Up next: a master app to give customers scale

ProjectVRM 2015-02-17

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.)