Making it impossible for business to keep customers out of the conversation

ProjectVRM 2017-10-06

It’s time for business to stop talking to itself, and start obeying customers.

That’s right, I said obeying.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

This is what we were predicted with “Markets are Conversations” in The Cluetrain Manifesto, way back at the start of the millennium.

When that didn’t happen, I launched ProjectVRM in 2006.

Encouraged by our progress, I wrote The Customer as a God, a cover story for The Wall Street Journal‘s Marketplace section. That ran not long after The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge came out in 2012. The image above was most of that Journal section’s front page (you can see the fold below the middle there).

That it still hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. That a glass is empty doesn’t mean it can’t be filled. Instead it’s a promise that it will be filled. There is already plenty happening in that glass—far more than there was five years ago.

One sign of the “before” state of things we’re still in is a certain absence in every business conference, every business book, every business school class.

That absence is customers.

The notion that customers can be independent and fully empowered agents of themselves, with scale across all the businesses they deal with, at best gets the intellectual treatment (seeing customers, for example, as “rational actors”). Still, mostly customers are seen as creatures that go moo and squit money if they’re held captive and squeezed the right ways.  Listen to the talk. We are “targets” businesses “acquire,” “manage,” “control” or “lock in” as if we are cattle or slaves.

A good example of customer absence at non-work is this press release announcing “an innovative initiative focused on the overhaul of open account trade finance infrastructure.” It’s from R3, which makes Corda, a ” distributed ledger platform designed specifically for financial services,” and is “a joint undertaking between R3, TradeIX, and twelve financial institutions.” This network, says the release, will “improve access to open account trade for the global ecosystem of banks, buyers, suppliers, technology providers, insurers, and other parties, such as logistics companies, that are critical to facilitating global open account trade flows.”

Never mind that distributed ledgers have been hailed as the second coming (or even the first) of the customer-empowering peer-to-peer world. Instead note the absence of the people and institutions who entrust their money and assets to all the parties listed in that long sentence.

The goal of ProjectVRM is to equip customers (not just “consumers,” or “end users”) to say We’re not just at the same table with you guys. We are that table. And we are much bigger and far more powerful than you can ever make us separately and on your own.

In other words, our job here is to give customers superpowers.

There are lots of people arguing that more policy is the answer. Or that we need a new Google or Facebook to fight the incumbents.

In fact we already have the policy we need for leverage, in the GDPR. Let’s use that leverage to point to our own customer-empowering solutions.

In our last post we named one. That and many others will be on the table and open to being worked on during VRM Day and IIW, later this month at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Looking forward to seeing many of you there.