Market intelligence that flows both ways

This post is about creating a whole new customer-company relationship system, based in what Jon Udell and Phil Windley call The Internet of My Things. This system opens up a boundless frontier of market intelligence that flows both ways: from companies to customers, and from customers to companies. It obsoletes customer service as we know it today, and brings the best of truly personal (rather than “personalized”) customer service into the Internet Age. The examples I use are of products that have problems; but this post is not about those products or the companies that made them — although I would love for those companies to participate in the paradigm shift that is about to take place.


A couple years ago I bought a pair of moccasins at a shopping mall kiosk in Massachusetts. The brand was LAMO and the name was Mens Moc: Here’s one:

I like them a lot. They’re very comfortable and warm on winter mornings. In fact I still wear them, even though they are falling apart. Here is how they look now: You can see that the leather, laces and stitching are all fine. So is the wool lining. The problem is the sole. It has dried up and cracked into pieces. Every time I wear it, chunks fall off. In fact, I first thought about writing this when a piece of a heel with a LAMO logo on it looked up at me from under my desk. But I’m wearing them now, and I’ll probably keep wearing them after the soles come off completely. I would like to help LAMO learn from my experience. As of today, here are the four main choices for that:

  1. Do nothing (that’s the default)
  2. Send them an email
  3. Go on some website and talk about it. (A perfect Leighton cartoon in the March 17 New Yorker shows a couple registering at a hotel while the person behind the counter says, “If there’s anything we can do to make your stay more pleasant, just rant about it on the Internet.” So that’s a less used but common default.) 
  4. Get “social” by tweeting to @LAMOfootwear or whatever they’ve got on Facebook. (I avoid Facebook and haven’t checked.) For wisdom on “social” relations between brands and (presumed) fans, see Bob Hoffman‘s recent talk.

But we can improve on that, by giving these moccasins their own little virtual cloud, where LAMO and I can share intelligence about whatever we like — starting (on my side) with reports on my own experience. Phil Windley calls these clouds picos, for persistent compute objects. They have their own operating system (CloudOS), and don’t need intelligence on board. Just scan a QR code, and you’ll get to the pico. Here’s the code on one of my LAMO moccasins:

Go ahead and scan the code with your phone. Or take the short cut and click on it. You’ll get to a page that says it’s my moccasin.

But if I scan it, I can see whatever notes I’ve taken. Or whatever LAMO has put in there, with my permission. Also whatever programming has been done on it. Such as this logic: IF this is scanned, THEN send LAMO a note that Doc has a new entry in our common journal. Likewise, LAMO can send me a note saying that there is new information in the same journal. Maybe that information is a note telling me that the company has changed sole manufacturers, and that the newest Mens Mocs will be far more durable. Or maybe they’ll send a discount on a new pair. The correct answer for what goes in the common journal (a term I just made up — we’re in tabula rasa-ville here) is: whatever.

And that’s the key to the future of customer service, customer relationship management (CRM), call centersloyalty programs, continuous improvement and other business ideals. Go to those links (all to Wikipedia), and you’ll find most of them have “issues.” The reason they have issues is simple: the customer is not involved with any of them. They are industries talking to themselves. This is an old problem and it can only be fixed on the customer’s side. Before the Internet, solving things from the customer’s side — by making the customer the point of integration for their own data, and the decider about what gets done with that data — was impossible. After the Internet, it’s very possible, if we get our heads out of business as usual and put them back in our own lives. This will be good for business as well.

For example, last summer I had meetings with two call center companies, and reviewed this scenario:

  1. A customer scans the QR code on her cable modem
  2. This triggers a message to the call center saying “this customer has scanned the QR code on her cable modem”
  3. The call center checks to see if there is an outage in the customer’s area, and — if there is — how soon it will be fixed
  4. The call center sends a message back saying there’s an outage and that it will be fixed within X hours

In both cases they said “We want that!” Because they really do want to be fully useful. And — get this — they are programmable. Unfortunately, in too many cases they are programmed to avoid customers, or to treat them as templates rather than as individual human beings who might actually be able to provide useful information. This is old-fashioned mass-marketing thinking at work, and it sucks for everybody. It’s especially bad at delivering (literal) on-the-ground market intelligence from customers to companies.

Call centers would rather be sources of real solutions rather than just customer avoidance machines for companies and anger sinks for unhappy customers. The solution I’m talking about here takes care of that. And much more.

Now let’s go back to shoes.

I’m not a hugely brand-loyal kind of guy. I use Canon cameras because I liked the 5D‘s user interface more than the competing Nikon, and Canon’s lens prices were lower. Not because Canon photos were better. (I still prefer Nikon color, low-light performance and hand grip.) I use Apple computers because they’re easy to get fixed and I can drop into a Unix command line when I need to. I drive a Volkswagen Passat because I got mine at a good price from a friend moving out of the country. And I buy Rockport shoes because, on the whole, they’re pretty good.

Used to be they were great. That was in the ’70s and early ’80s when Saul and Bruce Katz, the founders, were still in charge. That legacy is still there, under Reebok ownership; but it’s clear that the company is much more on the mass marketing operation than it was back in the early days. Still, in my experience, they’re better than the competition. That’s why I buy their shoes. Rockports are the only shoes I’ve ever loved. And I’ve had many.

Here is a photo I just took of wear-and-tear on two pairs of Rockport casual shoes I often wear:

Shots 1 and 2 are shoes I bought in June 2012, and are no longer sold, near as I can tell. (Wish they were.) Shots 3 and 4 are Off The Coast 2 Eye, which I bought in late 2013, but didn’t start wearing a lot until early this year. I bought both at the Rockport store in Burlington Mall, near Boston. I like that store too.

The first pair has developed a hole in the heel and eyelet grommets for the laces around the side of the shoe. The hole isn’t a big deal, except that it lets in water. The loose eyelets are only a bother when I cross my feet sitting down: they bite into the other ankle. The separating outer sole of the second pair is a bigger concern, because these shoes are still essentially new, and look new except for this one flaw. A design issue is the leather laces, which need to be double-knotted to keep from coming undone, and even the double-knots come undone as well. That’s a quibble, but perhaps useful for Rockport to know.

I’d like to share these experiences privately with Rockport, and for that process to be easy. Same with my experiences with LAMO moccasins.

It could be private if Rockport and LAMO footwear came with QR codes for every pair’s pico — it’s own cloud. Customers would buy the cloud along with the shoe. And then they would have their own shared journal and message space, as well as a programmable system for creating and improving the whole customer-company relationship. They could also get social about their dialogs in their own ways, rather than only in today’s Facebook and Twitter, which are the least private and personal places imaginable.

This kind of intelligence exchange can only become a standard way for companies and customers to learn from each other if the code for picos is open source. If Rockport or LAMO try to “own the customer” by locking him or her into a closed company-controlled system — the current default for customer service — the Internet of Things will be the Compuserve + AOL + Prodigy of things. Those “online services” were as close as we could get to the Internet before the Internet itself — an open source system at its base — came along. Even sending emails from one of those services to the other was nearly impossible. Customers were captive inside silos.

One big thing that made the Internet succeed was substitutability of services. Cars, banks, and countless other product categories you can name are large and vital because open and well understood standards and practices at their base have made substitutability possible. Phil Windley says we can’t have a true Internet of Things without it, and I agree.

Far as I know, the only code ready to begin scaffolding picos is Phil’s CloudOS and KRL. But for these — or anything like them — to catch on, we’re going to need a lot more developers thinking outside the silos that comprise the entirety of Internet of Things work going on now. This post is an appeal to those developers.

By the way, Phil believes that cars are the best vertical to start out with. I think he’s right. But shoes are in front of me right now, so I’m using them as an example. And the example works for everything. Literally.

1 Comment

  1. Delighted to find this blog. The QR Code or RFID tag can also be used to link to a research protocol to offer data or observations on the product. Imagine what that can do for Clinical Research or for product safety in general.

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