How Staples can make things easy for real

Staples likes to make things easy. s0105150_sc7Or so their button says.

But rebates in general are hard — on both the store and the customer. And at that Staples is no exception.

For example, yesterday at a Staples store I bought a couple reams of Staples paper for our printer. I probably would have bought the Staples brand anyway, simply because it’s cheaper. But I also couldn’t ignore the after-rebate price: $1.50 less for each ream, or $3.00 total. So I asked at the cash register if what I paid included the rebate. No, I was told. The rebate is in the electronic receipt I’d get by email. I could send in for the rebate online after getting the email.

When I got home the receipt was waiting in my email inbox. Among many other promotions in the email, it said this about my rebate:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.18.33 AM

When I clicked on the link I got to this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.19.34 AM

When I clicked on “SELECT FORM” I got this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.22.06 AM

For $3, fulling out something like that, and mailing it in, is worse than a waste. So I clicked on the “right here” link, which led me here:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.24.13 AM

So I clicked on the center one. That got me here:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.26.49 AM

So: what was the Easy Rebate ID? All I saw, so far, was a “Rebate offer number,” on the email and back at the page that the email link brought up. So I entered it in the form and hit “NEXT.” That got me this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.29.23 AM

After going “Hmmm… ” I scrolled down and saw this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.31.45 AM

Sure enough, at the bottom of the very long email with the rebate jive on it, was this:

Mail Attachment

I entered that number, and it worked.  Hitting “NEXT” then took me here:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.37.02 AM

When I clicked on NEXT again, I got to a page where I could register for a rebate account (by filling out a form that mined way too much personal information) or sign in. I have a Staples loyalty account; so, hoping that this might also be the rebate account, I hit “Sign in.”

I would show you the page this went to, if I could have copied it. But I couldn’t. The page had the same “Staples Easy Rebates” header, and under it just two words: “Error occurred.” When I paged down to see if there was more, the page disappeared and I was delivered back to Square Zero: the “Welcome to the Staples Rebate Center” page.

Since everything I already entered was lost, and I had no faith that entering it again would yield a different result, I gave up.

In retail parlance, this is called “breakage.” Within rebate systems, some level of breakage is a virtue. You (the retailer) don’t want everybody getting a rebate. You want as few people as possible asking for the rebate, and as few as possible succeeding at navigating an intentionally complicated series of required steps for getting the rebate. Most customers know this, of course, but every once in awhile some of us want to see if we get lucky.

This is not a good “customer experience.”In what marketers love to call “the customer journey,” it’s a wasteful and annoying side trip to an outer circle of retail hell.

So here’s a message from one customer to every retailer running a rebate program:

Any system that rationalizes breakage as a virtue is broken itself, for the simple reason that it pisses off customers. And if you want to piss off any percentage of customers — even good ones — some of the time, your whole store is broken.

So here’s a bottom line I invite Staples to consider:

Rebates save money if your time has no value. This principle applies equally to customers and companies offering rebates.

As a loyal customer of Staples — a company I’ve always liked (partly because of the “easy” promise, which they’ve been making for many years — my advice is to calculate all the overhead involved in all the promotional gimmickry used to drive sales and “loyalty” that isn’t. Include time wasted at the cash register every time the employee has to ask for a loyalty card  or a phone number to recover the customer’s account, and to explain how a rebate works, plus other extraneous bullshit that has that takes time and incurs labor costs for purposes that have nothing to do with why the customer is standing at the checkout counter, just wanting to pay for goods and  get the hell out of the store. Also include the inconvenience to the customer of having to carry around a card, and the corresponding administrative overhead required to manage all this complicated work, and the computing and network technology required to sustain it (and how that gets broken too). Multiply those by all the employees and customers inconvenienced by it. Then add all of it up. Be real about what percentage of your total overhead it accounts for. Remember to include the real costs to customer loyalty of pissing some of them off on purpose.

Then kill the whole thing and subtract the savings from the prices of the goods in the store. Publicize it. Hey, hold a public execution of all the added-up costs to company and customers. Talk about it as real savings, which it is. Publish papers and place editorials explaining why you’re done with the game of kidding yourselves and your customers. I know plenty of good PR firms that would be glad to help you out with this — and maybe even cut you a deal, because they’re tired of bullshitting too.

In Silicon Valley they call this “disruption.” It’s a great way to stand out, and to reposition both Staples and all of retailing.

And your customers will love it.

Don’t trust me on this. Trust  Trader Joe’s. They don’t have a loyalty program, rebates or any other gimmicks. They never have discount prices. They don’t keep any data on any customers, because they don’t want the overhead, or to complicate anybody’s life. Their marketing research — no kidding — consists of this: talking to customers. That’s it. And what’s the result? Customers love them.*

Now you might say, “Yes, but Trader Joe’s is a special case. So are companies like Apple — another company customers seem to love. They only sell their own private label goods. They don’t operate in the world of co-op advertising, dealer premiums, display allowances, buyback allowances, push money, spiffs, forward buying, variable trade spending and trade deals, manufacturer coupons and all the other variables that retailers like Staples, which carry goods from hundreds of different suppliers, need to deal with constantly. And what about customers constantly hunting bargains, and comparison shopping? They want deals, and we have to compete for them.”

Sure. But why make it more complicated than it has to be?

If you really want to make things easy, for yourself and your customers, kill the bullshit. Be the no-bullshit company. Nothing would make you stand out more.

Nothing is easier, for everybody in retailing, than no bullshit at all. Or more rewarding, because customers appreciate absent bullshit at least as much as they appreciate present bargains. Especially bargains that come with labor costs — for them.

Source: The Intention Economy, pp. 223-228.

Preparing for the 3D/VR future

Look in the direction that meerkatMeerkat and periscopeappPeriscope both point.

If you’ve witnessed the output of either, several things become clear about their evolutionary path:

  1. Stereo sound is coming. So is binaural sound, with its you-are-there qualities.
  2. 3D will come too, of course, especially as mobile devices start to include two microphones and two cameras.
  3. The end state of both those developments is VR, or virtual reality. At least on the receiving end.

The production end is a different animal. Or herd of animals, eventually. Expect professional gear from all the usual sources, showing up at CES starting next year and on store shelves shortly thereafter. Walking around like a dork holding a mobile in front of you will look in 2018 like holding a dial-phone handset to your head looks today.

I expect the most handy way to produce 3D and VR streams will be with  glasses like these:

srlzglasses

(That’s my placeholder design, which is in the public domain. That’s so it has no IP drag, other than whatever submarine patents already exist, and I am sure there are some.)

Now pause to dig @ctrlzee‘s Fast Company report on Facebook’s 10-year plan to trap us inside The Matrix. How long before Facebook buys Meerkat and builds it into Occulus Rift? Or buys Twitter, just to get Periscope and do the same?

Whatever else happens, the rights clearing question gets very personal. Do you want to be broadcast and/or recorded by others or not? What are the social and device protocols for that? (The VRM dev community has designed one for the glasses above. See the ⊂ ⊃ in the glasses? That’s one. Each corner light is another.)

We should start zero-basing the answers today, while the inevitable is in sight but isn’t here yet. Empathy is the first requirement. (Take the time to dig Dave Winer’s 12-minute podcast on the topic. It matters.) Getting permission is another.

As for the relevance of standing law, almost none of it applies at the technical level. Simply put, all copyright laws were created in times when digital life was unimaginable (e.g. Stature of Anne, ASCAP), barely known (Act of 1976), or highly feared (WIPO, CTEA, DMCA).

How would we write new laws for an age that has barely started? Or why start with laws at all? (Nearly all regulation protects yesterday from last Thursday. And too often its crafted by know-nothings.)

We’ve only been living the networked life since graphical browsers and ISPs arrived in the mid-90’s. Meanwhile we’ve had thousands of years to develop civilization in the physical world. Which means that, relatively speaking, networked life is Eden. It’s brand new here, and we’re all naked. That’s why it’s so easy anybody to see everything about us online.

How will we create the digital equivalents of the privacy technologies we call clothing and shelter? Is the first answer a technical one, a policy one, or both? Which should come first? (In Europe and Australia, policy already has.)

Protecting the need for artists to make money is part of the picture. But it’s not the only part. And laws are only one way to protect artists, or anybody.

Manners come first, and we barely have those yet, if at all. None of the big companies that currently dominate our digital lives have fully thought out how to protect anybody’s privacy. Those that come closest are ones we pay directly, and are financially accountable to us.

Apple, for example, is doing more and more to isolate personal data to spaces the individual controls and the company can’t see. Google and Facebook both seem to regard personal privacy as a bug in online life, rather than a feature of it. (Note that, at least for their most popular services, we pay those two companies nothing. We are mere consumers whose lives are sold to the company’s actual customers, which are advertisers.)

Bottom line: the legal slate is covered in chalk, but the technical one is close to clean. What do we want to write there?

We’ll be talking about this, and many other things, at VRM Day (6 April) and IIW (7-9 April) in the Computer History Museum in downtown Silicon Valley (101 & Shoreline, Mountain View).

The most important event, ever

IIW XXIIW_XX_logothe 20th IIW — comes at a critical inflection point in the history of VRM. If you’re looking for a point of leverage on the future of customer liberation, independence and empowerment, this is it. Wall Street-sized companies around the world are beginning to grok what Main Street ones have always known: customers aren’t just “targets” to be “acquired,” “managed,” “controlled” and “locked in.” In other words, Cluetrain was right when it said this, in 1999:

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Now it is finally becoming clear that free customers are more valuable than captive ones: to themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace.

But how, exactly? That’s what we’ll be working on at IIW, which runs from April 7 to 9 at the Computer History Museum, in the heart of Silicon Valley: the best venue ever created for a get-stuff-done unconference. Focusing our work is a VRM maturity framework that gives every company, analyst and journalist a list of VRM competencies, and every VRM developer a context in which to show which of those competencies they provide, and how far along they are along the maturity path. This will start paving the paths along which individuals, tool and service providers and corporate systems (e.g. CRM) can finally begin to fit their pieces together. It will also help legitimize VRM as a category. If you have a VRM or related company, now is the time to jump in and participate in the conversation. Literally. Here are some of the VRM topics and technology categories that we’ll be talking about, and placing in context in the VRM maturity framework:

Designing the VRM future at IIW

A veteran VRooMeriiwxx tells me a design fiction would be a fun challenge for VRM Day and IIW (which will run from April 6-9 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA).

He describes one as “basically a way of peeking into the near future by demonstrating an imaginary product that doesn’t exist, but could. For example, instead of talking about a possible VRM product, one instead would create a marketing brochure, screen mockups or a fake video advertisement for this imaginary product as a way to help others understand where the world is headed and possibly even further the underlying technologies or driving concepts.”

Coincidentally, the subject of VRM Day (and a focus for the three days that will follow at IIW) is a maturity model framework that will provide every VRM developer the same single sheet (or set of them) on which to show where they stand in developing VRM capabilities into their company, product, code base or whatever else they’re working on. Work has already started on it, and those doing the work will present a first draft of it on VRM Day.

You know the old saying, “all singing from the same song sheet”? The VRM maturity model framework is it. Think of it as a musical score that is starting to be written, for an orchestra will come together. When we’re done with this round, we’ll at least know what the score describes, and give the players of different instruments enough of a framework so they know where they, and everybody else, fits.

By the end of IIW, it should be ready to do several things:

  1. Provide analysts with a single framework for understanding all VRM developers and development, and the coherencies among them.
  2. Give VRM developers a way to see how their work complements and/or competes with other VRM work that’s going on — and guide future developments.
  3. Give each developer a document to use for their own internal and external purposes.
  4. Give CRM, CE. CX and other vendor-side systems a clear picture of what pieces in the VRM development community will connect with their systems, and how, so buyer-side and seller-side systems can finally connect and grow together.

While we do this, it might also be fun to work out a design fiction as a summary document or video. What would the complete VRM solution (which will surely be a collection of them) look like? How would we present it as a single thing?

All of this is food for thinking and re-thinking. Suggestions invited.

VRM Day and IIW XX

The most important weeks on the VRM calendar are those when IIW — the Internet Identity Workshop — takes place. There are two per year, in Spring and Fall, and they are hosted by Kaliya Hamlin,  Phil Windley and myself at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

The next is April 7-9. Leading into it is VRM Day, which is on April 6.

IIW is an unconference, which means there are no speakers or panels, and sponsors (which we appreciate hugely) just cover our meals, snacks and barista. All the topics of the workshop are vetted and posted the start of each of IIW’s three days, and every topic is discussed in breakout sessions spread across the venue’s many rooms and tables.

IIW is ideal for pushing topics and dev work forward. VRM has many topics, of course: intentcasting, personal data management (aka clouds, vaults, lockers, stores, services, etc.), VRM-meets-CRM (including CX, CE and other two- and three-letter acronyms), IoT, intelligent assistants, the Indie Web (and indie everything), emerging and wannabe standards and shared code bases, and all the other kinds of things listed on the ProjectVRM wiki development page.

This next one will be our XXth. All of them are important, but this one will be especially so, because we will be sorting out how various VRM projects fit together, compete, support each other, and engage systems on the big vendor and enterprise side.

In fact that topic will be the main focus of VRM Day, where we will vet a VRM framework document based on a maturity model that will give everybody a way to show how far along they are in different development areas.

This is the document VRM developers will share with analysts, enterprises and big vendors who need to know how real VRM is becoming, and who plays what roles in the emerging market space.

Here is the link to register for VRM Day.

And here is the one for IIW XX.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Up next: a master app to give customers scale

Businesses love to say “the customer comes first,” “the customer is in charge” and that they need to “let the customer lead.” But for those things to happen, the customer customer needs to actually have the ability to do all three:  to come first, to be in charge, and to lead.

In the networked marketplace, the customer has none of those. And she’ll never get it from the companies she deals with, no matter how well-intended they might be. They can greet her by name, give her a hug and lavish all every discount and benefits they can on her, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference, because they are only one company, and they are not her.

What she needs is native power of her own. Without it, she’s up against CRM and other B2B systems sold to the companies she deals with, all of which are designed to “target,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” customers — all terms better suited to ranching and slavery than to anything that aspires to genuine relationship.

To really come first, to really be in charge, to really lead, the customer needs powers of her own that extend across all the companies she deals with. In another word, she needs scale.

Just as companies need to scale their relationships across many customers, customers need to scale their relationships across many companies.

The customer can only get scale through tools for both independence and engagement. She already has those with her car, her purse, her phone, her personal computer, her email, her browsers, her computer. Every company she deals with respects the independence she gets from those tools, and every company has the same base-level ways of interacting with them. Those tools are also substitutable. The customer can swap them for others like it and maintain her autonomy, independence and ability to engage.

For the last eight years many dozens of developers around ProjectVRM have been working on tools and services that give customers scale. You’ll find a partial list of them here, a report on their progress here — and soon a maturity framework will appear here.

What’s still missing, I believe, is a master app for running all the customer’s relationships: an app that applies standard ways of managing relationships with companies that make and sell her things. That app should include —

  • Ways to manage gradual, selective and trust-based disclosure of
    personal identifiers, starting from a state that is anonymous
    (literally, nameless).
  • Ways to express terms and policies with which companies can agree
    (preferably automatically).
  • Ways to change personal data records (e.g. name, address, phone
    number) for every company she deals with, in one move.
  • Ways to share personal data (e.g. puchase or service intentions)
    selectively and in a mutually trusting way, with every company she
    deals with.
  • Ways to exercise full control over data spaces (“clouds”) for every thing she owns, and within which reside her relationships with companies that support
    those things.
  • Ways to engage with existing CRM, call center and other relationship systems on the vendors’ side.

I believe we have most or all of the technologies, standards, protocols, specifications and APIs we need already. What we need now is thinking and development that goes meta: one level up, to where the customer actually lives, trying to manage all these different relationships with all these different cards, apps, websites, logins, passwords and the rest of it.

The master app would not subsume all those things, but make it easier to drive them.

The master app should also be as substitutable as a car, a wallet, a purse, a phone, an email client. In other words, we should have a choice of master apps, and not be stuck again inside the exclusive offering of a single company.

Only with scale can free customers prove more valuable than captive ones. And only with mastery will customers get scale. We can’t get there with a zillion different little apps, most of which are not ours. We need a master app of our own.

And we’ll get one. I have faith that VRM developers will come through. (And I know some that are headed this way already.)

Signs of progress

In Fightback against internet giants’ stranglehold on personal data starts here, , John Naughton of The Guardian writes,

When the history of this period comes to be written, our great-grandchildren will marvel at the fact that billions of apparently sane individuals passively accepted this grotesquely asymmetrical deal. (They may also wonder why our governments have shown so little interest in the matter.) And future historians, diligently hunting through digital archives, will discover that there were only a few voices crying in the wilderness at the time.

Of these prophets, the most prominent are Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who was one of the pioneers of virtual reality, and Doc Searls, one of the elder statesman of the old internet who is now at the Berkman Centre at Harvard. In his book Who Owns the Future?, Lanier argued that by convincing users to give away valuable information about themselves in exchange for “free” services, firms such as Google and Facebook have accumulated colossal amounts of data (and corresponding amounts of wealth) at virtually no cost. His proposed solution is to make online transactions bidirectional, to ensure that the economic value of personal data can be realised by individuals, who at the moment just give it away.

Doc Searls has much the same argument in his book The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge but proposes a different kind of software solution – “vendor relationship management”. The basic idea is that “many market problems (including the widespread belief that customer lock-in is a ‘best practice’) can only be solved from the customer side: by making the customer a fully empowered actor in the market place, rather than one whose power in many cases is dependent on exclusive relationships with vendors, by coerced agreement provided entirely by those vendors”. In that sense, just as most big companies now use “customer relationship management” systems to manage their interactions with users, Searls thinks that customers need systems that can manage their interactions with companies, but on customers’ terms.

The underlying philosophy underpinning all attempts to level the online playing field is a belief that an individual’s data belongs to him or herself and that no one should have access to it except on terms that are controlled by the data owner. The hunt is on, therefore, for technologies (software and/or hardware) that would make this both possible and be easy to use.

Also in the UK, Lee Henshaw asks, Is Advertising Broken?  Specifics:

We’re currently reading The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls, an American journalist working from Harvard University who writes about the future of business.

Advertising is broken, he says.

He argues against the trend in online advertising for reducing customers to data points and delivering us personal advertising.

“Perfectly personal advertising is a dream of advertisers, not of customers,” he writes.

Personal advertising puts us in the uncanny valley, he says. In the uncanny valley, robots start freaking us out because they appear too human.

His alternative is the intention economy. In the intention economy, we – the customers – tell the market of our intention to buy something then companies compete to sell it to us.

“The intention economy is about buyers finders sellers, not sellers finding (or ‘capturing’) buyers,” he writes.

He invites advertisers to give up what he calls their cat and mouse game and start building more meaningful relationships with customers through our personal data stores instead.

“Nothing big data offers today, in any business, is a substitute for intentionally delivered intelligence from real customers who are engaged, one to one, with retailers in a marketplace, in their own ways, on their own terms,” he writes.

Searls works from Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, where he runs Project VRM – VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management.

“VRM tools work as the demand-side counterpart of vendors’ CRM (customer relationship management) systems,” he explains.

Project VRM, he hopes, will liberate customers through tools that help us make requests for proposals to companies that are selling something we want to buy. This kind of engagement, he writes, “is the only evolutionary path out of the pure guess-work game that advertising has been for the duration”.

And he asks for answers. Feel free to volunteer some.

Also see Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy (aka MCDE) I’ll be participating in a  workshop on MCDE  on 23- 24 February in Southampton, UK.  It’s described as “an interdisciplinary workshop on issues related to giving and obtaining user consent online, with special emphasis on privacy and data protection.”

Bonus Links: Dave Winer on How VRM works, and Consumers vs. Data Science Bad Guys, by @kinglevi) in Techcrunch.

A pile of VRooMy links

Eventbrite – Edit VRM Day 2015a Monday,  6 April at the Computer History Museum, leading into the next three days of IIW, at the same place. Free.
Internet Identity Workshop, aka IIW. Where we’ll have lots of productive VRM sessions. Tuesday to Thursday, 7-9 April. It’s the 20th of these, or the XXth. Should be a good one.
How VRM works Dave nails a primary use case: intentcasting.
What’s wrong with surge pricing? Dave mentions VRM in the midst
nodeStorage now! One of Dave’s great new hacks.
Decentralized Law and the Blockchain For those who like both subjects.
EFF’s Game Plan for Ending Global Mass SurveillanceWe needed one, and now we’ve got it.
Meaningful Consent Project  A Call for Participation in #MCDE15, the second Workshop on Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy.  Happening 23-24 February 2015, in Southampton, UK. I’ll be speaking there.
VRM Development Work – Project VRM The list of work grows longer. So does the range. For example…
Welcomer Simplify applications by giving individuals access to their own online data | Welcomer
A Short History of Welcomer FrameworkOriginal and cool, in Canberra, Oz.
Index | Tapit Another Ozzie original
FillIt | FillIt.com And another.
Authentic Vision VRM with an IoT solution, in Austria.
@EVRYTHNG) | Twitter VRM in the UK.
Handle: To-Dos + Email + Calendar on the App Store on iTunes A  personal tool on which VRM solutions can be built
Cebit: VW-Chef Martin Winterkorn warnt vor Auto als "Datenkrake" – SPIEGEL ONLINE A landmark statement from a car maker.  In German, but translating it ain’t hard. It’s 2015 now.
Hey, BMW, It’s My Data, Too Making sure that BMW’s angle is a VRM one.
Legal Markdown A legal hack. Worthy.
Decentralized Law and the BlockchainFor those who care about both.

The answer is #CFT: Clouds For Things

My last post asked, How do you maximize the help that companies and customers give each other? My short answer is in the headline above. Let me explain.

The house where I’m a guest in London has clouds for all its appliances. All the clouds are physical. Here they are:

House cloud

Here is a closer look at some of them:

House cloud closeup

Each envelope contains installation and instruction manuals, warranty information and other useful stuff. For example, today I used an instruction manual to puzzle out what these symbols on the kitchen’s built-in microwave oven mean:

knob

Now let’s say I didn’t have the directions handy. How would I find them? Obviously, on the Web, right? I mean, you’d think.

So I went to the site of Atag, the oven’s maker.  From eyeballing the microwave, I gathered that the one in the kitchen is  this one: the Combi-Microwave MA4211B. On the Atag website I found it buried in Kitchen Appliances —> Collection —> Microwaves, where it might also be the MA4211A or MA4211T. Hard to tell. Directions for its use appeared to be under Quality and Service —> Visit ATAG Service Support. There I found this:

atagservice

When I clicked on “Download the User Manual,” I got this:

atagusermanual

For “type number” I guessed MA4211B, entered it in the search field and got this:

atagresults

I got the same results clicking on both:

atagdownloadchoice

Nothing actually downloaded, and the Acrobat Reader information was useless to me. So I clicked on “No.” That got me this:

atagfail

I then hit “I want to stop.” That looped me back to the search panel, three screenshots up from here.

In other words, a complete fail. Since the copyright notice is dated 2007 — eight years ago — I assume this fail is a fossil.

There are three reasons for this fail, and why its endemic to the entire service industry:

  1. The company bears the full burden of customer service.
  2. Every company serves customers differently.
  3. There is no single standard or normalized way for companies and customers to inform each other online.

What’s missing is a way to give customers scale — for the good of both themselves and the companies they deal with. Customers have scale with cash, credit cards, telephony, email and many other tools and systems. But not yet with a mechanism for connecting to any company and exchanging useful information in a standard way.

We’ve  been moving in that direction in the VRM development community, by working on personal data services, stores, lockers, vaults and clouds. Those are all important and essential efforts, but they have not yet converged around common standards, protocols and customer experiences. Hence, scale awaits. What this house models, with its easily-accessed envelopes for every appliance, is a kind of scale: a simple and standardized way of dealing with many different suppliers — a way that is the customer’s own.

Now let’s imagine a simple  digital container for each appliance’s information: its own cloud. In form and use, it would be as simple and standard as a file folder. It would arrive along with the product, belong to the customer*, and live in the customer’s own personal data service, store, locker, vault, cloud or old-fashioned hard drive.  Or, customers could create them for themselves, just like the owner of the house created those file folders for every appliance. Put on the Net, each appliance  would join the Internet of Things, without requiring any native intelligence on the things themselves.

There, on the Net, companies could send product updates and notifications directly into the clouds of each customer’s things. And customers could file suggestions for product improvements, along with occasional service requests.

This would make every product’s cloud a relationship platform: a conduit though which the long-held dreams of constant product improvement and maximized customer service can come true.

Neither of those dreams can come true as long as every product maker bears the full responsibility for intelligence gathering and customer support — and does those  differently than every other company. The only way they can come true is if the customers and their things have one set of standard ways to stay in touch and help each other. That’s what clouds for things will do. I see no other way.

So let’s get down to it, starting with a meme/hashtag representing Clouds For Things : #CFT.

Next, #VRM developers old and new need to gather around standard code, practices and protocols that can make #CFT take off.  Right now the big boys are sucking at that, building feudal fiefdoms that give us the AOL/Compuserve/Prodigy of things, rather than the Internet of Things.  For the whole story on this mess, read Bruce Sterling‘s e-book/essay The Epic Struggle for the Internet of Things, or the chunks of it at BoingBoing and in this piece I wrote here for Linux Journal.

We have a perfect venue for doing the Good Work required for both IoT and CFT — with IIW, which is coming up early this spring: 7-9 April. It’s an inexpensive unconference in the heart of Silicon Valley, with no speakers or panels. It’s all breakouts, where participants choose the topics and work gets done. Register here.

We also have a lot of thinking and working already underway. The best documented work, I believe, is by Phil Windley (who calls CFTs picos, for persistent compute objects). His operating system for picos is CloudOS. His holdings-forth on personal clouds are here. It’s all a good basis, but it doesn’t need to be the only one.

What matters is that #CFT is a $trillion market opportunity. Let’s grab it.

* I just added this, because I can see from Johannes Ernst’s post here that I didn’t make it clear enough.

 

 

 

 

 

How do you maximize the help that companies and customers give each other?

I’m not talking just about what companies and customers learn from each other through the sales, service and surveys — the Three S’s. Nor am I talking only about improving the “customer experience,” (a topic that has been buzzing upward over the last few years). I’m talking about how companies and customers help each other out. I mean really help. Constantly.

One way, of course, is by talking to each other. There are exemplars of this. Among big companies, Apple leads the way, gathering intelligence though its responsive call center and the Genius bars at its retail stores. Among small companies, my favorite example is Ting, a U.S. mobile phone carrier.  According to Consumer Reports, Ting is tops in customer satisfaction, while Sprint is dead last. Here’s what’s interesting about that: Ting runs on the Sprint network. Meaning the actual performance of the network is the same for both. This gives us a kind of a controlled study: one network, two vastly different levels of customer satisfaction. Here are two reasons for that difference:

  1. Ting’s offerings are simple. They have rates, not plans. You only pay for what you use. That’s it. And usage is low in cost. Sprint, Verizon and AT&T, on the other hand, all comprise a confusopoly. They offer complex, confusing and changing plans, on purpose. In confusopolies, the cognitive overhead for both companies and customers is high. So are marketing, operational and administrative overheads. That’s why they are all more expensive than Ting, and unloved as well — even as, no doubt, they have CRM systems that pay close attention to the customer service performance of their website and call center.
  2. Ting actually talks to customers. They are fanatical about person-to-person service, which means both sides learn from each other. Directly. Ting’s products and services are constantly improved by intelligence coming directly from customers. And customers can sense it. Directly.

Now, what about the times when you and the company are not talking to each other? For example, when you just want something to work, or to work better?. Or when you think of a way a product or a service can be improved somehow, but don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to get in touch with the company?

I answer that in the next post.

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