X is F’d.”

“I’m sorry you’re having that problem.”

Right. They always ask how you are, always thank you for asking how they are, and are always sorry you have a problem.

They even do that chant in chat sessions. Last week I had a four chat sessions in a row with four agents of Charter Communications, the cable company that provides internet service at my brother-in-law’s house. This took place on a laptop in the crawl space under his house. All the chats were 99% unhelpful and in some ways were comically absurd. The real message that ran through the whole exchange was, You figure it out.

Last week in the New York Times, Steve Lohr wrote Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer. It tells the story of how customers, working as voluntary symbiotes in large vendor ecosystems, take up much of the support burden. If any of the good work of the volunteers finds its way into product improvement, it will provide good examples of what Eric von Hippel calls Democratizing Innovation. But most companies remain Fort Clueless on the matter. Sez one commenter on a Slashdot thread,

There’s a Linksys cable modem I know of that has a recent firmware, and by recent I mean last year or so. Linksys wont release the firmware as they expect only the cable companies to do so. The cable companies only release it to people who bought their cable modems from them directly. So there are thousands of people putting up with bugs because they bought their modem retail and have no legitimate access to the updated firmware.

What if I pulled this firmware from a cable company owned modem and wrote these people a simple installer? Would the company sing my praises then?

The real issue here is that people frequent web boards for support because the paid phone support they get is beyond worthless. Level 1 people just read scripts and level 2 or 3 people cant release firmwares because of moronic policies. No wonder people are helping themselves. These companies should be ashamed of providing service on such a low level, not happy that someone has taken up the slack for them.

Both these annoyances — loyalty cards and customer support outsourced to customers — are exacerbated by the Net. Loyalty cards are modeled to some degree on one of the worst flaws of the Web: that you have to sign in to something before you make a purchase. This is a bug, not a feature. And the Web makes it almost too easy for companies to direct customers away from the front door. They can say  “Just go to our Website. Everything you need is there.” Could be, but where? Even in 2009, finding good information on most company websites is a discouraging prospect. And the last thing you’ll find is a phone number that gets you to a human being, even if you’re prepared to pay for the help.

So the “elsewhere” we talked about in Cluetrain’s 71st thesis is out-of-luck-ville. Because we’re still stuck in a threshold state: between a world where sellers make all the rules, and a world where customers are self-equipped to overcome or obsolete those rules — by providing new ones that work the same for many vendors, and provide benefits for both sides.

This whole issue is front-burner for me right now. One reason is that I’m finally getting down (after three years) to unpacking The Intention Economy into a whole book, subtitled “What happens when customers get real power” (or something close to that). The other is that this past week has been one in which my wife and I spent perhaps half of our waking lives on the phone or the Web, navigating labyrinthine call center mazes, yelling at useless websites, and talking with tech support personnel who were 99% useless.

A Tier 2 Verizon person actually gave my wife detailed instructions on how to circumvent certain call center problems in the future, including an unpublished number that is sure to change — and stressing the importance of knowing how to work the company’s insane “system”. And that’s just one system. Every vendor of anything that requires service has its own system. Or many of them.

These problems cannot be solved by the companies themselves. Companies make silos. It’s as simple as that. Left to their own devices, that’s what they do. Over and over and over again.

The Internet Protocol solved the multiple network problem. We’re all on one Net now. Email protocols solved the multiple email system problem. We don’t have to ask which company silo somebody belongs to before we send email to them. But we still have multiple IM systems. The IETF approved Jabber’s XMPP protocol years ago, but Jabber has been only partially adopted. If you want to IM with somebody, you need to know if they’re on Skype or AIM or Yahoo or MSN. Far as I know, only Google uses XMPP as its IM protocol.

Meanwhile text more every day than they IM. This is because texting’s SMS protocol is universally used, both by all phone systems and by Twitter.

The fact that Apple, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo all retain proprietary IM systems says that they still prefer to silo network uses and users, even after all these decades. They are, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things.”

Sobriety can only come from the customer side. As first parties in their own relationships and transactions, they are in the best position to sort out the growing silo-ization problems of second and third parties (vendors and their assistants).

Once customers become equipped with ways of managing their interactions with multiple vendors, we’ll see business growing around buyers rather than sellers. These are what we’re starting to call fourth party services: ones that Joe Andrieu calls user driven services. Here are his series of posts so far on the topic:

  1. The Great Reconfiguration
  2. Introducing User Driven Services
  3. User Driven Services: Impulse from the User
  4. User Driven Services: 2. Control

(He has eight more on the way. Stay tuned.)

Once these are in place, marketers will face a reciprocal force rather than a subordinated one. Three reasons: 1) because customer choices will far exceed the silo’d few provided by vendors acting like slave-owners; 2) customers will have help from a new and growing business category and 3) because customers are where the money comes from. Customers also know far more about how they want to spend their money than marketers do.

What follows will be a collapse of the guesswork economy that has comprised most of marketing and advertising for the duration. This is an economy that we were trying to blow up with Cluetrain ten years ago. It’s what I hope the next Cluetrain edition will help do, once it comes out this summer.

Meanwhile, work continues.

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