“Caveat Venditor – Let the Seller Beware”
So proclaimed Doc Searls in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. Co-author of the legendary The Cluetrain Manifesto, Searls’ main thesis is that customers – like markets – should be free.
According to Searls, empowered customers should not be shackled to the chains of big business like “calves” forced to suckle many different “cows”. Their personal data – demographics, buying behaviours, online surfing patterns – should not be owned by companies. They should also not be subjected to the hassles of having to deal with a hundred different vendor forms, systems or “loyalty” cards.
Through tools like Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) and Customer Commons, customers of the future can exert a lot more influence in their transactions with sellers. They can issue personal Requests For Proposals (RFPs) for vendors to bid for. They can also procure what they need, want or desire more naturally based on their intentions. This allows the provision of goods and services to be truly tailored to individual needs, wants and desires.
This democratisation of buyer-seller relationships entails several factors:
1) Admitting that much of advertising and promotions are bubbles about to burst, and that market research, customer analytics, and big data (huge data sets that track individual behaviours) are all guesswork at best.
2) Pushing for changes in lopsided laws which favour the writing of one-sided adhesion contracts (legally binding agreements where one side has all the bargaining power and the other can only “take it or leave it”) to ones that support the freedom of equitable contracts.
3) Bringing “agency” (ie ability to act for one self) back to the individual customer. He or she then has the freedom to choose what, when, how, and where he/she should transact, with whom, and on mutually agreeable terms. The analogy is like driving your own car as opposed to using a retailer’s shopping cart.
4) Embracing freedom, liberty and openness on the Internet through Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) code. This removes the “captive market” business models adopted by old phone and cable companies. At the same time, the concept of “Customer Commons” where the customer retains autonomous control over his or her personal data, desires and intention are respected.
5) Liberating customers through the development of VRM tools. These function as instruments of intention that tap on the power of the “Live Web” (real time, real place, unwalled). They organise “user-driven” personal data which allows customers to direct their own experiences and create personal “clouds”/data stores enabled by universal Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). New forms of micro-accounting for individuals, like EmanciPay and ascribenation, allows payment and delivery to be dovetailed with intent.
6) Creating “fourth parties” acting as agents of customers aligned to their interests (rather than that of suppliers). These associates should not be locked in to customers, but be substitutable. They should also be held accountable to their clients, be independent, and allow customer data portability.
7) Encouraging businesses to “lead and be led” by customers in a dance where VRM and CRM systems can work symbiotically and seamlessly in an automated fashion. To do so, businesses need to adopt live and evented APIs in their systems, put a leash on legal, and support a free and open Internet. What’s more, they should follow and adopt tools developed by the VRM community, stop collecting customer data without permission, and provide customers unfettered access to their personal data.
As an intellectual and academic – the author is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University – Doc Searls’ crystal ball gazing tend to be a little utopian.
Sceptics would argue that it is nigh impossible to get telcos and cable companies to relinquish customer lock-in and other traditional sources of income. Sorting through the mess of personal data, systems and payment options may also be an onerous task.
Having said that, the idea of a more democratic “world wide marketplace” where customers are free agents unfettered by binding contracts is an alluring one.
By embracing free and open markets, open-source movements, personal data, VRM tools, and fourth parties, customers can escape being “captured” by asymmetrical relationships biased towards sellers. Such a marketplace may also work towards the benefit of sellers, eliminating the need for costly guesswork and optimising linkages between intention and purchases.
Let me end with a quote from The Intention Economy (there are lots in there) which nicely summarises its core vision:
“We can all connect now, more easily than ever. We can make our intentions known personally and in ways that can cause and sustain genuine relationships. And, where no relationship is required, we can connect, do business, and move on, with less cost and hassle than ever.”
PS – To find out more about VRM, do check out the Project VRM wiki maintained by the Berkman Center.