Can we each be our own Amazon?

ProjectVRM 2012-07-09

The most far-out chapter in The Intention Economy is one set in a future when free customers are known to be more valuable than captive ones. It’s called “The Promised Market,” and describes the imagined activities of a family traveling to a wedding in San Diego. Among the graces their lives enjoy are these (in the order the chapter presents them):

  1. Customer freedom and intentions are not restrained by one-sided “agreements” provided only by sellers and service providers.
  2. Fourth parties — service organizations working as agents for the customer — are a major breed among user driven services.
  3. The competencies of nearly all companies are exposed through interactive APIs that customers and others can engage in real time. These will be fundamental to what Phil Windley calls The Live Web.
  4. Personal RFPs (now also called intentcasts), will be common and widespread means for demand finding and driving supply in the marketplace.
  5. Augmented reality views of the marketplace will be normative, as will mobile payments through virtual wallets on mobile devices.
  6. Loyalty will be defined by customers as well as sellers, in ways that do far more for both than today’s one-sided and coercive loyalty programs.
  7. Relationships between customers and vendors will be genuine, two-way, and defined cooperatively by both sides, which will each possess the technical means to carry appropriate relationship burdens. In other words, VRM and CRM will work together, at many touch-points.
  8. Customers will be able to proffer prices on their own, independently of intermediaries (though those, as fourth parties, can be involved). Something like EmanciPay will facilitate the process.
  9. Supply chains will become “empathic” as well as mechanical. That is, supply chains will be sensitive to the demand chain: signals of demand, in the context of genuine relationships, from customers and fourth parties.
  10. The advertising bubble of today has burst, because the economic benefits of knowing actual customer intention — and relating to customers as independent and powerful economic actors, worthy of genuine relationships rather than coercive — bob will have became obvious and operative. Advertising will continue to do what it does best, but not more.
  11. Search has evolved to become far more user-driven and interactive, involving agents other than search engines.
  12. Bob Frankston‘s ambient connectivity will be taken for granted. There will still be businesses that provide connections, but nobody will be trapped into any one provider’s “plan” that excludes connection through other providers. This will open vast new opportunities for economic activity in the marketplace.

In VRM: The Amazon Example, Sheila Bounford provides the first in-depth volley on that chapter, focusing on #4: personal RFPs. I’ll try to condense her case:

I’ve written recently of a certain frustration with the seemingly endless futurology discussions going on in the publishing world, and it’s probably for this reason that I had to fight my way through the hypothesis in this chapter. However on subsequent reflection I’ve found that thinking about the way in which Amazon currently behaves as a customer through its Advantage programme sheds light on Searls’ suggestions and projections…

What Searls describes as the future for individual consumers is in fact very close to the empowered relationship that Amazon currently enjoys with its many suppliers via Amazon Advantage…  Amazon is the customer – and a highly empowered one at that.

Any supplier trading with Amazon via Advantage (and that includes most UK publishing houses and a significant portion of American publishers) has to meet all of the criteria specified by Amazon in order to be accepted into Advantage and must communicate online through formats and channels entirely prescribed and controlled by Amazon…

Alone, an individual customer is never going to be able to exert the same kind of leverage over vendors in the market place as a giant like Amazon. However individual customers online are greater than the sum of their parts: making up a crucial market for retailers and service providers. Online, customers have a much louder voice, and a much greater ability to collect, organise and mobilise than offline. Searls posits that as online customers become more attuned to their lack of privacy and control – in particular of data that they consider personal – in current normative contracts of adhesion, they will require and elect to participate in VRM programmes that empower them as individual customers and not leave them as faceless, impotent consumers.

So? So Amazon provides us with a neat example of what it might look like if we, as individuals, could control our suppliers and set our terms of engagement. That’s going to be a very different online world to the one we trade in now.  Although I confess to frustration with the hot air generated by publishing futurology, it seems to me that the potential for the emergence VRM and online customer empowerment is one aspect of the future we’d all do well to work towards and plan for.

From the start of ProjectVRM, Iain Henderson (now of The Customer’s Voice) has been pointing to B2B as the future model for B2C. Not only are B2B relationships rich, complex and rewarding in ways that B2C are not today (with their simplifications through customer captivity and disempowerment), he says, but they also provide helpful modeling for B2C as customers obtain more freedom and empowerment, outside the systems built to capture and milk them.

Amazon Advantage indeed does provide an helpful example of where we should be headed as VRM-enabled customers. Since writing the book (which, except for a few late tweaks, was finished last December) I have become more aware than ever of Amazon’s near-monopoly power in the book marketplace, and possibly in other categories as well. I have heard many retailers complain about “scan and scram” customers who treat brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms for Amazon. But perhaps the modeling isn’t bad in the sense that we ought to have monopoly power over our selves. Today the norm in B2C is to disregard that need by customers. In the future I expect that need to be respected, simply because it produces more for everybody in the marketplace.

It is highly astute of Sheila to look toward Amazon as a model for individual customers. I love it when others think of stuff I haven’t, and add to shared understanding — especially of a subject as protean as this one. So I look forward to the follow-up posts this week on her blog.