Category: Questions (page 1 of 3)

Learning from bad @TWC #CX

Here in New York City, Time Warner Cable is down. (I’m getting on over my mobile phone’s T-Mobile data connection.)

According to DownDetector, TWC is also down in a lot of places:

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 7.44.38 AM

This is a developing story, in the midst of which I can take the opportunity to have a meaningful encounter with CX — Customer eXperience. Let’s make lemonade.

My cable modem shows the connection is live, but just blinking steadily in its attempt to pass data back and forth with TWC itself. Earlier ping tests (when the connection was merely bad) went somewhere, but latencies were all high. Now they go nowhere.

Calls to Time Warner Cable get me a message: “All circuits are busy now. Please try again later. Message NY-224-55.”

A visit to @TWC_Help finds the last two postings are on 15 and 22 August. TWC’s many other social channels on Twitter are useless promotional vehicles. A Twitter search for TWC shows lots of problems in lots of places, right now. So this is a developing story.
No doubt the story in the mainstream media will go along the lines of these two:
The big angle will be around the planned merger of  TWC and Comcast — two well-hated ogres.
But we’re here to help, not complain. What can we do with VRM here? Not just for TWC, but for every company in TWC’s position? Specifically,
  1. What code do we have already? and 
  2. What development paths are VRooMers on that can lead toward better CX?

[Later...] Nice follow from @Comradity.

#VRM and the OpenNotice Legal Hackathon

The OpenNotice Legal Hackathon is happening now: 12 July 2014. Go to that link and click on various links there to see the live video, participate via IRC and other fun stuff.

It’s multinational. Our hosts are in Berlin. I’m in Tel Aviv (having just arrived from Sydney by way of Istanbul). Others are elsewhere in the world.

It’s moving up on 5pm, local time here, and 10am in New York.

I’m prepping for talking #VRM at this link here and  this link here.

Here are some core questions we’ll be visiting.

I’ll add more links later. This is enough to get us started.

Prepping for #VRM Day and #IIW

The 16th IIW (Internet Identity Workshop) is coming up, Tuesday to Thursday, 7-9 May, will be tat the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. As usual, VRM will be a main topic, with lots of developers and other interested folk participating. Also as usual, we will have a VRM planning day on the Monday preceding: 6 May, also at the CHM. So that’s four straight days during which we’ll get to present, whiteboard, discuss and move forward the many projects we’re working on. From the top of my head at the moment:

  • Personal Clouds, including —
    • The Internet of Me and My Things
    • QS (Quantified Self) and Self-Hacking
  • Fully personal wallets, rather than branded ones that work only with payment silos and their partners
  • Intentcasting — where customers advertise their purchase intentions in a secure, private and trusted way, outside of any vendor’s silo
  • Browser add-ons, extensions, related developments
  • Licensing issues
  • Sovereign and administrative identity approaches, including Persona, formerly BrowserID, from Mozilla
  • Legal issues, such as creating terms and policies that individuals assert
  • Tracking and ad blocking, and harmonizing methods and experiences
  • Health Care VRM
  • Devices, such as the freedom box
  • VRM inSovereign vs./+ Administrative identities
    • Real estate
    • Banking (including credit cards, payments, transactions)
    • Retail
  • Personal data pain points, e.g. filling out forms
  • Trust networks
  • Harnessing adtech science and methods for customers, rather than only for vendors

The morning will be devoted to VRM issues, while the afternoon will concentrate on personal clouds.

We still have eight tickets left here. There is no charge to attend.

In the next few days here on the blog we’ll be going over some of the topics above. Input welcome.

 

Driving VRM with car data and APIs

Go read OnStar gives Volt owners what they want: their data, in the cloud, by Sean Gallagher, in Ars Technica. It’s a VRM story. The vendor is Chevrolet, the vended product is the Volt, and the relationship management is a DIY hack by one customer. The story begins,

You probably don’t think of your car as a developer platform, but Mike Rosack did. A few days after buying his Chevy Volt, Rosack started slowly mining his driving data. But he eventually revved up his efforts and created a community platform for drivers to track their own efficiency. Today more than 1,800 Volt owners compare stats with each other, jockeying for position on Rosack’s Volt Stats leader board.

volt dash with r-buttonThe Volt uses OnStar, a GM subsidiary known through its advertising for providing a way for drivers to call for roadside assistance; but which is actually a sophisticated cell-based data system through which cars communicate constantly with the mother ship’s cloud. While OnStar generously shares data back to customers through an app called RemoteLink, much more can be done with it, since it’s data and comes out through an API. Now here is where the story gets VRooMy:

Rosack initially wanted to do more with his own driving data than just view it on his phone. So he built what eventually became Volt Stats to capture this data, then started sharing it with other Volt owners. There was just one small problem: Volt Stats relied on Rosack’s reverse engineering of an interface for OnStar’s RemoteLink mobile application (iOS and Android). When OnStar moved to shut down the Web services interface Rosack had plugged into in mid-October, Volt Stats arrived at a screeching halt.

Rather than leaving Volt Stats stalled on the roadside, GM and OnStar accelerated efforts to give developers a new public Web API to create services on top of OnStar data. The companies even worked with Rosack to get him onboard and get Volt Stats re-launched. Now, Volt Stats is back online and other would-be car data hackers will soon be able to connect their Web applications to GM owners’ vehicle data (provided, of course, that they have privacy policies that meet with the approval of GM and OnStar lawyers).

OnStar had already developed an API for GM partners such as the car-sharing service RelayRides, who need to get access to some of the remote control and telematics elements of the service. But this new interface takes advantage of technologies such as OAuth and JAX-RS and it’s a step toward turning OnStar into a broader platform for the “Internet of things.” It’s also a way to give car enthusiasts a new kind of access to something they’ve always thought of as their own—their cars’ data.

Now come the VRM questions:

  • Where and how might customers store that data? Are current PDS (personal data stores) compatible and ready for it?
  • How might customers use that data — especially outside and between multiple vendors’ apps, APIs and relationship silos?
  • Might we see an  ⊂ (r-button) on the dashboards of car? How might that work? And if it does, how do we make it standard?
  • What usage and new market-driving scenarios might we start to imagine here?
  • How might customers assert their own privacy policies and terms as demand begins to drive supply?
  • What other interfaces do cars have that might be brought into the picture?
  • How can what happens here model what we do with the rest of the “Internet of things?”
  • What are the meshy wireless things we can do among ourselves and our cars, outside any vendor’s box? (Would love Robin Chase‘s thinking here.)

These are questions especially for VRM developers. Look for answers (and more questions) here and on various blogs.

To your owned self be true

After getting this provocative tweet, I checked the source (@NZN), and found Ready to make change? A sample:

…my son BELIEVES he OWNS the Internet. His Internet. His Facebook.

And in case you think that is not how reality works, I suggest that you also consider that my son also BELIEVES that he OWNS his government.

We all know that we are a part of a fucked up socio-economic system that has been designed over 1000′s of years by countless contributions into what is, in my arrogant Human perspective, true Genius. We are surviving, we are struggling, we are prospering, we are becoming….

We are becoming something new. The Internet will increasingly come to be seen by the Individuals within our species as an inherent element of their lives, indeed, of their freedom. As a result, a new royalty is emerging on our planet. There is good reason for the mad dash to wealth and power we are experiencing in our bubble-forming industries; strategic positioning in the face of rampant change. It is both a rational and immature way of dealing with the substance of change we are all confronting.

He (I’m assuming it’s he, but I dunno) concludes,

Facebook, Inc. today has constructed the relationship it has with its data sources as secured assets under its incorporated control. Modern law will substantiate that position.

Thus, we have two positions to contend with:

1. Facebook: that data you are building tools to service as a social utility, has been co-opted due to the present ignorance of the general public which willingly constructs itself as “data slaves” within most public relational database constructs. This dynamic is easily changed, and Rights will be afforded the General population today representing your customer base that changes the nature of the relationship that you now possess as a private asset. This is important for any investor in Facebook to recognize, as it points to the finite temporal nature of the ROI formula Facebook is today using to evaluate its market valuation, which I believe stands at $65 billion?

2. Modern law was formed upon a foundation that is no longer represented within its construct; Individual Sovereignty was an implied Right and natural feature of Human existence as demonstrated by the signatures which founded our Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Democracy. Individual Sovereignty is the only force standing behind ‘John Hancock’ meaning anything, as written on these legal documents. And either that Individual Sovereignty is part of the inherent structure of my IDENTITY as a citizen, or CITIZENSHIP has co-opted my Individual Sovereignty without acknowledging the recursive nature of that original signature moment. Either way, something needs to change. And in every case, its the structure of our governmental bureaucracy. I own America as a citizen. I own myself, pre-citizenship. If anyone wants to say different, lets get that started asap.

I’m ready to create change. Are you?

So there ya go. I’ve got a book to finish, but maybe one of the rest of ya’ll can engage. (I will eventually, just not right now.)

VRM as Agency

Most of us understand agency to mean a kind of company: one that represents other companies, or individuals. Insurance, real estate and advertising agencies come to mind.

In fact agency has a deeper and more important meaning. Namely, the capacity of individuals to act independently, to make choices, and to impose their will in the world. By this meaning, agency is a big deal in sociology, psychology, philosophy, law and many other fields. But it’s missing is business. That’s because we’re accustomed to understanding business as a structural thing:  an instrument of control.

Wikipedia frames this problem well in the opening paragraph of its Structure vs. Agency Debate article:

The debate concerning the primacy of either structure or agency on human behaviour is a central ontological issue in sociology, political science, and the other social sciences. In this context, “agency” refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.[1]Structure“, by contrast, refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which seem to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.[2] The structure versus agency debate may therefore be understood simply as the issue of socialisation against autonomy.

Limiting individual choices through “patterned arrangements” has been an ideal of big business for a very long time. Choice is an ideal too, provided your product or service provides a choice for customers to not choose competing products or services. Agency-type choice, in which individuals are free to assert their will and their means, doesn’t get much respect.

In fact, most big businesses aren’t interested in customers that have lots of agency — unless those customers aren’t captured yet. Instead big business has long idealized controlling customers. That’s why they talk about “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” them. And spend billions on systems that help them do that.

These controlling ideals are still with us in the era of “social networking” and “social media.” (Or what one friend calls SEFTTI, for “social every fucking thing there is.”) Sure, Facebook is as social as a kegger (or more so), but it is also a “patterned arrangement that seems to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.”

Personal autonomy on Facebook only goes as far as Facebook lets it go. Same with every other “social” system run by an entity other than yourself. They put a lid on your agency. You are not free.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with social systems, or structures, or even with businesses that want to control your choices. I am saying that agency has been AWOL from the market’s table. And bringing it there is what we’re doing with VRM.

I realized that VRM is about agency when I was talking with Iain Henderson the other day. Iain and his company MyDex have been working on creating and deploying personal data stores, or PDSes. These are the means by which individuals manage and  share personal data selectively. In that conversation Iain casually mentioned that the U.K. government was clearly invested in “user agency.” That is, in citizen responsibility for data about themselves and generated by themselves. In this fundamental way, he said, the U.K. government is far ahead of our own here in the U.S. — and the U.K. is therefore a more ideal environment for testing out VRM tools, such as the personal data store. (In fact MyDex’s prototype trials are going on right now, in three U.K. towns.)

What we’ll have, as VRM tools roll out and come into use, is many ways to test concepts such as methodological individualism and action theory. Mostly, however, I think it’s a way to see how much larger, and better, we can make the economy once individual customers are free to express their intentions.

Bonus link — which I put here hoping that somebody can fix it. Since it’s about me and some stuff I’ve said, I’m not the one to do that.

Do we have to “trade off” privacy?

Look up privacy trade-offs and you’ll get more than 150,000,000 results. The assumption in many of those is that privacy is something one can (and often should) trade away. Also that privacy trading is mostly done with marketers and advertisers, the most energetic of which take advantage of social media such as and .

I don’t think this has to be so.

One example of a trade-off story is this one on public radio’s Marketplace program, which I heard this evening. It begins with the case of Shea Sylvia, a FourSquare user who got creeped out by an unwelcome call from a follower who knew her location. Marketplace’s Sally Herships says,

There are millions of Sylvias out there, giving away their private information for social reasons. More and more, they’re also trading it in for financial benefits, like coupons and discounts. Social shopping websites like Blippy and Swipely let shoppers post about what they buy. But first they turn over the logins to their e-mail accounts or their credit card numbers, so their purchases can be tracked online.

Later, there’s this (the voice is Herships again):

Alessandro Acquisti researches the economics of privacy at Carnegie Mellon, and he says the value we put on privacy can easily shift. In other words, if giving away your credit card information or even your location in return for a discount or a deal seems normal, it must be OK.

ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: Five years ago, if someone told you that there’d be lots of people going online to show, to share with strangers their credit card purchases, you probably would have been surprised, you probably would thought, “No, I can’t believe this. I wouldn’t have believed this.”

But Acquisti says, when new technologies are presented as the norm, people accept them that way. Like social shopping websites.

HERSHIPS: So the more we use sites like Blippy, the more we’ll use sites like Blippy?

ACQUISTI: Or Blippy 2.0.

Which Acquisti says will probably be even more invasive, because as time passes, we’re going to care less and less about privacy.

Back in Kansas City Shea Sylvia is feeling both better and worse. She thinks the phone call she got that night at the restaurant was probably a prank. But it was a wake up call.

What we’re dealing with here is an evanescent norm. A fashion. A craze. I’ve indulged in it myself with FourSquare, and at one point was the “mayor” of ten different places, including the #77 bus on Mass Ave in Cambridge. (In fact, I created that location.) Gradually I came to believe that it wasn’t worth the hassle of “checking in” all over the place, and was worth nothing to know Sally was at the airport, or Bill was teaching a class, or Mary was bored waiting in some check-out line, much as I might like all those people. The only time FourSquare came in handy was when a friend intercepted me on my way out of a stop in downtown Boston, and even then it felt strange.

The idea, I am sure, is that FourSquare comes to serve as a huge central clearing house for contacts between companies selling stuff and potential buyers (that’s you and me) wandering about the world. But is knowing that a near-infinite number of sellers can zero in on you at any time a Good Thing? And is the assumption that we’re out there buying stuff all the time not so wrong as to be insane?

Remember that we’re the product being sold to advertisers. The fact that our friends may be helping us out might be cool, but is that the ideal way to route our demand to supply? Or is it just one that’s fun at the moment but in the long term will produce a few hits but a lot of misses—some of which might be very personal, as was the case with Shea Silvia? (Of course I might be wrong about both assumptions. What I’m right about is that FourSquare’s business model will be based on what they get from sellers, not from you or me.)

The issue here isn’t how much our privacy is worth to the advertising mills of the world, or to intermediaries like FourSquare. It’s how we maintain and control our privacy, which is essentially priceless—even if millions of us give it away for trinkets or less. Privacy is deeply tied with who we are as human beings in the world. To be fully human is to be in control of one’s self, including the spaces we occupy.

An excellent summary of our current privacy challenge is this report by Joy L. Pitts (developed as part of health sciences policy development process at the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences). It sets context with these two quotes:

“The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.”

—Justice Louis Brandeis (1928)

“You already have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

—Scott McNealy, Chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems (1999)

And, in the midst of a long, thoughtful and well-developed case, it says this (I’ve dropped the footnotes, which are many):

Privacy has deep historical roots. References to a private domain, the private or domestic sphere of family, as distinct from the public sphere, have existed since the days of ancient Greece.  Indeed, the English words “private” and “privacy” are derived from the Latin privatus, meaning “restricted to the use of a particular person; peculiar to oneself, one who holds no public office.” Systematic evaluations of the concept of privacy, however, are often said to have begun with the 1890 Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis article, “The Right of Privacy,” in which the authors examined the law’s effectiveness in protecting privacy against the invasiveness of new technology and business practices (photography, other mechanical devices and newspaper enterprises). The authors, perhaps presciently, expressed concern that modern innovations had “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and . . . threatened to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” They equated the right of privacy with “the right to be let alone” from these outside intrusions.

Since then, the scholarly literature prescribing ideal definitions of privacy has been “extensive and inconclusive.” While many different models of privacy have been developed, they generally incorporate concepts of:

  • Solitude (being alone)
  • Seclusion (having limited contact with others)
  • Anonymity (being in a group or in public, but not having one’s name or identity known to others; not being the subject of others’ attention)
  • Secrecy or reserve (information being withheld or inaccessible to others)

In essence, privacy has to do with having or being in one’s own space.

Some describe privacy as a state or sphere where others do not have access to a person, their information, or their identity. Others focus on the ability of an individual to control who may have access to or intrude on that sphere. Alan Westin, for example, considered by some to be the “father” of contemporary privacy thought, defines privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” Privacy can also be seen as encompassing an individual’s right to control the quality of information they share with others.

In the context of personal information, concepts of privacy are closely intertwined with those of confidentiality and security. Privacy addresses “the question of what personal information should be collected or stored at all for a given function.” In contrast, confidentiality addresses the issue of how personal data that has been collected for one approved purpose may be held and used by the organization that collected it, what other secondary or further uses may be made of it, and when the permission of the individual is required for such uses.Unauthorized or inadvertent disclosures of data are breaches of confidentiality. Informational security is the administrative and technological infrastructure that limits unauthorized access to information. When someone hacks into a computer system, there is a breach of security (and also potentially, a breach of confidentiality). In common parlance, the term privacy is often used to encompass all three of these concepts.

Take any one of these meanings, or understandings, and be assured that it is ignored or violated in practice by large parts of today’s online advertising business—for one simple reason (I got from long ago): Individuals have no independent status on the Web. Instead we have dependent status. Our relationships (and we have many) are all defined by the entities with which we choose to relate via the Web. All those dependencies are silo’d in the systems of sellers, schools, churches, government agencies, social media, associations, whatever. You name it. You have to deal with all of them separately, on their terms, and in their spaces. Those spaces are not your spaces. (Even if they’re in a place called . Isn’t it weird to have somebody else using the first person possessive pronoun for you? It will be interesting to see how retro that will seem after it goes out of fashion.)

What I’m saying here is that, on the Web, we do all our privacy-trading in contexts that are not out in the open marketplace, much less in our own private spaces (by any of the above definitions). They’re all in closed private spaces owned by the other party—where none of the rules, none of the terms of engagement, are yours. In other words, these places can’t be private, in the sense that you control them. You don’t. And in nearly all cases (at least here in the U.S.), your “agreements” with these silos are contracts of adhesion that you can’t break or change, but the other party can—and often does.

These contexts have been so normative, for so long, that we can hardly imagine anything else, even though we have that “else” out here in the physical world. We live and sleep and travel and get along in the physical world with a well-developed understanding of what’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours, and what’s none of those. That’s because we have an equally well-developed understanding of bounded spaces. These differ by culture. In her wonderful book , Polly Platt writes about how French —comfortable distances from others—are smaller than those of Americans. The French feel more comfortable getting close, and bump into each other more in streets, while Americans tend to want more personal space, and spread out far more when they sit. Whether she’s right about that or not, we actually have personal spaces on Earth. We don’t on the Web, and in Web’d spaces provided by others. (The Net includes more than the Web, but let’s not get into that here. The Web is big enough.)

So one reason that privacy trading is so normative is that dependency requires it. We have to trade it, if that’s what the sites we use want, regardless of how they use whatever we trade away.

The only way we can get past this problem (and it is a very real one) is to create personal spaces on the Web. Ones that we own and control. Ones where we set the terms of engagement. Ones where we decide what’s private and what’s not.

In the VRM development community we have a number of different projects and companies working on exactly this challenge.  is pure open source and has a self-explanatory name. Others (, and others) are open in many ways as well, and are working together to create (or put to use) common code, standards, protocols, terminologies and other conventions on which all of us can build privacy-supporting solutions. You’ll find links to some of the people involved in those efforts (among others) in Personal Data Stores, Exchanges, and Applications, a new post by  (of Switchbook). There’s also the One example is the and at . (For more context on that, check out Iain Henderson’s unpacking of the .) There’s also our own work at ProjectVRM and , which has lately centered on developing -like legal tools for both individuals and companies.  What matters most here is that a bunch of good developers are working on creating spaces online that are as natural, human, personal—and under personal control—as the ones we enjoy offline.

Once we have those, the need for privacy trade-offs won’t end. But they will begin to make the same kind of down-to-Earth sense they do in the physical world. And that will be a huge leap forward.

Getting Real and VRM

Deep in a post about other stuff, Tony Fish asks, “What is Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) and how will it effect your future customer relationship strategy?” The parties to whom that is addressed are corporate CRM and marketing folks. Alan Mitchell provides some answers, along with more questions, in Get ready for Vendor Relationship Management:

Why should marketers be interested in VRM? Because, given a choice between a product that isn’t really addressing their needs (CRM) and one that is (VRM), customers are more likely to opt for VRM. In other words, VRM is a game changer.

A VRM filter helps create a new operational and innovation agenda. The simple question ‘how does this help the customer achieve his or her relationship management goals’ can go a long way to predicting which initiatives will stick, and which won’t. Creating systems to recognise customers at every touchpoint and treat them in a seamless fashion looks pretty good under this spotlight. Profiling and propensity modelling for the purposes of direct marketing? Not so sure.

More answers and questions emerge in a thread that starts with Denis Pombriant‘s The Relationship Entity, at the heart of which is this:

Who owns the customer relationship?  Is it the customer?  The vendor?  Both?  I think this is a trick question because a relationship is a duality that exists independent of both parties but requires both to exist at all.  In fact, the relationship becomes an entity of itself, a mass-less, weightless entity but a reality nonetheless.  Substitute the word marriage for relationship and you see my point.

(Tell me about it. Inside our wedding rings my wife and I have engraved “The couple decides.”)

Denis concludes,

I advocate thinking about the relationship as an independent entity, one that has to be nurtured from both sides.  And that drives my thinking on social CRM.

Paul Greenberg follows with Customer Ownership: Relationship? Conversation? Simply Put. SCRM is not VRM. Simple Being the Operative Principle. Some excerpts:

…the company owns the company, the customer owns their own personal value chain so to speak. That’s why there is a difference between SCRM and VRM.  Vendor Relationship Management is what the customer does to command their side of the relationship.  SCRM is what the company does in response to the customer’s control of the conversation – and all the other things associated with that.  But the company still owns itself – meaning its operational practices and its objectives and its records and its legal status as a company.

I think that the customer is at the hub of business ecosystem – to the point that you can call it a customer ecosystem. Meaning the customer drives demand and the company is now forced to respond to that.   But a relationship between company and customer is exactly what Denis says it is and that relationship’s success is the essence of SCRM…

Companies are increasingly being pushed to respond to customers and that is where SCRM begins to show itself.

So let me put it this way.  The final line of my definition of CRM says, “Its the company’s response to the customer’s control of the conversation.”  At this time, the ongoing way that the company responds to the customers control of the conversation IS the relationship.

Thanks to Chris Carfi for pointing us to that thread.

On the topic of branding (one of marketing’s oldest terms, borrowed originally by Procter & Gamble from the cattle industry), Alan Mitchell gets us started again with Brand messsaging: the heart of it. He begins,

I’ll be as blunt as possible. So long as marketers accept the conventional wisdom so neatly summed up by McKinsey, that the job of marketers is to increase “brands’ power to generate messages that influence the consumer’s decision to purchase” we will never – repeat, never – be able to make the mental and operational changes we need to flourish in the emerging era…

To explore the dynamics of what’s happening here, let’s approach the issue obliquely via a wonderful passage in Youngme Moon’s new book Different

In this passage she describes how modern markets work (or, to be more precise, our prevailing mental model of how they work). They display at least five defining characteristics.

  1. Consumers are exercising choice (but only from among the choices that producers have decided to offer them).
  2. Every consumer in every category is on a journey from novicedom to connoisseurship: most of us are neither novices or connoisseurs, we’re somewhere in the middle, learning. This learning is achieved almost entirely via DIY methods (there are no GSCEs or degrees in shopping).
  3. Aside from advertising, most product information is inseparable from the product itself: we go to market to inspect the product, to understand its features, attributes and qualities etc. To learn, in other words.
  4. Virtually all the information provided about the product is provided by the seller …
  5. … designed and distributed in furtherance of the seller’s goals, i.e. to persuade the buyer to buy.

This is the environment that created the brand-messaging consumer-influencing agenda. But it’s an environment that is fading fast. If we look at the emerging environment it looks rather different:

  1. An increasing proportion of the information that’s made available about the product is separate from the product itself: e.g. online.
  2. An increasing proportion of this information comes from independent sources (including other consumers), not the seller …
  3. … so an increasing proportion of this information addresses the consumer’s goal of making better decisions, rather than the seller’s goal of influence.
  4. These last two developments mean that learning about products and markets isn’t just a DIY activity any more: specialist services (search, comparison, peer-to-peer advice etc) are emerging to help consumers on this front; to provide them with the information they need; to help them become more ‘professional’ in their product judgements and choices.
  5. The more consumers get to understand what’s available and what’s possible, the more the process of arriving at a decision changes – from ‘choosing from among the choices presented to me’ to ‘building a specification of what I would like, and then finding the best fit’.

What this means is that we are in transition. Let’s accept that sellers will always want to influence consumers’ decisions in their favour and that consumers will always want to make better decisions. That’s not changing, but how they go about these tasks is being turned upside down (or, to be more precise, right side up).

For many decades now we have lived in a seller-centric market largely shaped and defined by marketers’ quest to influence consumers’ decisions. Consumers have had to pursue their goals within this context. We are now moving towards a buyer-centric market shaped and defined by consumers’ quest for better decisions, with marketers having to pursue their goals within this context. This is the “tectonic power shift”, the “dramatically altered” balance of power between companies and consumers that McKinsey so rightly referred to.

In Sixth Characteristic, Jacek Chwalisz adds to Alan’s list,

Using current communications tools it is possible to find, understand, communicate and satisfy people who at the moment are looking for particular object, not only its perception.

In that post Jacek probes the distance between the real and the unreal, and the role of branding in creating the latter. He sees in brands a “magic” that is “not rational.” Specifically,

I think people taking under consideration different choices than offered by brands feel risk related to possible lost of this “magic”. And they are right, because brands satisfy their needs of “magic”. How this “magic” works? People have a tendency to mix up subject of perception and method of perception. For many people “story about facts” is the same as “facts”, “knowledge about something” is the same as “something”, “self perception” is the same as “self” (this mechanism was described many times, even in European Middle Ages as “medium quo” and “medium quod”).

This distance between perception and reality is reduced by authenticity, and therein lies the problem with branding itself, of the current craze around “personal branding,” and why the latter is oxymoronic.

I took all this on earlier this month in a string of posts titled Brands are Boring, Branding is Bull, and The Unbearable Lightness of Branding. Quite a few comments followed, but none does a better job than Phil Windley’s
Branding and Indispensability vs Reputation and Influence. “We already have an identity and we have our humanity. Those are the things that we need to emphasize, not the idea of personal brand.”

As everybody above make clear, VRM is something that happens on the customer’s side of his or her relationship with vendors (or with any other entity). As Jacek suggests, real relationship requires authenticity. For that, traditional branding is largely a side issue. In fact, I suggest that all branding is essentially a distraction. I might even suggest that nearly all marketing is too. That’s because marketing is still mostly about push. Let’s face it: pushing is what most marketers get paid to do.

But pull will outperform push, because it will involve less — or no — guesswork. It will be based on what the customer actually wants, rather than what vendors want to push at them.

Back in 1997, before blogging got started, I wrote two pieces no publisher would touch, both about “push,” which was then a big buzzcraze: Shoveling Push Media, and When Push Comes to Shove. The craze went away, but the urge to push hasn’t, and shouldn’t. Sellers need to let buyers know what they’ve got and why it’s good. But the waste involved in blasting out message, and “branding,” is huge. And it wastes more than money.

Bonus link: VRM is #15 on Web Design Cool’s list of 21 Twitter Tips From Socially Savvy Companies.

CRM & VRM, Figure & Ground

Antagonyms, Social Circles and Chattering about VRM is a deep and helpful piece by Cliff Gerrish on his blog. He starts by visiting and (words that carry dual and opposing meanings) and how context tilts perception and meaning toward one side or another. By example he suggests that Google’s problems with were (at least in part) a result of internal perspective and experience (“Google launched Buzz as a consumer product, but tested it as an enterprise product”). From there he suggests that CRM and VRM also require that we consider perspective and reciprocity:

Meanwhile, introduces Chatter to the enterprise and rolls it out at no extra charge to all employees on the internal network. And while it will start inside the enterprise, Chatter will quickly expand to the boundaries and begin to cross over. From a business perspective, it’ll be used to turbo-charge collaboration and create real-time communication for project teams and business units. But very quickly you’ll see friends sending messages to each other about meeting up for lunch, and a public-personal communications channel will be opened within the enterprise. And the circles will connect and widen from there.

Here are a couple more Contranyms:

clip (attach to) – clip (cut off from)

cleave (to cut apart) – cleave (to seal together)

Salesforce.com calls itself the leader in Customer Relationship Management and Cloud Computing. Chatter may just be the communication medium that ultimately contains both CRM and its opposite number, VRM. Vendor Relationship Management is a reaction to the data toolsets belonging to the enterprise and not to the individual customer.

In a narrow sense, VRM is the reciprocal — the customer side — of CRM (or Customer Relationship Management). VRM tools provide customers with the means to bear their side of the relationship burden. They relieve CRM of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. With VRM operating on the customer’s side, CRM systems will no longer be alone in trying to improve the ways companies relate to customers. Customers will be also be involved, as fully empowered participants, rather than as captive followers.

If you were to think about what kind of infrastructure you’d want to run VRM on, Salesforce.com would be ideal. To run the mirror image of CRM, you need the same set of services and scale. The individual Chatter account could be the doorway to a set of VRM services. I can already see developers using the Force.com platform to populate a VRM app store.

Some corporations will attempt to maximize the business value of each individual worker, stripping out all the extraneous human factors. will be erected to keep the outside from the inside, the personal from the business, and the public from the private. But when you put messaging and communications tools into the hands of people they will find ways to talk to each other— about work, life, play, the project, and the joke they just heard at the water cooler.

I’ll need to study Salesforce’s services before I venture opinions about how well they apply on the VRM side. But in the meantime I do think there is an especially appropriate optical illusion for illustrating CRM/VRM reciprocity: the :

Rubin2

As Wikipedia currently puts it,

Rubin’s vase (sometimes known as the Rubin face or the Figure-ground vase) is a famous set of cognitive developed around 1915 by the . They were first introduced at large in Rubin’s two-volume work, the Danish-language Synsoplevede Figurer (“Visual Figures”), which was very well-received; Rubin included a number of examples, like a Maltese cross figure in black and white, but the one that became the most famous was his vase example, perhaps because the Maltese cross one could also be easily interpreted as a black and white beachball.

One can then state as a fundamental principle: When two fields have a common border, and one is seen as and the other as , the immediate perceptual experience is characterized by a shaping effect which emerges from the common border of the fields and which operates only on one field or operates more strongly on one than on the other.

Says Rubin (in Synsoplevede Figurer, 1915),

One can then state as a fundamental principle: When two fields have a common border, and one is seen as and the other as , the immediate perceptual experience is characterized by a shaping effect which emerges from the common border of the fields and which operates only on one field or operates more strongly on one than on the other.

Over the next century Rubin’s vase illusion has more commonly been illustrated with a wine glass between two faces (perhaps because we’re drinking more and arranging flowers less):

I think this imagery does a better job of illustrating the figure-ground distinctions of CRM and VRM. I suggest that CRM sees the wine glass (from which they might drink from the wealth of well-managed relationships with customers), while VRM sees two faces that represent one-to-one interactions between equals.

After CRM and VRM come to be working well together, vendors and customers will still have their own tilted perspectives — one’s figure will be the other’s ground — but both will be fully present.

As of today that’s not the case. CRM is a multi-$billion industry, while VRM is just getting started. Perhaps, by thinking about CRM from a VRM perspective (and vice versa), we can build out tools and solutions better, and faster.

How VRM Helps CRM

CRM — Customer Relationship Management — is a huge business. According to this article, Forrester expected the CRM software market to hit $74 billion in 2007. This more modest Gartner report says the worldwide CRM market totalled $9.15 billion in 2008, growing at a 12.5% rate over 2007.

CRM is pure B2B: business to business. You’re not involved, except as a customer of CRM’s customers. It’s your relationship with a company that’s being managed—by the company. Not by you.

Last month Neil Davey of reached out from the CRM world to interview me on the subject of VRM. The result is Doc Searls: Customers will use ID data to force CRM change. The angle was data. If VRM gives customers more control over their data and how it is used, how does that help CRM? Wouldn’t customers want to share less of their data rather than more?

In fact data will be front and center as a topic at —

200px-Vroomboston2009_small

on Monday and Tuesday of next week at Harvard Harvard  (please come, it’s free). While most of the workshop will be organized on the open space model (participants choose the topics and break off into groups to move those topics forward), we decided to have one panel, titled Getting Personal With Data: How Users Get Control and What They Do With It. I invite local CRM folks (and everybody interested) to come and participate.

In his piece Neil sourced my new chapter (“Markets are Relationships”) in The Cluetrain Manifesto, as well as text from an interview by email. Since CRM+VRM is our topic here, I thought it would be cool to provide the long form of my answers to Neil’s questions.Here goes…

About what VRM does that CRM alone cannot…

Think of a buyer-seller relationship as vehicle that can be driven by two people: the buyer and the seller. The problem we have today is that only the seller—what in business we call the vendor—can drive. The buyer is in the passenger’s seat. She can’t drive. She can choose to spend or not to spend—or to leave the car and ride with some other vendor. But she can’t drive.

VRM gives her a way to drive.

To mix metaphors a bit, CRM systems are designed to operate what in the tech world we call “silos” or “walled gardens.” It doesn’t matter how nice a company makes its walled garden—it’s still owned and run by the company as a habitat for customers. The company makes all the rules, sets all the terms, provides all the means for everything the customer does with the company. The customer’s only choice is to take the whole deal or leave it.

Every one of CRM’s walled gardens is also different, and most treat the customer as if he or she has no other business relationships, save those to the government or to credit card companies. As a result customers have no common means for relating with multiple vendors. Thus, as CRM system adoption goes up, so do complications for customers.

Perfect example: loyalty programs. Most of these burden the customer with cards and key-ring tags—all to “increase switching costs,” to obtain a higher “share of wallet” or to impose other inconveniences. I know one guy who carries around a key ring with dozens of little tags. In my own case I recently counted fifteen different loyalty cards populating my wallet, my key chains and my glove compartment. None make me feel loyal. All increase my resentment more than “loyalty” by any measure.

Limiting customer choices amounts to wearing blinders. Companies can’t see what they won’t let themselves see. For example, they can’t see customers who choose not to shop at a store because the store only gives discounts and benefits to loyalty card holders. In my own case I buy groceries at Trader Joe’s. rather than Stop & Shop because Trader Joe’s doesn’t require that I carry a loyalty card to get a “discount” that I believe is nothing more than a regular price—while the non-card price amounts to a surcharge and a punishment for non-card-carrying customers. Whether or not this is true, it’s a legitimate perception, and an unintended negative consequence of the loyalty card system. Stop & Shop can put the world’s best data-collection behind its loyalty cards, but one thing they won’t find in that data is why I don’t buy at their store.

Being customer-driven means a company knows what customers actually want and what they actually feel. Wouldn’t it be better to know directly when a customer wants something, rather than to guess at it? Wouldn’t it be better to have whatever market intelligence the customer can provide, willingly, rather than to give the customer a limited set of choices, which may exclude the one thing that might cause a sale or make a better customer?

Friends of mine who have worked in the CRM business, and studied it over many years, tell me that in many — perhaps most — cases, customer-centricity is secondary to organization-centricity. They know of few cases where customers actually drive the company.

In the beginning CRM was about building a “single customer view,” with lots of talk about better understanding the customer’s needs, and how that should be become part of “integrated” marketing, selling and customer service. Over the years, however, this ambition was compromised by minimal data and cost-cutting requirements.

My wife, a business veteran with a long history in retailing (both at the store level and as a supplier) has observed that the trend in recent years has been to out-source support to the customer herself. “Go to our website,” the call center says. Yet typical websites are so poor at customer support that the customer is left to seek help from other customers, or from websites other than the company’s own. This is why so many customers now support each other, rather than bothering with companies’ own support sites and services.

The problem here isn’t bad CRM. It’s that there is nothing yet on the customer’s side to carry some of the relationship weight — other than what CRM systems provide. That means the whole responsibility lies with the vendor. With VRM we want to give the customer means for carrying some of the burden herself.

About VRM and its community…

The current VRM community is a convergence of several formerly separate efforts. In the UK, the Buyer Centric Commerce Forum came together in 2003. In the U.S., VRM grew out of the Internet Identity Workshops, which started in early 2005 — as a workshop discussion subject that broke off and acquired a life of its own. In my own case, VRM started as a sense of unfinished business after Chris Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. Listen to what Chris was saying (in the original manifesto posted at Cluetrain.com) with “we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.” That is the voice of the customer, energized by powers granted by the Internet but not understood by sellers there.

After Cluetrain came out, I realized that Chris’s statement wasn’t quite true, because if customer reach truly did exceed vendor grasp, loyalty cards would be pointless. Customers would have native means for expressing their own wants, needs, terms of engagement and loyalties. Thus I came to realize that relationship was the next frontier. Something had to be done to liberate both sellers and buyers from the belief that a free market is “your choice of captor.”

We didn’t call it VRM, however, until Mike Vizard suggested it during a Gillmor Gang podcast in October 2006. Before that we had called it CoRM (for Company Relationship Management) and other names. As a new fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, I needed a project. So I titled mine ProjectVRM, and the rest is history.

On how customers control personal data and its exposure…

The short answer is that customers will disclose data on an as-needed basis, within the context of a secure and genuine relationship, and not a coerced one where the vendor does all the asking.

The longer answer is that this requires a new system on the customer’s part and a modified one on the vendor’s part. That’s how VRM + CRM will work together.

Both systems need to recognize that the individual, and not the organization, should be the point of integration for his or her own data, the point of origination for sharing that data, and the authority about what gets done with that data.

The ‘single customer view’ is naturally that of the customer, not the company. If a working relationship is in place, the customer will share required information when the right time comes — and do it, when need be, for many relationships at once, and in consistent, standardized ways. For example, the customer can issue a trusted change of address just once for many companies, rather than many times and many ways for many companies. In the absence of a customer-driven data-sharing system, we have companies constantly running after the customer for updates and becoming increasingly invasive of privacy over time (Phorm being just one familiar example.)

VRM enables personal data management by the individual, in ways that work for the individual and which can also enable selective disclosure to companies. There are various ways of achieving that, many of which are being actively worked on at present. The plumbing part is easy. Processes and business models are harder, but those are being worked on too.

The challenge lies in developing a more granular view of what data is shared, by whom, how, where and why. For CRM today that equates to WHO, bought WHAT, WHERE, WHEN and HOW it was offered to them. These are all data that can be derived from a system if it is built well enough. These data can then be used to make good guesswork about WHY customers bought products, and then make educated guesses about what customers will buy next.

A well designed VRM system will eliminate much of the the guesswork that CRM currently involves. For example, VRM can provide customers with tools to say “Here’s what I’m in the market for,” or “Here’s my current circumstances. What have you got that is relevant?” — in ways that prevent that data from being used later against the individual, or to inform guesswork that wastes both the vendor’s and the customer’s time and money. The customer also needs to be able to assert his or her own terms of engagement, rather than being forced to accept those required by the vendor. Customer-driven terms would naturally include commitments to pay and otherwise behave honorably; but they might also include preferences (such as “send no junk mail” or “email my receipts”). They might even include expressions of willingness to pay for good service.

On the personal data side, this system will involve what we call “volunteered personal information.” In effect this is a new class of data. Right now that data lives mostly in the heads of customers, because they don’t have the tools or systems to express any of it on their own.

Companies need to be willing to engage with this new type of data. While this may seem scary — giving up control always is — in practice it is just a more highly qualified sales lead and a smoother customer interaction than the current system allows.

On how VRM will influence vendors who don’t want to give up control…

Money talks. Consider one form of VRM we call the Personal RFP. This is where the customer advertises his or her desire to buy a product or service at a given place and time. (And not just through a walled garden such as Facebook or eBay.) For example, “I need a stroller for twins in Grand Rapids in the next 5 hours.” Data with money behind it will fund all kinds of changes in data collection systems.

On other appeals to the CRM side…

A core purpose of VRM is to eliminate the guesswork that has wasted enormous sums of money and energy for marketing and sales — while also wasting the customer’s attention and time. We can save that money, energy and time by giving customers the means to control means of engagement with companies, and to do it in standard ways that work across the board.

It is not possible to see how any of this will work if you look at it only from the supply side of the marketplace — from the standpoint of the seller. You have to take off your seller’s hat and be the other self you’ve always been: a customer.

No customer wants to be “acquired,” “retained,” “managed” or “owned” by any seller. Customers want to be respected on their own terms, and not those of a company that seeks constantly to maintain the advantage in a relationship that actually isn’t.

In other words, they want a real relationship. Not something that is a relationship in name only.

The new dynamic is a green field. We’ve never had it. I believe that if we create the means for enabling good will as well as easy sales, real relationships will follow.

On how “realistic” VRM is…

How realistic was the Internet in 1985?

Look at networks in the 80s and early 90s. If you wanted email, or instant messaging, you had to join a walled garden called AOL or Compuserve or Prodigy. If you were an AOL member and wanted to send an email to a Compuserve member, you couldn’t. Just as today you can’t use a Costco loyalty card at a Best Buy.

The Internet changed all that, by providing new protocols for communication that weren’t owned by anybody, but could be used by anybody and improved by anybody.

VRM will likewise change buyer-seller relationships by providing new means for engagement that aren’t owned by anybody, but can be used by anybody and improved by anybody.

Customers are resigned to stuff they hate when they think there are no alternatives. Once the alternatives show up, they will get energized. “Invention is the mother of necessity,” Thorstein Veblen said. What we’re doing with VRM is inventing protocols for buying and selling that will mother many new market necessities. One of those will be reforming CRM so it can respond to real customer demand, along with much better data than was ever before possible.

About where data lives, and how…

Some VRM folks (e.g. Mydex.org) are working on “Personal Data Stores” that can be replicated with trusted “fourth parties“. Some are working on ways of representing personal data (e.g. Azigo.com, Kynetx.com). Some are working on ways of consolidating loyalty data on the customer side and reforming loyalty programs from the outside in (e.g. Scanaroo from Cerado.com). All the many digital identity systems and communities have VRM components and constituents (e.g. Kantara.org, IdentityCommons.org, InformationCard.net, OpenID.org, XDI.org). Some are working on simple customer-held means for organizing one’s own data and relationships (e.g. TheMineProject.org). Some are working on means for logging one’s own media usage, and providing means for putting the pricing gun in customer hands (e.g. ProjectVRM and its friends in various media businesses). Some are working on customer-driven terms of service (e.g. ProjectVRM and friends at Harvard Law School and elsewhere). Some are working on patient control of their own health care data and relationships with health care providers (too many efforts to name, but Google and Microsoft are on this list). Some are working on user driven search, outside the walled gardens of Google and Bing (Switchbook.com). I am probably insulting many by ending the list there, but that should be enough.

About ProjectVRM.org

ProjectVRM is a research and development project at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The project was created in 2006, and has focused mostly on development over the following three years. This next year we will be doing much more research as well.

I am a fellow at the center, and I run the project. The vast majority of the development work is going on among members of the VRM community. For them ProjectVRM serves as a central clubhouse, with workshops several times per year, a mailing list, a wiki and other supportive services. The idea isn’t to create a central VRM body, but rather to focus disparate VRM efforts on common goals.

I want to say before closing that we do not mean to give CRM a hard time. The problem CRM has had from the start is that it carries the full burden of systematizing relationships with customers. All VRM does is give customers means for carrying their end of the relationship. We won’t succeed unless it’s VRM + CRM, rather than VRM vs. CRM. If VRM succeeds, it will improve CRM enormously.

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