Category: crm (page 1 of 6)

VRM at MyData2016

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As it happens I’m in Helsinki right now, for MyData2016, where I’ll be speaking on Thursday morning. My topic: The Power of the Individual. There is also a hackathon (led by DataBusiness.fi) going on during the show, starting at 4pm (local time) today. In no order of priority, here are just some of the subjects and players I’ll be dealing with,  talking to, and talking up (much as I can):

Please let me know what others belong on this list. And see you at the show.

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Is Facebook working on a VRM system? Or just another way to do ads?

It’s easy to get caught up in news that WhatsApp is starting to accept advertising (after they said they would never do that), and miss the deeper point of what’s really going on: Facebook setting up a new bot-based channel through which companies and customers can communicate. Like this:

vrmcrmbot

The word balloon is Facebook Messenger. But it could be WhatsApp too. From a VRM perspective, what matters is whether or not “Messenger bots” work as VRM tools, meaning they obey the individual user’s commands (and not just those of Facebook’s corporate customers). We don’t know yet. Hence the question mark.

But before we get to exploring the possibilities here (which could be immense), we need to visit and dismiss the main distractions.

Those start with Why we don’t sell ads, posted on the WhatsApp blog on 18 June 2012. Here are the money grafs from that one:

We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.
No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn’t). We want WhatsApp to be the product that keeps you awake… and that you reach for in the morning. No one jumps up from a nap and runs to see an advertisement.

Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out… And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen.

Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.

Great stuff. But that was then and this is now. In WhatsApp’s latest post, Looking Ahead for WhatsApp (25 August), we have the about-face:

But by coordinating more with Facebook, we’ll be able to do things like track basic metrics about how often people use our services and better fight spam on WhatsApp. And by connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them. For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you’ve never heard of. You can learn more, including how to control the use of your data, here.

Pretty yucky, huh?

Earlier in the same post, however, WhatsApp says,

we want to explore ways for you to communicate with businesses that matter to you too

Interesting: Mark Zuckerberg said the same thing when he introduced messenger bots, back in April. In the video at that link, Zuck said,

Now that Messenger has scaled, we’re starting to develop ecosystems around it. And the first thing we’re doing is exploring how you can all communicate with businesses.

You probably interact with dozens of businesses every day. And some of them are probably really meaningful to you. But I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business. And no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with. So we think there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

We think you should be able to message a business the same way you message a friend. You should get a quick response, and it shouldn’t take your full attention, like a phone call would. And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.

Note the similarities in the set-up:

  1. Zuck:  “how you can all communicate with business.”
  2. WhatsApp: “explore ways for you to communicate with businesses.”

This is, or should be, pure VRM:  a way for a customer to issue a service request, or to intentcast for bids on a new washing machine or a car. In other words, what they seem to be talking about here is a new communication channel between customers and businesses that can relieve  the typical pains of being a customer while also opening the floodgates of demand notifying supply when it’s ready to buy. Back to Zuck:

So today we’re launching Messenger Platform. So you can build bots for Messenger.

By “you” Zuck means the developers he was addressing that day. I assume these were developers working for businesses that avoid customer contact and would rather have robots take over everything possible, because that’s the norm these days. But I could be wrong. He continues,

And it’s a simple platform, powered by artificial intelligence, so you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people. So let’s take a look.

CNN, for example, is going to be able to send you a daily digest of stories, right into messenger. And the more you use it, the more personalized it will get. And if you want to learn more about a specific topic, say a Supreme Court nomination or the zika virus, you just send a message and it will send you that information.

The antecedents of “you” move around here. Could be he’s misdirecting attention away from surveillance. Can’t tell. But it is clear that he’s looking past advertising alone as a way to make money.

Back to the WhatsApp post:

Whether it’s hearing from your bank about a potentially fraudulent transaction, or getting notified by an airline about a delayed flight, many of us get this information elsewhere, including in text messages and phone calls.

This also echoes what Zuck said in April. In both cases it’s about companies communicating with you, not about you communicating with companies. Would bots work both ways?

In “‘Bot’ is the wrong name…and why people who think it’s silly are wrong”, Aaron Batalion says all kinds of functionality now found only in apps will move to bots—Messenger’s in particular. “In a micro app world, you build one experience on the Facebook platform and reach 1B people.”

How about building a one-experience bot so 1B people can reach businesses the same way?

Imagine, for example, that you can notify every company you deal with that your last name has changed, or you’ve replaced a credit card. It would be great to do that in one move. It would also be VRM 101. But, almost ten years into our project, nobody has built that yet. Is Facebook doing it?

Frankly, I hope not, because I don’t want to see VRM trapped inside a giant silo.

That’s why I just put up Market intelligence that flows both ways, over in Medium. (It’s a much-updated version of a post I put up here several years ago.)

In that post I describe a much better approach, based on open source code, that doesn’t require locating your soul inside a large company for which, as WhatsApp put it four years ago, you’re the product.

Here’s a diagram that shows how one person (myself, in this case) can relate to a company whose moccasins he owns:

vrmcrmconduit

The moccasins have their own pico: a cloud on the Net for a thing in the physical world. For VRM and CRM purposes, this one is a relationship conduit between customer and company.

A pico of this type comes in to being when the customer assigns the QR code to the moccasins and scans it. The customer and company can then share records about the product, or notify the other party when there’s a problem, a bargain on a new pair, or whatever. It’s tabula rasa: wide open.

The current code for this is called Wrangler. It’s open source and in Github. For the curious, Phil Windley explains how picos work in Reactive Programming With Picos.

I’ll continue on this theme in the next post. Meanwhile, my main purpose with this one is to borrow interest in where Facebook is going (if I’m guessing right) with Messenger bots, and do it one better in the open and un-silo’d world, while we still have one to hack.

 

 

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A good customer experience (#CX)

twc-promiseOn the left is a partial screenshot of an October email pitch to me by Time Warner Cable, here in Manhattan. (It’s also on the Web, here.) On the whole, it looks good: service on demand, on my terms, when I need it.

Or, I thought, maybe. Because I was suspicious. Time Warner Cable’s customer service reputation was awful.  And I’m always on alert for BS. For example, hold time was “reduced” (to what?) and suspected the 24/7 “live agent” was not a human being.

Then there was the “My TWC® app.” Why should I clutter my mobile device with an app from every company I deal with, especially when I hardly ever deal with them?

And then there was the “Ask TWC Virtual Assistant”: http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/suppor…

Hey, if I want a virtual assistant, it should be my employee, not TWC’s, or any other company’s. (Here are the VRM ones.)

But I was game, so I looked for MyTWC on Apple’s App Store, and found nothing there — not by “My TWC”, “TWC” or “Time Warner Cable”.

Then I decided to dig into the TWC site for more. Naturally, I needed a login and password. I didn’t know what those were, and when I tried to recover a login, I got this:

TWC ID System Error
Error Code: EXCEPTION Reference ID: 4FFUT-5327B-RH4L4-2RDQD-N4WET.

So, in case I never registered (I didn’t remember), I tried doing that. The result:

A TWC ID already exists for this account. If you are the primary account holder and did not register for a TWC ID, please contact us. Chat with us.

— with a link under that last sentence.

Before I chatted, I needed to give the agent my full name and phone number, and then choose the topic. My choices:

Topic: *
New TWC ID Help
Reset TWC ID Login

Not especially clear, but I hit the former.

What then followed was the best customer experience I’ve ever had with an ISP. Two chat agents, in succession,  gave me exactly what I was looking for, and more. I quickly recovered the login and password. I got the right link to the app, which I downloaded and installed. Then I found, after asking what speeds I should be getting for the $109/month I’m spending, that it’s 300MBps down and 20MBps up. When I found that my speed (over Ethernet, directly through the router) was 50/5, I was told that my modem (a Motorola SurfBoard SB6121) couldn’t handle the promised speeds. The agent even gave me tech reasons I doubt any robot could give. Then the agent sent me to a page with a list of cable modems that can handle the speeds I’m buying. (Here’s a .pdf version.)  All were about $95 on Amazon and elsewhere. So I ordered the Netgear CM500-100NAS, which seemed to have the most good reviews — helped along the way by  the chat agent, who told me to call back when the unit arrived.

I did that, and booked a technician to show up and help install the thing early the next Monday morning — exactly as promised in the email above. When the guy got here, he not only got the thing set up well, but helped me select a channel on my Apple Time Machine/wifi hotspot that had minimal interference from activity coming from the high-rise next door. (The list of wi-fi signals in the drop-down menu of my laptop can get longer than the screen is high.) And to set up the hot spot so it gave both 5GHz and a 2.4GHz. The former was faster here in my office, while the latter had better range to the other end of the apartment. Here is the final post-tweaking test result in my office, from DSL Reports’ speedtest, which is currently the best in the business:

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 10.22.14 AM

Not what I expected.

So hats off to TWC. Well done.

Now for the VRM side of this.

We know from our friends in the CRM, CX, CE, IA and other overlapping customer services worlds on the supply side of business that there is now friendliness toward VRM approaches that standardize and normalize the way each of us connects to the companies that serve us.

How do we meet in a middle? More about that in the next post — and in comments below, if you like.

If your voice comes from a company, you don’t have one

Got this in my email today:

Oracle pitch

I’m sure Oracle Service Cloud is good at what it does. Such as:

  • Deliver an integrated customer experience while equipping employees with the right tools
  • Drive and meet consumer expectations in the new omni-channel world
  • Adapt their service to customer needs by researching and considering their demographics

The problem is that this assumes customers have no voices of their own, and need to be given one. And, since every company has its own way to give customers voices, the customer turns into a Tower of Babble, speaking with many different voices to many different companies.

For example, today at a medical center I had to give exactly the same personal information to two different systems operating in the same office — and this was information already known to countless other systems with which I’ve had dealings over the years. Why? “Because we’re using two different CRM systems.”

You can look at the problem here as one of scale. Systems such as Oracle’s give companies scale: one way to deal with many different customers. Likewise, customers need one way to deal with many different companies, regardless of what CRM systems they run. This is a fundamental VRM challenge. And it’s one that should be good for CRM too. Win-Win.

You can see how it would work if you imagine being able to  change your phone number or email address, for every company you deal with, in one move. Lots of VRM developers are working on that, but we aren’t there yet.

It helps that we already have the Internet, which bridges many networks (why it’s called internet), along with email, phones and other things that give us one way to deal with many different entities.

But we don’t yet have voices of our own (meaning scale), or we wouldn’t see headlines like the one above.

Giving our voices scale isn’t a CRM job. It’s a VRM job. It also has to be done in a way that speaks directly to the Oracle Service Clouds of the world, engaging what they already have in place.

I know people at Oracle and its competitors who are ready and eager to see VRM developments that speak — literally and figuratively — to their corporate systems. They know VRM is going to make their jobs a lot easier and cause a lot more business to happen and improve.

Conversations are happening, and that’s good. But we also need more development in the direction of convergence. Expect to see reports on that in coming months.

How Staples can make things easy for real

Staples likes to make things easy. s0105150_sc7Or so their button says.

But rebates in general are hard — on both the store and the customer. And at that Staples is no exception.

For example, yesterday at a Staples store I bought a couple reams of Staples paper for our printer. I probably would have bought the Staples brand anyway, simply because it’s cheaper. But I also couldn’t ignore the after-rebate price: $1.50 less for each ream, or $3.00 total. So I asked at the cash register if what I paid included the rebate. No, I was told. The rebate is in the electronic receipt I’d get by email. I could send in for the rebate online after getting the email.

When I got home the receipt was waiting in my email inbox. Among many other promotions in the email, it said this about my rebate:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.18.33 AM

When I clicked on the link I got to this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.19.34 AM

When I clicked on “SELECT FORM” I got this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.22.06 AM

For $3, fulling out something like that, and mailing it in, is worse than a waste. So I clicked on the “right here” link, which led me here:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.24.13 AM

So I clicked on the center one. That got me here:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.26.49 AM

So: what was the Easy Rebate ID? All I saw, so far, was a “Rebate offer number,” on the email and back at the page that the email link brought up. So I entered it in the form and hit “NEXT.” That got me this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.29.23 AM

After going “Hmmm… ” I scrolled down and saw this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.31.45 AM

Sure enough, at the bottom of the very long email with the rebate jive on it, was this:

Mail Attachment

I entered that number, and it worked.  Hitting “NEXT” then took me here:

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.37.02 AM

When I clicked on NEXT again, I got to a page where I could register for a rebate account (by filling out a form that mined way too much personal information) or sign in. I have a Staples loyalty account; so, hoping that this might also be the rebate account, I hit “Sign in.”

I would show you the page this went to, if I could have copied it. But I couldn’t. The page had the same “Staples Easy Rebates” header, and under it just two words: “Error occurred.” When I paged down to see if there was more, the page disappeared and I was delivered back to Square Zero: the “Welcome to the Staples Rebate Center” page.

Since everything I already entered was lost, and I had no faith that entering it again would yield a different result, I gave up.

In retail parlance, this is called “breakage.” Within rebate systems, some level of breakage is a virtue. You (the retailer) don’t want everybody getting a rebate. You want as few people as possible asking for the rebate, and as few as possible succeeding at navigating an intentionally complicated series of required steps for getting the rebate. Most customers know this, of course, but every once in awhile some of us want to see if we get lucky.

This is not a good “customer experience.”In what marketers love to call “the customer journey,” it’s a wasteful and annoying side trip to an outer circle of retail hell.

So here’s a message from one customer to every retailer running a rebate program:

Any system that rationalizes breakage as a virtue is broken itself, for the simple reason that it pisses off customers. And if you want to piss off any percentage of customers — even good ones — some of the time, your whole store is broken.

So here’s a bottom line I invite Staples to consider:

Rebates save money if your time has no value. This principle applies equally to customers and companies offering rebates.

As a loyal customer of Staples — a company I’ve always liked (partly because of the “easy” promise, which they’ve been making for many years — my advice is to calculate all the overhead involved in all the promotional gimmickry used to drive sales and “loyalty” that isn’t. Include time wasted at the cash register every time the employee has to ask for a loyalty card  or a phone number to recover the customer’s account, and to explain how a rebate works, plus other extraneous bullshit that has that takes time and incurs labor costs for purposes that have nothing to do with why the customer is standing at the checkout counter, just wanting to pay for goods and  get the hell out of the store. Also include the inconvenience to the customer of having to carry around a card, and the corresponding administrative overhead required to manage all this complicated work, and the computing and network technology required to sustain it (and how that gets broken too). Multiply those by all the employees and customers inconvenienced by it. Then add all of it up. Be real about what percentage of your total overhead it accounts for. Remember to include the real costs to customer loyalty of pissing some of them off on purpose.

Then kill the whole thing and subtract the savings from the prices of the goods in the store. Publicize it. Hey, hold a public execution of all the added-up costs to company and customers. Talk about it as real savings, which it is. Publish papers and place editorials explaining why you’re done with the game of kidding yourselves and your customers. I know plenty of good PR firms that would be glad to help you out with this — and maybe even cut you a deal, because they’re tired of bullshitting too.

In Silicon Valley they call this “disruption.” It’s a great way to stand out, and to reposition both Staples and all of retailing.

And your customers will love it.

Don’t trust me on this. Trust  Trader Joe’s. They don’t have a loyalty program, rebates or any other gimmicks. They never have discount prices. They don’t keep any data on any customers, because they don’t want the overhead, or to complicate anybody’s life. Their marketing research — no kidding — consists of this: talking to customers. That’s it. And what’s the result? Customers love them.*

Now you might say, “Yes, but Trader Joe’s is a special case. So are companies like Apple — another company customers seem to love. They only sell their own private label goods. They don’t operate in the world of co-op advertising, dealer premiums, display allowances, buyback allowances, push money, spiffs, forward buying, variable trade spending and trade deals, manufacturer coupons and all the other variables that retailers like Staples, which carry goods from hundreds of different suppliers, need to deal with constantly. And what about customers constantly hunting bargains, and comparison shopping? They want deals, and we have to compete for them.”

Sure. But why make it more complicated than it has to be?

If you really want to make things easy, for yourself and your customers, kill the bullshit. Be the no-bullshit company. Nothing would make you stand out more.

Nothing is easier, for everybody in retailing, than no bullshit at all. Or more rewarding, because customers appreciate absent bullshit at least as much as they appreciate present bargains. Especially bargains that come with labor costs — for them.

Source: The Intention Economy, pp. 223-228.

The most important event, ever

IIW XXIIW_XX_logothe 20th IIW — comes at a critical inflection point in the history of VRM. If you’re looking for a point of leverage on the future of customer liberation, independence and empowerment, this is it. Wall Street-sized companies around the world are beginning to grok what Main Street ones have always known: customers aren’t just “targets” to be “acquired,” “managed,” “controlled” and “locked in.” In other words, Cluetrain was right when it said this, in 1999:

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Now it is finally becoming clear that free customers are more valuable than captive ones: to themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace.

But how, exactly? That’s what we’ll be working on at IIW, which runs from April 7 to 9 at the Computer History Museum, in the heart of Silicon Valley: the best venue ever created for a get-stuff-done unconference. Focusing our work is a VRM maturity framework that gives every company, analyst and journalist a list of VRM competencies, and every VRM developer a context in which to show which of those competencies they provide, and how far along they are along the maturity path. This will start paving the paths along which individuals, tool and service providers and corporate systems (e.g. CRM) can finally begin to fit their pieces together. It will also help legitimize VRM as a category. If you have a VRM or related company, now is the time to jump in and participate in the conversation. Literally. Here are some of the VRM topics and technology categories that we’ll be talking about, and placing in context in the VRM maturity framework:

Designing the VRM future at IIW

A veteran VRooMeriiwxx tells me a design fiction would be a fun challenge for VRM Day and IIW (which will run from April 6-9 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA).

He describes one as “basically a way of peeking into the near future by demonstrating an imaginary product that doesn’t exist, but could. For example, instead of talking about a possible VRM product, one instead would create a marketing brochure, screen mockups or a fake video advertisement for this imaginary product as a way to help others understand where the world is headed and possibly even further the underlying technologies or driving concepts.”

Coincidentally, the subject of VRM Day (and a focus for the three days that will follow at IIW) is a maturity model framework that will provide every VRM developer the same single sheet (or set of them) on which to show where they stand in developing VRM capabilities into their company, product, code base or whatever else they’re working on. Work has already started on it, and those doing the work will present a first draft of it on VRM Day.

You know the old saying, “all singing from the same song sheet”? The VRM maturity model framework is it. Think of it as a musical score that is starting to be written, for an orchestra will come together. When we’re done with this round, we’ll at least know what the score describes, and give the players of different instruments enough of a framework so they know where they, and everybody else, fits.

By the end of IIW, it should be ready to do several things:

  1. Provide analysts with a single framework for understanding all VRM developers and development, and the coherencies among them.
  2. Give VRM developers a way to see how their work complements and/or competes with other VRM work that’s going on — and guide future developments.
  3. Give each developer a document to use for their own internal and external purposes.
  4. Give CRM, CE. CX and other vendor-side systems a clear picture of what pieces in the VRM development community will connect with their systems, and how, so buyer-side and seller-side systems can finally connect and grow together.

While we do this, it might also be fun to work out a design fiction as a summary document or video. What would the complete VRM solution (which will surely be a collection of them) look like? How would we present it as a single thing?

All of this is food for thinking and re-thinking. Suggestions invited.

A @United #VRM story with a happy ending

Yesterday I left my iPad on a United airplane and got it back. How it happened is a story of sCRM (social Customer Relationship Management) and VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) at work.

The flight was United 934 from Los Angeles to London. When I arrived at around 11am, I did my usual checking around my seat for things easily lost and forgotten: my wallet, passport, earphones, camera, lens cap, phone, iPad, USB and AC power cables and so on. And, as always, I looked under and around the seat and in the seat pocket in front of me.

Where I failed was with the seat pocket. The iPad is a new-ish one (an Air), which is much thinner and lighter than my old one (the original model). It was stuffed with thicker magazines, barf bag, Sky Mall and so on, in the pocket-within-the pocket. I didn’t see or feel it when I looked in there. It wasn’t until I got to London and set up my laptop and other gear that I realized I had forgotten it.

After going through about ten minutes of self-recrimination for my stupidity, I called United and got walked through the process of filing a lost item report, deep inside the company website. Then I called Heathrow’s lost & found number, which (it turns out) is an independent contractor that works only with certain airlines and terminals. United and Terminal 2 are not among them. Then I fired up my FindMyiPhone app, but alas the iPad was offline. (It’s a Verizon/CDMA model, while all my other cellular devices are T-Mobile/GSM, so it won’t work outside North Amercia; so it’s Wi-Fi only.)

Then I went on Twitter and started this exchange:

  1. just left my iPad at Seat 31k of UA 934 at Heathrow. Can you have somebody check on it before the plane turns around? Thanks!

  2. (3/3) turned in. They checked with the supervisors. This link can also help. Hopefully it turns up.^CA

  3. Thanks for your help. I’m at LHR now and I’m told it’s found. Awaiting delivery.

  4. Great news..I had them looking for it. Thanks for flying with us. Happy New Year.^CA

Between #2 and #3, my wife said “Go out there.” This had worked for her a few years back when she forgot her carry-on bag in a shuttle van from Logan Airport in Boston. Se went out there and got help from lots of friendly human beings — especially the police, with whom she sat watching video cameras, live, to spot the van in which she left the bag.

I had the same good luck at Heathrow.

When I got there I went to the check-in kiosk in front of the United counter at Terminal 2, where a pair of kind young professionals immediately went to work helping me after I told them my flight and seat numbers. The woman looked up the flight and the gate, got on her phone and called somebody she knew who was in a position to locate the iPad. (I’m assuming this person was at the gate, but I don’t know for sure.) After a few minutes of conversation, she said, “We’ve got it,” and told me it would take about 45 minutes to ferry it in from the gate. After about that much time, her male co-worker brought over the iPad, had me punch in the code on the front (to make sure it was mine), and I was on my way.

The VRM part of this was all human, and depended on the good will (and available time) of the people involved. The only facilitating system in place was cellular telephony. @United’s lost & found, and sCRM system might have brought back the iPad in the long run, what worked was face-to-face interaction.

Is it possible to scale that? I think so, but we can’t depend on vendors alone to do the scaling. In fact, I think they’ve gone as far as they can. (In @United’s case by monitoring social media closely,  with human beings.)

We need standardized tools on the individual’s side — first person technologies — that scale across multiple vendors. (In this case, for example, across United, Heathrow and public safety systems.)

I have thoughts on specifics here, but before I get into them, I’d like to hear what readers say. (I’m also late for a meeting.)

Making “customer experience” a first person thing

“Customer experience” (abbreviated CX) is a hot topic in business. Which makes sense. Business needs customers, and should care about customers’ experiences with business. Problem is, all this concern, so far, is kinda one-sided.

According to Wikipedia (as of today), “Customer experience is the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods and/or services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier.”

Note that frame of reference: a supplier.

It continues, “This can include awareness, discovery, attraction, interaction, purchase, use, cultivation and advocacy.”

Three of those are experiences customers know and care about: interaction, purchase and use. The others — awareness, discovery, attraction, cultivation and advocacy — might be things customers experience, but are mostly marketing jive.

Two paragraphs later it says “Analysts and commentators who write about customer experience and customer relationship management have increasingly recognized the importance of managing the customer’s experience.” The italics are mine.

Who wants their experience of anything managed by somebody else?

Stop here and think about how you function independently as a customer, and the tools you use to manage your own customer experiences, across every company you deal with. Chances are you use some combination of these:

  • Wallet and/or purse
  • Cash
  • Credit or debit cards
  • Car
  • Mobile phone or tablet
  • Computer
  • Apps (not just for commercial interactions, but for managing budgets and expenses, paying bills and filling out tax forms)

Your list may be different, but  what matters is that those tools are yours. Yes, your car may be a rental, and your credit cards belong to a bank; but they are your tools, and — here’s the key: you use them to deal with many different companies in identical or similar ways. They each express your agency:  the power to act with full effect in the world, as an independent human being.

Your experience with those tools is also personal, meaning yours alone.  You can tell they are yours because you speak of them, and think about them, using the first person singular possessive voice: my car, my cash, my credit card, my phone. They are first person technologies that enlarge and enhance what you can do with your body.

Here’s another way to look at them: they give you scale.

What we need from CX is scale for us, not just for companies wanting to give us a better experience of them. That scale is what VRM is about, and it can only work if it’s good for both sides.

We can’t get there if we start on the company’s side. We can only get there by starting with the individual customer, and working toward scale for him or her.

This can be scary and alien to companies used to thinking that the customer needs to be “owned,” “managed” or “locked in” somehow. What companies need to think about are the benefits both sides get from first person technologies.

I think there’s a good place to start working on new first person technologies that work better for everybody, and I’ll lay that out in the next post.

State of the VRooM, 2014

As of today, ProjectVRM is eight years old.

So now seems like a good time for a comprehensive (or at least long) report on what we’ve been doing all this time, how we’ve been doing it, and what we’ve been learning along the way.

ProjectVRM has always been both a group effort and provisional in its outlook and methods. So look at everything below as a draft requiring improvement, and send me edits, either by email (dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu) or by commenting below.

Summary

After eight years of encouraging development of tools and services that make individuals both independent and better able to engage, ProjectVRM (VRM stands for vendor relationship management) is experiencing success in many places; most coherently in France, the UK and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). There are now dozens of VRM developers (though many descriptors besides VRM are used), and investor interest is shifting from the “push” to the “pull” side of the marketplace. Government encouragement of VRM is strongest in the UK and Australia.  ProjectVRM and its community are focused currently on “first person” technologies, privacy, trust, identity (including anonymity), relationship (including experience co-creation), substituability of services and the Internet of Things. Verticals are personal information management, relationship (VRM+CRM), identity, on-demand services, payments, messaging (e.g. secure email), health, automotive and real estate.  There are many possibilities for research, possibly starting with the effects on business of individuals being in full control of their sides of agreements with companies.

Here are shortcuts to each section:

  1. History
  2. Development
  3. Community
  4. Influence
  5. Issues
  6. Verticals
  7. Investment
  8. Research
  9. Questions

1. History

ProjectVRM is one of many research projects at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. It started when I began a four-year fellowship at Berkman in September, 2006. In those days Berkman fellows were encouraged to work on a project. I had lots of guidance from Berkman staff and other veterans; but what best focused my purpose was something Terry Fisher said at one of the orientation talks. He said Berkman did its best to be neutral about the subjects it studies, but also that “we do look for effects.”

The effect-generating work for which I was best known at the time was The Cluetrain Manifesto, which I co-authored seven years earlier with Chris Locke, David Weinberger and Rick Levine. By most measures Cluetrain was a huge success. The original website launched a meme that won’t quit, and the book that followed was a bestseller.(It still sells well today). But I felt that its alpha clue, written by Chris Locke, still wasn’t true. It said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

There is a theory in there that says the Internet gives human beings (the first person we) the reach they need to exceed the grasp of marketers (the second person your).

So either the theory wasn’t true, or the Internet was a necessary but insufficient condition for the theory to prove out. I went with the latter and decided to to work on the missing stuff.

That stuff couldn’t come from marketers, because they were on the second person side. In legal terms, they were the second party, not the first. This is why their embrace  of  Cluetrain’s “markets are conversations” couldn’t do the job. Demand needed help that Supply couldn’t provide. What we needed, as individuals, were first party solutions — ones that worked for us.

The more I thought about the absence of first party solutions, the more I realized that this was a huge hole in the marketplace: one that was hard to see from the client-server perspective, always drawn like this:

468px-Client-server-model.svg

While handy and normative, client-server is also retro. Here’s a graphic from Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology (Jessical Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, 2000,  p. 47) that puts it in perspective:

lipnack

Client-server is hierarchical, bureaucratic industrial and agricultural (see the image below). But it’s also most of what we experience on the Web, and also where the entirety of the supply side sits. So, even if Cluetrain is right when it says (in Thesis #7) “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy,” subversion goes slow when the people running the servers are in near-absolute control and hardly care at all about links. In less abstract terms, what we have on the Web is this:

calf-cow

As clients we go to servers for the milk of text, graphics, sound and videos. We get all those, plus cookies (and other tracking methods) to remember who we are and where we were the last time we showed up. And, since we’re just clients, and servers do all the heavy lifting  (and with technology what can be done will be done) the commercial Web’s ranch has turned into what Bruce Schneier calls Our Internet surveillance state.

By 2006 it was already clear to me that we could make the whole marketplace a lot bigger if individuals were fully capable human beings and not just calves — if we equipped Demand to drive Supply at least as well as Supply drives Demand.

To help people imagine what will happen when Demand reaches full power, I wrote a Linux Journal column a few months earlier, titled “The Intention Economy.” Here’s the gist of it:

The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them.

The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don’t need marketing to make Intention Markets.

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don’t have to fly from silo to silo, like a bees from flower to flower, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. In The Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase. Simple as that.

The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions. Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just “branded” by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.

The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or “capturing”) buyers.

In The Intention Economy, a car rental customer should be able to say to the car rental market, “I’ll be skiing in Park City from March 20-25. I want to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV. I belong to Avis Wizard, Budget FastBreak and Hertz 1 Club. I don’t want to pay up front for gas or get any insurance. What can any of you companies do for me?” — and have the sellers compete for the buyer’s business.

This car rental use case is one I’ve used to illustrate what would be made possible by “user-centric” or “independent” identity, which was also the subject of the cover story in last October’s Linux Journal, plus this piece a year earlier, and various keynotes I’ve given at Digital Identity World, going back to 2002. It is also the use case against which the new open source Higgins project was framed.

Even though I’ve been thinking out loud about Independent Identity for years, I didn’t have a one-word adjective for the kind of market economy it would yield, or where it would thrive. Now, thanks to all the unclear talk at eTech about attention, intentional is that adjective, because intent is the noun that matters most in any economy that gives full respect to what only customers can do, which is buy.

Like so many other things that I write about (including everything I’ve written about identity), The Intention Economy is a provisional idea. It’s an observation that might have no traction at all. Or, it might be a snowball: an core idea with enough heft to roll, and with enough adhesion to grow, so others add their own thoughts and ideas to it.

So that’s the purpose I chose for my new Berkman project: to get a snowball of development rolling toward the Intention Economy.

The project has been lightweight from the start, consisting of myself* and other volunteers. Our instruments are this blog, a wiki, a mailing list and events. In gatherings of project volunteers at Berkman and elsewhere, we narrowed our focus to encouraging development of tools for independence and engagement. That is, tools that would make individuals both independent of other entities (especially companies) and better able to engage with them. These shaped the principles, goals and tools listed on our wiki.

The term VRM came about accidentally. I was talking about my still-nameless project on a Gillmor Gang podcast in October 2006. Another guest on the show, Mike Vizard, started using the term VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management — or the customer-side counterpart of CRM, for Customer Relationship Management, which was then about a $6.2 billion B2B software and services industry.  (It’s now past $20 billion.) The Gillmor Gang is a popular show, and the term stuck. It wasn’t perfect (we wanted a broader focus than “vendors,” which is also a B2B term, rather than C2B). But the market made a decision and we ran with it. Since then VRM has gained a broader meaning anyway. Every thing (hardware, software, policies, legal moves) that enables an individual to interact with full agency in any relationship is a  VRM thing. “RM” turns out to  be handy for sub-categories as well, such as GRM (government relationship management) and HRM (health relationship management).

ProjectVRM has always been unusual for Berkman in two ways. One is that it has been focused on business — the commercial side of the “society” in Berkman’s name. The other is that it put the development horse ahead of the research cart. So, while we always wanted to do research (and did some along the way, such as with ListenLog), we felt it was important to create research-worthy effects first.

My first mistake was thinking we would have those effects within a year. My second mistake was thinking we would have them within four years — the length of my fellowship. It has taken twice that long, and still requires one more piece. More about that below, in the Research and Opportunities sections.

In its early years, when it was pure pioneering, ProjectVRM had a lot of volunteer organizational help. There were weekly conference calls and meetings, and events held in Cambridge, London, San Francisco and elsewhere. But the main gatherings from the start were at the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW), an unconference I co-organize at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (Our next VRM Day is 27 October. Register here.)

IIW also started with Berkman help. It was first convened as a group I pulled together for a December 31, 2004 Gillmor Gang podcast on identity. Steve Gillmor called the nine participants in the show “The Identity Gang.” The conversation continued by phone and email, with growing energy. So we convened again, this time in person with a larger group, in February 2005 at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was there that John Clippinger asked if we would like “a clubhouse” at Berkman. I said yes, and John had Paul Trevithick create a Berkman site for the gang. As interest collected around the site and its list, three members — Phil Windley (then CIO of Utah), Kaliya Hamlin (aka “IdentityWoman“) and I morphed the gang meetings into IIW, which met for the first time in Fall of 2005. Our 19th is coming up on 28-30 October. (Register here.)  It tends to have 180-250 participants from all over the world. While identity remains the central theme, as an unconference its topics can be whatever participants choose. VRM is always a main focus, however. And we always have a “VRM Day” at the Museum the day before IIW. The next is on 27 October. It’s free.

The Identity Gang  also grew out of other efforts by a number of individuals and groups:

I’ll leave it at those for now. Others can add to it and help me connect the dots later. What matters is that ProjectVRM has both roots and branches that intertwine with the digital identity movement. I unpack more in the Community section below. Meanwhile it is essential to note that Kim Cameron’s Seven Laws of Identity had a large guiding influence on ProjectVRM. This is partly because they were all good laws, but mostly because they came from the individual’s side:

  1. User control and consent
  2. Minimal disclosure for a constrained use
  3. Justifiable parties (“disclosure of identifying information is limited to parties having a necessary and justifiable place in a given identity relationship”)
  4. Directed identity (“facilitating discovery while preventing unnecessary release of correlation handles”)
  5. Pluralism of operators and technologies
  6. Human integration
  7. Consistent experience across contexts

As you see, all of those should apply just as well to VRM tools and services.

We have had two interns in our history, both hugely helpful. The first was Doug Kochelek, an HLS law student with a BS and a EE from Rice. He came on board at the very beginning, in September 2006. He’s the guy who worked with Berkman’s Geek Cave to create the wiki, the blog and the list. He also shook down many technical problems along the way. The second was Alan Gregory, a 2009 summer intern and a law student at the University of Florida. Alan helped with research on the chilling effects of copyright expansion on Web streaming, which was a focus of a research project we did with PRX called ListenLog — a self-tracking feature installed in PRX’s Public Media Player iPhone app. (Here’s a presentation Alan and I did at a Fellows Hour.) ListenLog was the brainchild of Keith Hopper, then of NPR, and was years ahead of its time. Work on those projects was funded by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.

To keep its weight light and its work focused on development and relevant issues, ProjectVRM does not have its own presence on Twitter or Facebook. Its social media activity is instead comprised of postings by individual participants in the project, and the memes they drive. #VRM, for example, gets tweeted plenty, and has come to serve as shorthand for individual empowerment.

In 2007 we did a good job of publicizing what VRM and ProjectVRM were about, and got a lot of buzz. It was  premature, and our first big lesson: it’s not good to publicize anything for which the code isn’t ready. In the absence of code, it’s easy for commentators (such as here) to assume that what we’re trying to do can’t be done.

So we got more heads-down after that, and avoided publicity for its own sake.

not_iball1Still, the idea of VRM is attractive, especially to folks at the leading edge of CRM. This is what caused nearly an entire issue of CRM magazine to be devoted to VRM ,in May 2010. It too was ahead of its time, but it helped. So did two books that came out the same year: John Hagel’s The Power of Pull, and David Siegel’s Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business. John also helped in June 2012 with The Rise of Vendor Relationship Management.

That essay was a review of  The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, which arrived in May from Harvard Business Review Press. The book reported on VRM development progress and detailed the projected shifts in market power that I first called for in my 2006 column with the same title.

While  The Cluetrain Manifesto has been a bigger seller, The Intention Economy Intention-economy-cover has had plenty of effects. Currently, for example, it is informing the work of Mozilla’s commercial arm, headed by Darren Herman, who this year hired @SeanBohan from the VRM talent pool. (Here’s a talk I gave at Mozilla in New York last month.) On the publicity side, the book was compressed to a Wall Street Journal full-page Review section cover essay titled “The Customer as a God.”

So far ProjectVRM has one spin-off: Customer Commons, a California-based nonprofit. Its mission is “restore the balance of power, respect and trust between individuals and organizations that serve them.” CuCo is a membership organization with the immodest ambition of attracting “the 100%.” In other words, all customers. And it is modeled to some degree on Creative Commons CustomerCommonsLogo4(a successful early Berkman spin-off), by serving as the neutral place where machine- and person-readable versions of personal terms, conditions, policies and preferences of the individual can be maintained. Among those terms will be those restricting or preventing unwanted tracking, and among those policies will be those establishing the boundaries we call privacy. Customer Commons is a client of the Cyberlaw Clinic, which is helping develop both. But much more can be done. We’ll visit that in the Opportunities section below.

2. Development

The list of VRM developers is now up to many dozens. While most don’t use the term “VRM” in marketing their offerings (nor do we push it), the term is gathering steam. For example, while updating the developers list a few minutes ago, I found two new companies that use VRM in the description of their offerings: InformationAnswers (“Where CRM meets VRM.”) and PeerCraft (“The main purpose for PeerCraft is to support Vendor Relation Management.”)

Some developers on our list are now familiar brands, though none started that way, and most did not exist when ProjectVRM began. Some of the successes (e.g. Uber and Lyft) have not been directly engaged with ProjectVRM, but are listed because they are what we call “VRooMy.” Other successes (e.g. Personal.com, Reputation.com and GetSatisfaction) have been engaged, one way or another. One that got a lot of notice lately is Thumbtack, for picking up a $100 million investment from Google. That’s atop the $30 million they got earlier this year.

In fact many VRM developers are now having an easier time getting money, thanks to a trend on which ProjectVRM has had influence: a shift of market interest away from “push” (e.g. advertising) and toward “pull” (e.g. VRM). (More about investment below.)

Several years ago, a bunch of VRM developers (and I) worked on developing SWIFT’s Digital Asset Grid. (SWIFT is the main international system for moving money around, and is headquartered in Belgium.) The code is open source, as is other VRooMy work in the financial sector. (Such as the stuff being done by the Romanian company I wrote about here.) OIX also maintains a set of “trust frameworks,” one of which is at the heart of the Respect Network, which I’ll unpack below.

While there is a lot of development in the U.S., and there are VRM startups scattered around the world, the three main hotbeds of activity are the UK, France and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). Each is a community of its own, cohering in different ways. It’s helpful to visit each, because they represent unique contexts and resources for moving forward.

The UK

In the UK, government is central, through a role one official there calls “being a giant consumer of personal data from citizens.” It gets that data either from individuals directly or from companies that provide individuals with what are called variously called personal clouds, data stores, lockers and vaults. While all these companies perform as intermediaries, they work primarily for the individual. To differentiate this new class of company from traditional third parties, ProjectVRM calls them “fourth parties”. (That term is alien to lawyers, but is catching on anyway. For example, there is a new VRM company in Australia with the name “4th Party.”)

Leading the UK government in a VRooMy direction from the inside is in the Efficiency and Reform Group of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the Cabinet Office.  In this presentation by Chris Ferguson, Deputy Director of the GDS we see the government pulling in big companies (e.g. Google, Equifax, Lexis-Nexis, Experian, Paypal, Royal Mail, BT, Amazon, O2, Symantec) to legitimize and engage fourth parties serving individuals (e.g. Mydex, Paoga and Allfiled).

Two outside groups working with the UK government are Ctrl-Shift and OIX (Open Identity Exchange). Ctrl-Shift is a research consultancy that has been engaged with ProjectVRM from the beginning. OIX is a Washington-based international .org focused on ‘building trust in online transactions.’

France

VRM is a familiar and well-understood concept in France. There are meetups (such as this one) and many VRooMy startups, such as Privowny (led by French folk and HQ’d in Palo Alto), CozyCloud, and OneCub. A big organizational driver of VRM in France is Fing.org, a think tank that brings together large companies (e.g. Carrefour, Societe General, Orange and LaPoste) with small companies such as the ones I just mentioned. They do this around research projects. For example, ProjectVRM informed Fing’s Mesinfos research project (described here).

Oceania

If we were to produce a heat map of VRM activity, perhaps the brightest area would be Australia and New Zealand. I’ve been down that way three times since June of last year, to help developers and participate in meetings and events. As with the UK, government in Australia is very supportive of VRM development, and with empowering individuals generally. (We met with three agencies on one of the trips: one with the federal government in Canberra and two with the New South Wales government in Sydney. One of them called citizens “customers” of government services, because “they pay for them.”) Startups there include Flamingo, Meeco, Welcomer, Geddup,4th Party, Fifth Quadrant, Onexus and the New Zealand based MyWave.

Recent changes in Australian privacy policy also attract and support VRM development. Australian companies (and government agencies) collecting personal data from people on the Web (or anywhere) are now required to make that data available to those people to use as they please. (Or so I understand it.) This gives Canberra-based Welcomer, for example, a reason to exist. Welcomer makes “private data dashboards” that “show collected summaries of the personal data held by organisations and by individuals including the person themselves. The dashboard gives a summary of personal data with the ability to link through to the source data (where required).”

This summer, the first commercial community to grow out of ProjectVRM work, the Respect Network (which Privacy By Design (PbD) calls the “World’s First Global Private Cloud Network”) held a world tour to launch the community and stimulate funding for members’ common goals, standards and code development. I was on the tour (London, San Francisco, Sydney, Tel Aviv), and wrote a report on the ProjectVRM blog. (Naturally, I shot pictures. Those are here. I also spoke at each venue. One of my Sydney talks is here.)

3. Community

To understand where ProjectVRM fits in the world, and how it works, I like the Competing Values Framework by Kim S. Cameron (no relation to the one above), Robert E. Quinn, Jeff DeGraff and Anjan Thakor:

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 5.48.45 PM

While there are many VRM developers operating in the lower half of that graphic, what ProjectVRM does is in the upper half of that diagram.  We have a collaborative clan of flexible and creative individuals in an adhocracy, working together on long-term transformational change.

Pretty much everything that gets criticized about our efforts falls in the lower half. That’s because we have no hierarchy and don’t work to control what anybody does. And progress on the whole  has been slow. (Though there are exceptions, such as Uber, Lyft and Thumbtack.)

That graphic is just one of many helpful ones in David Ronfeldt‘s Organizational forms compared, which he’s been updating since first publishing it in May 2009. One reason it is helpful is that the hierarchical short-term stuff is obvious and easily understood, while collaborative long term stuff is much harder to grok. It’s like the difference between weather and geology. Which makes me think that graphic should be flipped vertically: slow stuff on the bottom, fast stuff at the top. That’s what the Long Now foundation does with this graphic, which I’ve always loved:

layers of time

The change we want most is down in the culture, governance and infrastructure layers, even though our focus is on commerce. This also explains why we run into trouble when we play with fashion. The last thing we want is for VRM to be cool. (This is also a lesson I learned and re-learned over two decades of watching Linux, free software and open source for Linux Journal.)

The following graphics are all from David Ronfeldt’s scholastic gatherings. Each in its own way helps explain how our community works — and how it doesn’t. First, from one of Bob Jessop‘s many papers on governance and metagovernance (this one from 2003):

jessop figure

That’s our column on the right.

Then there is this, from Federico Iannacci and Eve Mitleton–Kelly’s Beyond markets and firms: the emergence of Open Source networks (First Monday, May, 2005):

iannacci

That’s us in the middle. We’re a stable and decentralized heterarchy that coordinates by mutual adjustment.

Then there is this from Karen Stephenson‘s Neither Hierarchy nor Network: An Argument for Heterarchy (in Ross Dawson’s Trends in the Living Networks, April, 2009):

stephenson

Again that’s us on the right.

Something I like about those last two is the respect they give to heterarchy, which has been a focus for many years of Adriana Lukas, another VRM stalwart who has been with the project since before the beginning. Here’s her TED talk on the subject.

Finally, there is this graphic, from  Clay Spinuzzi‘s Toward a Typology of Activities (2013):

Spinuzzi

In Spinuzzi’s Losing by Expanding: Corralling the Runaway Object, an object is identified as “a material or problem that is cyclically transformed by collective activity.” With our tacit, inductive and flexible approach, this also characterizes the way our community works.

One can see all this at work on the ProjectVRM mailing list, an active collection of 615 subscribers. We also meet in person twice a year at IIW, starting one day in advance of the event, with “VRM Day.” This adds up to a total of at least eight days per year of in-person collaboration time.

Most of the rest of the VRM community meets locally, or through the organizing work of organizations such as Respect Network (U.S. based, but spanning the world) and Fifth Quadrant (Sydney based, and focused on Australia and New Zealand).

There are many other organizations with which ProjectVRM is well aligned. Among them are:

If things go the way I expect, Mozilla will also emerge as a center of VRM interest and development as well. (For example, I expect VRM to be a topic in October at MozFestival in the U.K.

4. Influence

Nearly all VRM influence derives from the work of its volunteers and its developers. “Markets are conversations,” Cluetrain said, and we drive a lot of those. But they rarely get driven exactly the way I, or we, would like. Conversations are like that. EIC awardSo are heterarchical networks. Everybody wants to come at issues from their own angle, and often with their own vocabulary. We see that especially with analysts and think tanks. None of them like the term VRM. (In fact lots of developers avoid it as well. I don’t blame them, but we’re stuck with it.) Ctrl-Shift, for example, calls fourth parties PIMS, for Personal Information Management Services. Kuppinger-Cole, which gave ProjectVRM an award in 2008 (that’s the trophy on the right), insists on the term “Life Management Platforms.” (I pushed it for awhile. Didn’t take.) Here in the U.S., Forrester Research calls the same category PIDM for Personal Identity and Data Management. We don’t care, because we look for effects.

As for the influence of others on ProjectVRM, there are too many to list.

5. Issues

Privacy is the biggest one right now. (A Google search brings up more than five billion results). We’ve done a lot to drive interest in the topic, and have brought thought leadership to the topic as well. (Here is one example.) On behalf of ProjectVRM, I’ve participated in many privacy-focused events, such as the Data Privacy Hackathon earlier this year, and at GovLab gatherings such as the one reported on here. I’m also in Helen Nissenbaum‘s Privacy Research Group at the NYU Law School, where I presented ProjectVRM developers’ privacy work on February 26 of this year.

Tied in with privacy online, or lack of it, is users’ need to submit to onerous terms of service and meaningless privacy policies. Those terms, also called contracts of adhesion, have been normative ever since industry won the industrial revolution, but have become especially egregious in the online world. Today there is a crying need both for better terms on the sites’ and services’ side, and for terms individuals can asset on their side. From the beginning ProjectVRM has been focused mostly on the latter.

Trust is another huge issue, also tied with privacy. ProjectVRM has both encouraged and influenced the growth of “trust frameworks” such as the Respect Trust Framework and others (there are five) at OIX, as well as Open Mustard Seed and OpenPDS under IDcubed at the MIT Media Lab.

VRM+CRM has been a focus from the start, but the timing has not been right until now. At the beginning, we expected CRM companies to welcome VRM. Press and analysts in the CRM space were encouraging from the start (CRM Magazine devoted an entire issue to it in 2010), but the big CRM companies showed little interest, until this year.

Sitting astride or beside VRM and CRM is a category variously called CX (for Customer Experience), CRX (for Customer Relationship Experience), EM (for Experience Management) CEM or CXM (for Customer Experience Management) and other two and three-letter initialisms. Another happening in the midst of all these is “co-creation” of customer experience. The purpose here is to bring customers and companies together to co-create experience in a lab-like setting where research can be done. This is what Flamingo does in Australia. In a similar way, MyWave in New Zealand (with developers in Australia) “puts the customer in charge of their data and the experience” for a “direct ‘segment of one’ relationship with businesses.”

With the Internet of Things (IoT) heating up as a topic, there is also an increased focus, on the “own cycle,” rather than the “buy cycle” of the customer experience. I explain the difference here, using this graphic from Esteban Kolsky:

oracle-twist

In our lives the own cycle is in fact the largest, because we own things — lots of them — all the time and are buying things only some of the time. In fact, most of the time we aren’t buying anything, or even close to looking. This is a festering problem with the advertising-driven commercial Web, which assumes that we are constantly in the market for whatever it is they push at us. In addition to not buying stuff all the time, we are employing more and more ways of turning advertising off (ad blockers are the top browser extensions). For advertising and ad-supported companies, including millions of ad-supported publishers on the Web, this is a mounting crisis. According to an August 2013 PageFair report, “up to 30% of web visitors are blocking ads, and that the number of adblocking users is growing at an astonishing 43% per year.” In The Intention Economy, I called online advertising a “bubble” and I stand by the claim. It’s just a matter of time.

As the stuff we own gets smart, and as more of it finds its way onto the Net service becomes far more important to companies than sales. And VRM developers are laying important groundwork in service. I wrote about this in Linux Journal last year, drawing special attention to the pioneering work led by Phil Windley, who has been a VRM stalwart since before the beginning. In fact it’s Phil’s work that makes clear that things themselves don’t need to be smart to exist on the Internet. All they need is clouds that are smart, which Phil calls picos for persistent computing objects. In this HBR post I explain how the shared clouds of products can be platforms for relationship between company and customers , with learnings flowing in both directions.

Meanwhile, VRooMy companies like trōv are helping individuals do more with what they own — taking their valuables, and making them more valuable.

6. Verticals

Relationship

This was the first for VRM, and it’s still a primary interest. We need tools on the individual’s side for managing many relationships. There still is not a good “relationship dashboard,” though there are a number of efforts in this direction. But as soon as we have code on the VRM side that matches up with code on the CRM side (including, for example, call centers, which are also interested in VRM), we’ll rock.

Payments

Even though ProjectVRM’s mission is centered around relationship and conversation, transaction is a big part of it too — just not the only part, as business often assumes. Our first efforts, starting in 2006, were around making it as easy as possible for individuals to donate money in one standard way to many different public radio stations.

We have been involved in many meetings and discussions around payments and secure data transactions, and some projects as well. We worked with SWIFT on the Digital Asset Grid, and have been in conversations with banks (e.g. Chase) and VISA Europe for a long time as well. With the rise of alternative currencies (e.g. Bitcoin), distributed accounting (e.g. Blockchain), digital wallets and other new means for transacting and accounting, there are many ways for VRM developments to play.

Email

In what is being called “post-Snowden time,” many new secure and encrypted email approaches have evolved. While some are listed on the ProjectVRM developers list, we haven’t been very involved with them — at least not yet. But we are involved with developers working on privacy-protecting tools that can either be embedded in existing email systems or offer alternative communications “tunnels.”

Personal information Management

There are two breeds of development here.

One is fourth party services and code bases for managing and sharing personal data selectively online. There are now many of these. Some support self-hosting as well. (ProjectVRM has always been supportive of free software, open source, and the “first person technology” and “indie” movements.) One organization, the Respect Network, was created to provide a framework for substitutability of services and apps.

The other is code the individual uses to manage his or her own life, and connections out to the world. This is where calendar, email, IM, to-do lists, password managers and other convenience-producing apps for the connected world come together. There is no leader here, though there are many players, including Apple, Microsoft and Google.  So far, this area has only seen centralized and siloed players, with inherent security and data mining disadvantages. But recently, commercial and open source conversations about a decentralized approach to this opportunity have been taking place.

A test case for VRM that applies to both kinds of solutions is this: being able to change my address, my last name or my phone number for many services in one move. This is exactly what the UK government is calling for from citizens’ personal information management systems (what Ctrl-Shift calls PIMS). A citizen should be able to change her address for the Royal Mail, the Passport Office and the National Health Service, all at once. Bonus links: Making things open, making things better, by Mike Bracken in the Gov.UK Government Digital Service blog, where Mike’s prior post, Reading the Digital Revolution featured this illustration by our old friend Paul Downey:

cluetrain-620x295

Apple’s HealthKit and HomeKit, which go live with the release of iOS 8on 9 September, also have some VRM developers excited, because it will make this kind of integration at the individual end easy to do in two verticals: Health and Home Automation.

Health

Early on with ProjectVRM, I avoided health as an issue, because I wanted to see real progress in my lifetime — and I felt that the situation in the U.S. was fubar. But other VRM folk did not agree, and have pushed VRM forward very aggressively in the health field. Dr. Adrian Gropper and Dr. Deborah Peel of Patient Privacy Rights have done a remarkable job of carrying the VRM flag up a very steep and slippery hill. Berkman veteran John Wilbanks is another active ProjectVRM volunteer whose work in health is broad, deep, influential and at the leading edge of the pioneering space where personal agency engages the wild and broken world of the U.S. health care system. Brian Behlendorf, the primary developer of the Apache Web server (which hosts the largest share of the world’s Web sites and services) and the CONNECT open source code base for health service collaboration, is also an active participant in ProjectVRM.

A number of VRM developers are working with, or paying close attention to, Apple’s HealthKit. In the words of one of those developers, “It’s very VRooMy.” HealthKit developments go live when Apple rolls out iOS 8 on 9 September.

Automotive

While a number of car makers are eager to spy on drivers, Volkswagen has put a stake in the ground. In March, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winkerhorn gave a keynote at the Cebit show that drew this headline: “Das Auto darf nicht zur Datenkrake warden.” My rusty Deutsch tells me he’s saying the car shouldn’t be a data octopus.

Toward that end, Phil Windley’s Kickstarter-based  Fuse will give drivers and car owners all the data churned out of their cars’ ODB-II port, which was created originally for diagnostics at car dealers and service stations. With an open API around that data, developers can create apps to alert you to schedule maintenance, monitor your teen’s driving and much more.

Real Estate

The only products that cost us more than cars are homes. Here too we have a VRM advocate in Cambridge-based Bill Wendell of Real Estate Café. He has always been way ahead of his time, but it’s clear his time is coming. (Here’s Bill leading a session on VRM in Real Estate at IIW 18 in May.)

7. Investment

There is an upswing of investment in start-ups on the “pull” — the individual’s — side of the marketplace. Many wealthy individuals, some quite new to tech investing, perceive an opportunity in “pull” side tools, so interest is building, especially in angel funding. There are currently at least three initiatives coming together to invest in VRM or intention based start-ups in Silicon Valley and Europe. This is one of the outcomes of the last IIW (in May of this year), where investment emerged as a big theme, with a number of VC’s for the first time participating in IIW sessions. I’m involved in planning a VRM specific fund, which is still in its preliminary stages. If it moves forward (which I believe it will), it should come into shape by next year.

In some cases government is also involved. In the UK, for example, the SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) program offers huge tax incentives to angel investors.

8. Research

There are many questions we can probe with research, but only one I want to work on in the near term: What happens when individuals come to websites with their own agreeable terms?creativecommons-licenses

Such as, “I’m cool with you tracking me on your site, but don’t follow me when I leave.” And, on the site’s side,  “We’re cool with that.” In proper legalese, of course — but expressed on both sides in code and symbols that work like Creative Commons’ licenses (there on the right).

The Cyberlaw Clinic is already involved, though its work with Customer Commons on a broader set of terms than the one I just mentioned, and Berkman’s own  Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data could assist with and follow the process, both through the term-creation process and as the terms get implemented in code and materialize on the Web.

We would be dealing with cooperative efforts that require this already. One is Respect Network’s Respect Connect “Login with Respect” button.  As I explain here, the terms of OIX’s Respect Trust frame require the setting of, and respect for, the boundaries of individuals. This can be done, even within the calf-cow framework of client-server.

Respect Connect  is based onXDI, which the Respect Trust Framework also specifies. XDI is a protocol that employs “link respect-connect-buttoncontracts.” Drummond Reed, the father of XDI (and CEO of the Respect Network) describes link contracts as “machine-readable XDI descriptions of the permissions an individual is giving to another party for access to and usage of the owner’s personal data.” Very handy. And binding. In code.

Mozilla has also made efforts in this same direction, most recently with  Persona (there on the right). signinWe can help them out with this work, and I am sure other and other browser makers will also want to get on board — which they should, and with Berkman’s convening power probably will.

At the end of the project we will have both standard terms for posting at Customer Commons and reference implementations hosted by Berkman, or shared by Berkman over Github or some other data repository.

And we would bring to the table many dozens of developers already eager to see increased agency and term-proffering power on the individual’s side. I can easily see privacy dashboards, on both the client and the server sides of websites.

(Thinking out loud here…) We could host focused discussions and invite participants (including law folk — especially students, from anywhere) to vet terms the way the IETF vets Internet standards: with RFCs, or Requests for Comments. Some open source code for this already exists with Adblock Plus’s white list for non-surveillance-based advertisers. I would hope they’d be eager to participate as well. We (ProjectVRM, the Berkman Center or Customer Commons) could publish lists of conformant requirements for website and Web service providers, and lists (or databases) of conformant ones.

This work would also separate respectful actors on the supply side of the marketplace from ones that want to stick with the surveillance model.

While there are lots of things we could do, this is the one I know will have the most leverage in the shortest time, and would be great fun as well.

It is also highly cross-disciplinary, with many lines of cooperation and collaboration within the university and out to the rest of the world. Right at Berkman we have the  Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project and its many connections to other centers at Harvard. Its mission — “to help enable the collection, analysis, and sharing of personal data for research in social science and other fields while providing privacy for individual subjects” — is up many VRM development alleys, especially around health care.

9. Questions

What if we fail?

What if it turns out that free customers are not more valuable than captive ones for most businesses? That’s been the default belief of big business ever since it was born.

What if the free market on the Net turns out to be “Your choice of captor?” Client-server lends itself to that, although we can work around its inequities with moves like the one proposed in the Research section above.

What if the only VRM implementations that succeed in the marketplace are silo’d and non-substitutable ones? To some degree, that’s what we have with Uber and Lyft. While they are substitutable (as two apps on one phone), we don’t yet have a way to intentcast to multiple ride sharing providers at once, or to keep data that applies to both. Maybe we will in the long run, but so far we don’t.

Apple may be VRooMy with HealthKit and HomeKit, but both still operate within Apples silo. You won’t be able to use them on Android (far as I know, anyway).

And what if the Internet of Things turns out to be a world of silos as well? This too is the default, so far. Phil Windley mocks the Apple of Things and the Google of Things by calling both The Compuserve of Things — and making the case for substitutablility as well.

And what if customers just don’t care? This too is the default: the body at rest that tends to stay at rest. For VRM to fully happen, the whole body needs to be in motion — to move from one Newtonian state to another. It’s doing that in places, but not across the board.

Finally, what if we succeed? VRM is about making a paradigm shift happen. So was  Cluetrain before it. On the plus side, the Net itself lays the infrastructural groundwork for that shift. But the rest is up to us.

Whether we  fail or succeed (or both), there will be plenty to study. And that’s been the idea from the start too.

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* Disclosures: I was paid modest sums as a fellow early on, but otherwise have received no compensation from the Berkman Center. I make my living as a speaker, writer and consultant. I have consulted a number of companies listed on the ProjectVRM development work page, and am on the boards of two start-ups: Qredo in the U.K. and Flamingo in Australia. In my work for them my main goal is to see VRM succeed, and I don’t play favorites in competition between VRM companies.

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