Every business buys “solutions” that scale across many customers. The big ones buy solutions called CRM, CX, and other initialisms. Together these are >$100 billion B2B businesses, all rationalized around “delivering” an “experience” that a “consumer” or a “user” can value and trust.
At their best, these systems really do help companies treat their customers well, one way or another. The problem for customers is that all these systems are one-offs: every company does it differently, even if they all use the same B2B CRM or CX software systems, sitting in the same Salesforce, Oracle, SAP or other provider’s cloud.
And, while every one of those systems might provide privacy, safety, security, trust, or whatever, all of them presume no more agency on the customer’s side than what the company provides. So, at best, all they can provide are the best possible experiences of captivity.
What all these systems miss is that companies need customers that are free and made capable by solutions of their own that scale across all many companies. Like this:
The fulcum that gives an independent customer leverage is VRM, for vendor relationship management. Conceived originally (at ProjectVRM) as the customer-side counterpart of CRM (for customer relationship management), VRM (aka Me2B) is a category that includes any tool that gives a customer leverage and scale.
It helps that we already have some of those. Cash is one. From The Cash Model of Customer Experience:
Here’s the handy thing about cash: it gives customers scale. It does that by working the same way for everybody, everywhere it’s accepted. It’s also anonymous by nature, meaning it carries no personal identifiers. Recording what happens with it is also optional: using it doesn’t require an entry in a ledger. Cash has also been working this way for thousands of years. But we almost never talk about our “experience” with cash, because we don’t need to.
Credit is another. Also cars, bikes, phones, and shoes. All of those give us handy ways to approach and interact with businesses. They are all fine, but not enough, especially in the digital world. We need new tools built to work there.
For example, say you move, or change your surname. There should be a tool that changes that personal information across all the companies you engage—and does it in one move. Think of the cost savings that would bring for every company with a namespace for that customer in its database. It’s just a guess, but I’ll bet that bad data costs companies $trillions, especially if you throw in all the bad guesswork produced by unwelcome (and increasingly illegal) surveillance.
Here are fourteen examples of problems that can only be solved from the customer’s side:
- Non-captive markets: places and categories in which anybody can easily do business with anybody else, free of controlling intermediaries (with due respect for inevitable tendencies toward federation). There is some movement in this direction around what’s being called Web3, but we think the best approach is on the Byway, which we’re working on with the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, and with interested local communities surrounding the university, in Bloomington, Indiana.
- Identity. Logins and passwords are burdensome leftovers from the last millennium. There should be (and already are) better ways to identify ourselves and to reveal to others only what we need them to know. Working on this challenge is the SSI—Self-Sovereign Identity—movement. The solution here for individuals is tools of their own that scale.
- Subscriptions. Nearly all subscriptions are pains in the butt. “Deals” can be deceiving, full of conditions and changes that come without warning. New customers often get better deals than loyal customers. And there are no standard ways for customers to keep track of when subscriptions run out, need renewal, or change. The only way this can be normalized is from the customers’ side.
- Terms and conditions. In the world today, nearly all of these are ones that companies proffer; and we have little or no choice about agreeing to them. Worse, in nearly all cases, the record of agreement is on the company’s side. Oh, and since the GDPR came along in Europe and the CCPA in California, entering a website has turned into an ordeal typically requiring “consent” to privacy violations the laws were meant to stop. Or worse, agreeing that a site or a service provider spying on us is a “legitimate interest.” The solution here is terms individuals can proffer and organizations can agree to. The first of these is #NoStalking, and allows a publisher to do all the advertising they want, so long as it’s not based on tracking people. Think of it as the opposite of an ad blocker. (Customer Commons is also involved in the IEEE’s P7012 Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms.
- Payments. For demand and supply to be truly balanced, and for customers to operate at full agency in an open marketplace (which the Internet was designed to support), customers should have their own pricing gun: a way to signal—and actually pay willing sellers—as much as they like, however, they like, for whatever they like, on their own terms. There is already a design for that, called Emancipay.
- Shopping. Two things here. First is our own digital shopping cart, which we can take from store to store. Joyce Searls imagined this way back in 1995, and we still don’t have one yet. Second is intentcasting. With intentcasting, customers safely and securely advertise what they want, and only to qualified and ready sellers. There are a number of intentcasting services already, but it’s not a category yet. Toward making that happen, the Intention Byway is a core focus of Customer Commons. (Also see a list of intentcasting providers on the ProjectVRM Development Work list.)
- Property. Think about all the stuff you own. To narrow this down, think about all the items you value enough for insurance to cover their loss. Do you have a record of them? Of your own? One based on standards, so that the way you record ownership of your TV, your clocks, your dresser, your rugs, and everything else that matters, is the same one your neighbor would use? Today we often speak of that stuff as potential members in the Internet of Things (aka IoT). But we don’t yet have a true Internet of Things What we have so far are the Apple of things, the Amazon of things, the Google of things, the Samsung of things, the Sonos of things, and so on. All of those are silo’d in separate, closed, and proprietary systems operated by those companies. Things we own and record in digital ledgers should be our things. We should control them, as independent operators, as we do with our computers and mobile devices. (Also, by the way, things don’t need to be intelligent or connected to belong to the Internet of Things. They can be, or have, Decentralized Identifiers, aka DIDs).
- Loyalty. All loyalty programs are gimmicks, and coercive. True loyalty is worth far more to companies than the coerced kind, and only customers are in a position to truly and fully express it. We should have our own loyalty programs, to which companies are members, rather than the reverse.
- Privacy. We’ve had privacy tech in the physical world since the inventions of clothing, shelter, locks, doors, shades, shutters, and other ways to limit what others can see or hear—and to signal to others what’s okay and what’s not. Instead, all we have are unenforced promises by others not to watch our naked selves, or to report what they see to others. Or worse, coerced urgings to “accept” spying on us and distributing harvested information about us to parties unknown, with no record of what we’ve agreed to.
- Customer service. There are no standard ways to call for service yet, or to get it. And there should be.
- Regulatory compliance. Especially around privacy. Because really, all the GDPR and the CCPA want is for companies to stop spying on people. Without any privacy tech on the individual’s side, however, responsibility for everyone’s privacy is entirely a corporate burden. This is unfair to people and companies alike, as well as insane—because it can’t work. (Worse, nearly all B2B “compliance” solutions only solve the felt need by companies to obey the letter of these laws while ignoring its spirit. But if people have their own ways to signal their privacy requirements and expectations (as they do with clothing and shelter in the natural world), life gets a lot easier for everybody, because there’s something there to respect. We don’t have that yet online, but it shouldn’t be hard. For more on this, see Privacy is Personal and our own Privacy Manifesto.
- Real relationships: relationships in which both parties actually care about and help each other, and good market intelligence flows both ways. Marketing by itself can’t do it. All you get is the sound of one hand slapping. (Or, more typically, pleasuring itself with mountains of data and fanciful maths first described in Darrell Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics, written in 1954). Sales can’t do it either, because its job is done once the relationship is established. CRM can’t do it without a VRM hand to shake on the customer’s side. From What Makes a Good Customer: “Consider the fact that a customer’s experience with a product or service is far more rich, persistent and informative than is the company’s experience selling those things, or learning about their use only through customer service calls (or even through pre-installed surveillance systems such as those which for years now have been coming in new cars). The curb weight of customer intelligence (knowledge, know-how, experience) with a company’s products and services far outweighs whatever the company can know or guess at. So, what if that intelligence were to be made available by the customer, independently, and in standard ways that work at scale across many or all of the companies the customer deals with?”
- Personal life management toolboxes. These will give each of us knowledge and control over our finances, property, subscriptions, contacts, calendar, creative works, and everything else. Nothing inside Apple’s, Google’s, Microsoft, or any other giant’s silos come close to doing that. Its also not a new idea. We’ve been talking about it at ProjectVRM since it started in 2006, and I’ve been writing about it since the mid ’90s, when the Net and the Web started to look real. For example, here. KuppingerCole has been writing and thinking about these things (calling them “life management platforms”) since not long after they gave ProjectVRM an award for its working toward it in 2007. These toolboxes have gone by many labels: personal data clouds, vaults, dashboards, cockpits, and lockers, to name a few. Many designs in recent years have focused on social data—the good Facebook, Google, TikTok and others have on us, for example. But data matters less than agency: control over our lives in a world that has gone digital. (Bonus link: We can do better than selling our data.)
All these are vast greenfields of opportunity: to make money, to save money, to improve how markets work for everyone. Fortunately, we already have examples of personal solutions working at scale online: the Internet itself, the Web, email, SMS messaging, telephony. Not all of those are free and open, but none are useful only inside some controlling company’s silo. Each simply provides standards-based ways for any of us to scale how we deal with others, across countless companies, organizations, and services. Other solutions, however, are missing—such as ones that solve the ten problems listed above.
They’re missing for two reasons: 1) because they have to start with personal capabilities and control, and 2) because it’s still early. Digital living such as we have now—where everyone has a slab full of connected apps in their pocket or purse, presuming connectivity everywhere— is still new. The Net as we experience it today is maybe a decade old, yet sure to persist for many decades, centuries, or millennia to come.
Thinking about customers solving business problems is a blue ocean strategy:
How big is the blue ocean of free customers? Let’s equip those customers and see.