Defining #customertech

Look at your phone.

What apps there are yours? I mean yours in the way a hammer in your hand is yours. Or your car when you’re driving it. In other words, an extension of yourself.

The phone itself may seem to be that. But the apps? Not as much. Not yet. Especially not in the commercial world where we operate as customers. While there is an abundance of tech on the corporate side, all meant to give us a better “customer experience” (or just to sell us stuff), there is a paucity of instruments that extend ourselves as customers.

We have those in the physical world. Your clothing in a drawer is not an extension of your self, but it extends you totally when we wear it. Same goes for your wallet or your purse.

Clothing is many kinds of tech at once: privacytech, expressiontech and fashiontech, to name three. Unless you shop naked, which you probably don’t, clothing is also customertech: a way of extending your sovereign self into the marketplace, signaling your fitness as a customer, whether or not you are conscious of doing so.

Likewise your wallet. In that you carry a portfolio of instruments—cash, credentials, credit cards—that you can use selectively and expertly in every store, restaurant and other commercial setting we visit. In this sense wallets have scale. If you carry a purse, it might also contain a second wallet of loyalty cards and perhaps an address book where we keep notes and a list of contacts. Those tools—wallets, purses, address books—are all extensions of yourself that work everywhere in the marketplace. That’s why you carry them.

All of those things are now moving onto our phones as well, but not in ways that are fully ours. For example, there is no digital wallet made that’s as personal and private as the ones we carry in the physical world. And there should be. If anything, the customertech we have in our phones should start with the graces we enjoy in the physical world—of privacy, control, scale, convenience and expression—and expand them into the virtual one through the amazing graces of digital technology and the Internet. Instead we get lots of conveniences that offer scale only inside the silos of Google, Amazon, Apple and dozens of retailers, banks and other entities that mostly just want to acquire or move our cash and data. (In many cases they also want our attention, our loyalty—always coerced—or other scarce resources of consciousness.)

One example of good customertech we don’t yet have is a contact app that tells every company we know that we’ve changed your phone number, email address, or some other field in their databases. Another would be a wallet that’s not a service provided by one company but a personal tool that engages with all of them. Bots and APIs that belong to us, or are under our control, should be able to do that.

We can only begin to imagine these things, and how they should work, if our job is to equip the customer with tools that are fully hers. If the tool we imagine is a service, it should be one that gives the customer scale.

One real-world model for this is a rental car. When the customer has one, it’s hers to drive anywhere she likes. It isn’t a shopping cart with a steering wheel that only works inside one retailer, or only with the rental agency’s partners. She also has a reasonable expectation that the car is her private space as long as she’s driving it.

So, toward making customertech happen in a big way, Customer Commons will soon be issuing challenges for developers to make true customertech.

But first we’ll be defining it. We invite your help with that.

Meanwhile, a hat tip to Hugh MacLeod of @Gapingvoid, who drew the image above in 2004, to help explain exactly what we’re talking about here, way before the world was ready, which it is now.