Last night my wife asked me what we mean by “Free customers are more valuable than captive ones” and “equipping customers with tools of independence and engagement”. I thought about it and said, “Knights are more valuable than serfs.”

When a company speaks of “capturing”, “acquiring”, “owning” and “locking in” customers, they’re treating customers like serfs. What we want to do with VRM is make customers into knights: to arm them with status, respect, armor and weapons. But not to do battle against sellers and their fortifications. Instead, customers and sellers both need to fight against ignorance surronding the idea that the ways they can engage should be limited to the relatively few imagined by today’s CRM systems.

I’ve noticed a change in the last few months at the CRM wikipedia entry, and at CRM company websites. It seems to me that the CRM business is getting back to its original ambitions, which were all about understanding and helping individual customers — and improving the seller’s offerings in the process. There’s a limit to what can be done only from the sell side, or from researching groups rather than engaging individual customers. Some of the relationship burden needs to be borne by the buy side, by individual customers. They need tools of engagement for that. So it’s VRM + CRM, not VRM vs. CRM.

Which brings me to Paul Greenberg’s CRM 2009 – Part 2.1 – Can’t Believe I Forgot These (in which he adds two items to his 2009 CRM forecast). They are: “(8) “Feedback 3.0″ will become an intimate feature of most companies’ customer strategy” and “(7)Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) releases its first tools for the customer in 2009″. Here’s what he says:

For those of you who don’t know, VRM is something that has been on the table for a long time and has been championed by Cluetrain Manifesto writer and Web pioneer, Doc Searls.  I call it the “labor movement” for customers. It is the customer’s side of that conversation control we’ve been talking about. A VRM tool, thus is one that is unlike a CRM 2.0 tool. A CRM 2.0 tool would be something a vendor produces for the benefit of a company to engage its customers. A VRM tool would be something the customers would use to control how they relate or any or multiple vendors. If you’re interested in this thinking, go to the Project VRM wiki at Harvard Law that Doc Searls, an amazing dude, runs and read up. Worth your involvement with.  But the one thing that has had me a little concerned (as an ardent VRM believer) is that there haven’t been much in the way of tools that have at least been produced and labeled as VRM related.  One of the first that can be applied as a VRM tool, though not called as such, and a great one to start, is Cerado’s Ventana – a mobile social aggregation tool that’s used by companies and customers – it has a hybrid kind of approach. Take a look at its uses here.  But there isn’t much else. I think that 2009 will begin to see the evolution of the tools of what is already an established body of thought becoming increasingly accepted. But the tools need to come and this year is the year they will.

This is a good call. It’s also why we’ve been cautious about publicizing what the community is up to. There is in fact much work going on — around peer-to-peer relating, search, personal data stores, paychoice (where the buyer pays what they want, on their terms, for goods that are otherwise free — such as podcasts, broadcast programs and music), and symbols representing actions and relationship states. This next year we should see ProjectVRM get beefed up at the Berkman Center, the start of serious research around some of VRM’s core theses, and the formation of an independent nonprofit centered on VRM. (One model for this is Creative Commons — a concept that was the brainchild of Larry Lessig, back when he was at the Berkman Center).

We’ll also see more VRM workshops, on the East and West coast of the U.S. and in Europe. Some will be focused on vertical categories such as VRM+CRM.

So stay tuned. It’s going to be a fun year.