The business problems only customers can solve

Customer Commons was created because there are many business and market problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side, under the customer’s control, and at scale.

In the absence of solutions that customers control, both customers and businesses are forced to use business-side-only solutions that limit customer power to what can be done within each business’s silo, or to await regulatory help, usually crafted by captive regulators who can’t even imagine full customer agency.

Here are some examples of vast dysfunctions that customers face today (and which hurt business and markets as well), in the absence of personal agency and scale:

  • Needing to “consent” to terms that can run more than 10,000 words long, and are different for every website and service provider
  • Dealing with privacy policies that can also run more than 10,000 words long, which are different for every website and service provider, and that the site or service can change whenever they want, and in practice don’t even need to obey
  • Dealing with personal identity systems that are different for every website or service provider
  • Dealing with subscription systems that are different for every website and service provider requiring them
  • Dealing with customer service and tech support systems that are different for every website or service provider
  • Dealing with login and password requirements that are as different, and numerous, as there are websites and service providers
  • Dealing with crippled services and/or higher prices for customers who aren’t “members” of a “loyalty” program, which involves high cognitive and operational overhead for customer and seller alike—and (again) work differently for every website and service provider
  • Dealing with an “Internet of Things” that’s really just an Amazon of things, an Apple of Things, and a Google of things.

And here are some examples of solutions customers can bring to business and markets:

  • Standardized terms that customers can proffer as first parties, and all the world’s sites and services can agree to, in ways where both parties have records of agreements
  • Privacy policies of customers’ own, which are easy for every website and service provider to see and respect 
  • Self-sovereign methods for customers to present only the identity credentials required to do business, relieving many websites and service providers of the need to maintain their own separate databases of personal identity data
  • Standard ways to initiate, change and terminate customers’ subscriptions—and to keep records of those subscriptions—greatly simplifying the way subscriptions are done, across all websites and service providers
  • Standard ways for customers to call for and engage customer service and tech support systems that work the same way across all of them
  • Standard ways for customers to relate, without logins and passwords, and to do that with every website and service provider
  • Standard ways to express loyalty that will work across every website, retailer and service provider
  • Standard ways for customers to “intentcast” an interest in buying, securely and safely, at scale, across whole categories of products and services
  • Standard ways for customers’ belongings to operate, safely and securely, in a true Internet of Things
  • Standardized dashboards on which customers can see their own commercially valuable data, control how it is used, and see who has shared it, how, and under what permissions, across all the entities the customer deals with

There are already many solutions in the works for most of the above. Our work at Customer Commons is to help all of those—and many more—come into the world.

 

Where there’s folk there’s fire

That headline was, far as I know, first uttered by Britt Blaser in a March 2007 blog post titled The people’s law trumps the power law. It was thirteen years ahead of its time.

Among many others, Britt was energized by  The Cluetrain Manifesto‘s 95 Theses, which David Weinberger, Chris Locke, Rick Levine and I nailed to the Web in April 1999. Today the one-liner most often quoted from Cluetrain is its the first of those theses: Markets are conversations, which then became the title of a chapter in the book version of the Manifesto, which appeared in January 2000 and quickly became a business bestseller. Today the word “cluetrain,” which didn’t exist before 1999, is tweeted daily by people all over the world and appears (says Google) on more than 1.3 million Web pages.

In the 10th Anniversary (2010) edition of the book, I explained that markets were actually three things:

  • transactions,
  • conversations, and
  • relationships

I learned that separately from two teachers, weeks apart in 2000. Both were responding to Cluetrain‘s markets are conversations line, which became a runaway marketing meme shortly after the book came out. One of those teachers was Eric S. Raymond, a devout atheist and libertarian who almost single-handedly made open source a thing, starting two years earlier. The other was Sayo Ajiboye, a Nigerian pastor I met on a plane.

Both suggested markets are relationships as a corollary to markets are conversations and markets are transactions; but it was Sayo who gave me the assignment I’m still working on here with Customer Commons: to make markets are relationships far more real than what customer relationship management (CRM) and related corporate functions imagined it was, because they were all too busy thinking markets are transactions. Seeing markets as conversations would be a step forward, Sayo said, but not a big enough step. Relationship was key to fully realizing free, open and productive markets in the industrial world, and it could only be fully achieved by working on solutions from the customers’ side.

That’s why I started ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman (now Berkman Klein) Center in 2006, and why it’s still going strong today, both by itself and in the forms of Customer Commons (its one direct spin-off), the IEEE 7012 working group, and lately the Me2B Alliance as well. (The 2 in Me2B is about relationship, as I explain here.)

I’ve written about my encounter with Sayo in a number of places. But the most relevant to our work here is Mashing Up a Commons, published in the June 2006 issue of Linux Journal, three months before I became a fellow with the Berkman Center and started ProjectVRM. Without that encounter, there is a good chance neither would have happened.

Mashing up a commons is still our assignment. I believe it will be the most leveraged thing to happen to markets since the Internet showed up. I first explained why in Free Customers Make Free Markets, posted in November 2007. It closes with the headline above.

The time wasn’t right then, but it is now. Let’s do it.