Category: Me2B

What makes a good customer?

For awhile the subhead at Customer Commons (our nonprofit spin-off) was this:

How good customers work with good companies

It’s still a timely thing to say, since searches on Google for “good customer” are at an all-time high:

 

The year 2004, when Google began keeping track of search trends, was also the year “good customer” hit at an all-time high in percentage of appearances in books Google scanned*:

So now might be the time to ask, What exactly is a “good customer?

The answer depends on the size of the business, and how well people and systems in the business know a customer. Put simply, it’s this:

  1. For a small business, a good customer is a person known by face and name to people who work there, and who has earned a welcome.
  2. For a large business, it’s a customer known to spend more than other customers.

In both cases, the perspective is the company’s, not the customer’s.

Ever since industry won the industrial revolution, the assumption has been that business is about businesses, not about customers. It doesn’t matter how much business schools, business analysts, consultants and sellers of CRM systems say it’s about customers and their “experience.” It’s not.

To  see how much it’s not, do a Bing or a Google search for “good customer.” Most of the results will be for good customer + service. If you put quotes around “good customer” on either search engine and also The Markup’s Simple Search (which brings to the top “traditional” results not influenced by those engines’ promotional imperatives), your top result will be Paul Jun’s How to be a good customer post on Help Scout. That one offers “tips on how to be a customer that companies love.” Likewise with Are You a Good Customer? Or Not.: Are you Tippin’ or Trippin’? by Janet Vaughan, one of the top results in a search for “good customer” at Amazon. That one is as much a complaint about bad customers as it is advice for customers who aspire to be good. Again, the perspective is a corporate one: either “be nice” or “here’s how to be nice.”

But what if customers can be good in ways that don’t involve paying a lot, showing up frequently and being nice?

For example, what if customers were good sources of intelligence about how companies and their products work—outside current systems meant to minimize exposure to customer input and to restrict that input to the smallest number of variables? (The worst of which is the typical survey that wants to know only how the customer was treated by the agent, rather than by the system behind the agent.)

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, knowhow, 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 worked at scale across many or all of the companies the customer deals with?

At ProjectVRM, this has been a consideration from the start. Turning the customer journey into a virtuous cycle explores how much more the customer knows on the “own” side of what marketers call the “customer life journey”†:

Given who much more time a customer spends owning something than buying it, the right side of that graphic is actually huge.

I wrote that piece in July 2013, alongside another that asked, Which CRM companies are ready to dance with VRM? In the comments below, Ray Wang, the Founder, Chairman and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, provided a simple answer: “They aren’t ready. They live in a world of transactions.”

Yet signals between computing systems are also transactional. The surveillance system in your new car is already transacting intelligence about your driving with the company that made the car, plus its third parties (e.g. insurance companies). Now, what if you could, when you wish, share notes or questions about your experience as a driver? For example—

  • How there is a risk that something pointed and set in the trunk can easily puncture the rear bass speaker screwed into the trunk’s roof and is otherwise unprotected
  • How some of the dashboard readouts could be improved
  • How coins or pens dropped next to the console between the front seats risk disappearing to who-knows-where
  • How you really like the way your headlights angle to look down bends in the road

(Those are all things I’d like to tell Toyota about my wife’s very nice (but improvable) new 2020 Camry XLE Hybrid. )

We also visited what could be done in How a real customer relationship ought to work in 2014 and in Market intelligence that flows both ways in 2016. In that one we use the example of my experience with a pair of Lamo moccasins that gradually lost their soles, but not their souls (I still have and love them):

By giving these things a pico (a digital twin of itself, or what we might call internet-of-thing-ness without onboard smarts), it is not hard to conceive a conduit through which reports of experience might flow from customer to company, while words of advice, reassurance or whatever might flow back in the other direction:

That’s transactional, but it also makes for a far better relationship that what today’s CRM systems alone can imagine.

It also enlarges what “good customer” means. It’s just one way how, as it says at the top, good customers can work with good companies.

Something we’ve noticed in Pandemic Time is that both customers and companies are looking for better ways to get along, and throwing out old norms right and left. (Such as, on the corporate side, needing to work in an office when the work can also be done at home.)

We’ll be vetting some of those ways at VRM/CuCo Day, Monday 19 April. That’s the day before the Internet Identity Workshop, where many of us will be talking and working on bringing ideas like these to market. The first is free, and the second is cheap considering it’s three days long and the most leveraged conference of any kind I have ever known. See you there.


*Google continued scanning books after that time, but the methods differed, and some results are often odd. (For example, if your search goes to 2019, the last year they cover, the  results start dropping in 2009, hit zero in 2012 and stay at zero after that—which is clearly wrong as well as odd.)

†This graphic, and the whole concept, are inventions of Estaban Kolsky, one of the world’s great marketing minds. By the way, Estaban introduced the concept here in 2010, calling it “the experience continuum.” The graphic above comes from a since-vanished page at Oracle.

The true blue ocean

“Blue ocean strategy challenges companies to break out of the red ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes the competition irrelevant.”

That’s what  W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne say in the original preface to  Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, published by Harvard Business Review Press in 2005.  Since then the red/blue ocean metaphor has become business canon.

The problem with that canon is that it looks at customers the way a trawler looks at fish.

To understand the problem here, it helps to hear marketing talk to itself. Customers, it says, are targets to herd on a journey into a funnel through which they are acquired, managed, controlled and locked in.

This is the language of ranching and slavery. Not a way to talk about human beings.

Worse, every business is a separate trawler, and handles customers in its hold differently, even if they’re using the same CRM, CX and other systems to do all the stuff listed two paragraphs up. (Along with other mudanities: keeping records, following leads, forecasting sales, crunching numbers, producing analytics, and other stuff customers don’t care about until they’re forced to deal with it, usually when a problem shows up.)

In fact, these systems can’t help holding customers captive. Because the way these systems are sold and deployed means there are as many different ways for customers to “relate” to those companies as there are companies.

And, as long as companies are the only parties able to (as the GDPR puts it) operate as a “data controller” or “data processor,” the (literally) damned customer remains nothing more than a “data subject” in countless separate databases and name spaces, each with separate logins and passwords.

This is why, from the customer’s perspective, the whole ocean of CRM and CX are opaque with rutilance.

Worse, all CRM and CX systems operate on the assumption that it is up to them to know everything about a customer, a prospect, or a user. And most of that knowledge these days is obtained early in the (literally) damned “journey” through exactly the kind of tracking that has caused—

  1. Ad blocking, which (though it had been around since 2004) hockey-sticked in 2013, when the adtech fecosystem gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, and which by 2015 was the biggest boycott in world history
  2. Regulation, most notably the GDPR and the CCPA, which never would have happened had marketing not wanted to track everyone like marked animals
  3. Tracking protection, now getting built into browsers (e.g. Safari, Firefox, Brave, Edge) because the market (that big blue ocean) demands it

Stop and think for a minute how much the market actually knows—meaning how much customers actually know about what they own, use, want, wish for, regret, and the rest of it.

The simple fact is that companies’ customers and users know far more about the products and services they own and use than the companies do. Those people are also in a far better position to share that knowledge than any CRM, CX or other system for “relating” to customers can begin to guess at, much less comprehend. Especially when every company has its own separate and isolated ways of doing both.

But customers today still mostly lack ways of their own to share that knowledge, and do it selectively and safely. Those ways are in the category we call VRM (when it shakes hands with CRM), or Me2B  (when it’s dealing broadly across everything a company does with customers and users).

VRM and Me2B are what make as free as can be, outside any company’s nets, funnels and teeming holds in trawler’s hulls.

It’s also much bigger than the red ocean of CRM/CX by themselves, because it’s where customers share far more—and better—information than they can inside existing CRM/CX systems. Or will, once VRM and Me2B tools and services stand up.

For example, there’s—

  • What customers actually want to buy (rather than what companies can at best only guess at)
  • What customers already own, and how they’re actually using it (meaning what’s their Internet of their things)
  • What companies, products and service customers are actually loyal to, and why
  • How customers would  like to share their experiences
  • What relevant credentials they carry, for identity and other purposes. And who their preferred agents or intermediaries might be
  • What their terms, conditions and privacy policies are, and how compliance with those can be assured and audited
  • What their tools are, for making all those things work, across the board, with all the companies and other organizations they engage

The list is endless, because there is no limit to what customers can say to companies (or how they relate to companies) if companies are willing to deal with customers who have as much scale across corporate systems as those systems wish to have across all of their customers.

Being “customer centric” won’t cut it. That’s just a gloss on the same old thing. If companies wish to be truly customer-driven, they need to be dealing with free-range human beings. Not captives.

So: how?

There is already code for doing much of what’s listed in the seven bullets above.  Services too. (Examples.) There could be a lot more.

There are also nonprofits working to foster development in that big blue ocean. Customer Commons is ProjectVRM’s own spin-off. The Me2B Alliance is a companion effort. So are MyData and the Sovrin Foundation. All of them could use some funding.

What matters for business is that all of them empower free-range customers and give them scale: real leverage across companies and markets, for the good of all.

That’s the real blue ocean.

Without VRM and Me2B working there, the most a company can do with its CRM or CX system is look at it.

Bonus link. Pull quote: “People must own root authority, before a system transmutes your personal life into a consumer. Before you need the system to exist, you are whole.”

 

Markets as conversations with robots

From the Google AI blogTowards a Conversational Agent that Can Chat About…Anything:

In “Towards a Human-like Open-Domain Chatbot”, we present Meena, a 2.6 billion parameter end-to-end trained neural conversational model. We show that Meena can conduct conversations that are more sensible and specific than existing state-of-the-art chatbots. Such improvements are reflected through a new human evaluation metric that we propose for open-domain chatbots, called Sensibleness and Specificity Average (SSA), which captures basic, but important attributes for human conversation. Remarkably, we demonstrate that perplexity, an automatic metric that is readily available to any neural conversational models, highly correlates with SSA.

A chat between Meena (left) and a person (right).

Meena
Meena is an end-to-end, neural conversational model that learns to respond sensibly to a given conversational context. The training objective is to minimize perplexity, the uncertainty of predicting the next token (in this case, the next word in a conversation). At its heart lies the Evolved Transformer seq2seq architecture, a Transformer architecture discovered by evolutionary neural architecture search to improve perplexity.
 
Concretely, Meena has a single Evolved Transformer encoder block and 13 Evolved Transformer decoder blocks as illustrated below. The encoder is responsible for processing the conversation context to help Meena understand what has already been said in the conversation. The decoder then uses that information to formulate an actual response. Through tuning the hyper-parameters, we discovered that a more powerful decoder was the key to higher conversational quality.
So how about turning this around?

What if Google sold or gave a Meena model to people—a model Google wouldn’t be able to spy on—so people could use it to chat sensibly with robots or people at companies?

Possible?

If, in the future (which is now—it’s freaking 2020 already), people will have robots of their own, why not one for dealing with companies, which themselves are turning their sales and customer service systems over to robots anyway?

People are the real edge

You Need to Move from Cloud Computing to Edge Computing Now!, writes Sabina Pokhrel in Towards Data Science. The reason, says her subhead, is that “Edge Computing market size is expected to reach USD 29 billion by 2025.” (Source: Grand View Research.) The second person “You” in the headline is business. Not the people at the edge. At least not yet.

We need to fix that.

By we, I mean each of us—as independent individuals and as collected groups—and with full agency in both roles. The Edge Computing is both.

The article  illustrates the move to Edge Computing this way:

The four items at the bottom (taxi, surveillance camera, traffic light, and smartphone) are at the edges of corporate systems. That’s what the Edge Computing talk is about. But one of those—the phone—is also yours. In fact it is primarily yours. And you are the true edge, because you are an independent actor.

More than any device in the world, that phone is the people’s edge, because connected device is more personal. Our phones are, almost literally, extensions of ourselves—to a degree that being without one in the connected world is a real disability.

Given phones importance to us, we need to be in charge of whatever edge computing happens there. Simple as that. We cannot be puppets at the ends of corporate strings.

I am sure that this is not a consideration for most of those working on cloud computing, edge computing, or moving computation from one to the other.

So we need to make clear that our agency over the computation in our personal devices is a primary design consideration. We need to do that with tech, with policy, and with advocacy.

This is not a matter of asking companies and governments to please give us some agency. We need to create that agency for ourselves, much as we’ve learned to walk, talk and act on our own. We don’t have “Walking as a Service” or “Talking as a Service.” Because those are only things an individual human being can do. Likewise there should be things only an individual human with a phone can do. On their own. At scale. Across all companies and governments.

Pretty much everything written here and tagged VRM describes that work and ways to approach that challenge.

Recently some of us (me included) have been working to establish Me2B as a better name for VRM than VRM.  It occurs to me, in reading this piece, that the e in Me2B could stand for edge. Just a thought.

If we succeed, there is no way edge computing gets talked about, or worked on, without respecting the Me’s of the world, and their essential roles in operating, controlling, managing and otherwise making the most of those edges—for the good of the businesses they deal with as well as themselves.

 

 

Personal scale

Way back in 1995, when our family was still new to the Web, my wife asked a question that is one of the big reasons I started ProjectVRM: Why can’t I take my own shopping cart from one site to another?

The bad but true answer is that every site wants you to use their shopping cart. The good but not-yet-true answer is that nobody has invented it yet. By that I mean: not  a truly personal one, based on open standards that make it possible for lots of developers to compete at making the best personal shopping cart for you.

Think about what you might be able to do with a PSC (Personal Shopping Cart) online that you can’t do with a physical one offline:

  • Take it from store to store, just as you do with your browser. This should go without saying, but it’s still worth repeating, because it would be way cool.
  • Have a list of everything parked already in your carts within each store.
  • Know what prices have changed, or are about to change, for the products in your carts in each store.
  • Notify every retailer you trust that you intend to buy X, Y or Z, with restrictions (meaning your terms and conditions) on the use of that information, and in a way that will let you know if those restrictions are violated. This is called intentcasting, and there are a pile of companies already in that business.
  • Have a way to change your name and other contact information, for all the stores you deal with, in one move.
  • Control your subscriptions to each store’s emailings and promotional materials.
  • Have your  own way to express genuine loyalty , rather than suffering with as many coercive and goofy “loyalty programs” as there are companies
  • Have a standard way to share your experiences with the companies that make and sell the products you’ve bought, and to suggest improvements—and for those companies to share back updates and improvements you should know about.
  • Have wallets of your own, rather than only those provided by platforms.
  • Connect to your collection of receipts, instruction manuals and other relevant information for all the stuff you’ve already bought or currently rent. (Note that this collection is for the Internet of your things—one you control for yourself, and is not a set of suction cups on corporate tentacles.)
  • Your own standard way to call for service or support, for stuff you’ve bought or rented, rather than suffering with as many different ways to do that as there are companies you’ve engaged

All of these things are Me2B, and will give each of us scale, much as the standards that make the Internet, browsers and email all give us scale. And that scale will be just as good for the companies we deal with as are the Internet, browsers and email.

If you think “none of the stores out there will want any of this, because they won’t control it,” think about what personal operating systems and browsers on every device have already done for stores by making the customer interface standard. What we’re talking about here is enlarging that interface.

I’d love to see if there is any economics research and/or scholarship on personal scale and its leverage (such as personal operating systems, devices and browsers give us) in the digital world). Because it’s a case that needs to be made.

Of course, there’s money to me made as well, because there will be so many more, better and standard ways for companies to deal with customers than current tools (including email, apps and browsers) can by themselves.

A positive look at Me2B

Somehow Martin Geddes and I were both at PIE2017 in London a few days ago and missed each other. That bums me because nobody in tech is more thoughtful and deep than Martin, and it would have been great to see him there. Still, we have his excellent report on the conference, which I highly recommend.

The theme of the conference was #Me2B, a perfect synonym (or synotag) for both #VRM and #CustomerTech, and hugely gratifying for us at ProjectVRM. As Martin says in his report,

This conference is an important one, as it has not sold its soul to the identity harvesters, nor rejected commercialism for utopian social visions by excluding them. It brings together the different parts and players, accepts the imperfection of our present reality, and celebrates the genuine progress being made.

Another pull-quote:

…if Facebook (and other identity harvesting companies) performed the same surveillance and stalking actions in the physical world as they do online, there would be riots. How dare you do that to my children, family and friends!

On the other hand, there are many people working to empower the “buy side”, helping people to make better decisions. Rather than identity harvesting, they perform “identity projection”, augmenting the power of the individual over the system of choice around them.

The main demand side commercial opportunity at the moment are applications like price comparison shopping. In the not too distant future is may transform how we eat, and drive a “food as medicine” model, paid for by life insurers to reduce claims.

The core issue is “who is my data empowering, and to what ends?”. If it is personal data, then there needs to be only one ultimate answer: it must empower you, and to your own benefit (where that is a legitimate intent, i.e. not fraud). Anything else is a tyranny to be avoided.

The good news is that these apparently unreconcilable views and systems can find a middle ground. There are technologies being built that allow for every party to win: the user, the merchant, and the identity broker. That these appear to be gaining ground, and removing the friction from the “identity supply chain”, is room for optimism.

Encouraging technologies that enable the individual to win is what ProjectVRM is all about. Same goes for Customer Commons, our nonprofit spin-off. Nice to know others (especially ones as smart and observant as Martin) see them gaining ground.

Martin also writes,

It is not merely for suppliers in the digital identity and personal information supply chain. Any enterprise can aspire to deliver a smart customer journey using smart contracts powered by personal information. All enterprises can deliver a better experience by helping customers to make better choices.

True.

The only problem with companies delivering better experiences by themselves is that every one of them is doing it differently, often using the same back-end SaaS systems (e.g. from Salesforce, Oracle, IBM, et. al.).

We need ways customers can have their own standard ways to change personal data settings (e.g. name, address, credit card info), call for support and supply useful intelligence to any of the companies they deal with, and to do any of those in one move.

See, just as companies need scale across all the customers they deal with, customers need scale across all the companies they deal with. I visit the possibilities for that here, here, here, and here.

On the topic of privacy, here’s a bonus link.

And, since Martin takes a very useful identity angle in his report, I invite him to come to the next Internet Identity Workshop, which Phil Windley, Kaliya @IdentityWoman and I put on twice a year at the Computer History Museum. The next, our 26th, is 3-5 April 2018.

 

 

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