When I think of vendor relationship management, I usually think of a corporate customer angling for more price breaks or other concessions from its suppliers. But a recent article in the Financial Times caused me to think about it in an entirely different way -- one that puts the customer in control of his or her interactions with a company.
Sure, companies like Dell are ceding more control to their customers via channels like the IdeaStorm community, which allows them to suggest and vote on ideas. But folks like Doc Searls, one of the authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto," advocate offering far more control to customers.
Instead of trying to come up with new, and often borderline scary, ways of collecting data from customers, Searls says companies would be better served by letting customers themselves compile, store and use personal data as they choose. Already, there are tools such as infocards, which facilitate two parties securely sharing information online. Says Searls:
In the future, customers will come armed with many tools they don't have now. They will have personal data stores that help them to maintain and control much more data and to share much more data -- but on their terms.
One big benefit, according to the article, is that companies won't waste time and money gathering and keeping current marketing data that could end up being irrelevant anyway. (Say I pick up a muffin for a friend at work every day, when in reality I hate muffins. I'm obviously not going to want to subscribe to a "muffin of the month" home delivery service.) Customers empowered in this way may also be inclined to reward companies with loyalty and spread the word among their friends.
But what if customers won't want to establish these kinds of information-sharing relationships? Instead of creating products and services and then convincing customers they want them, companies will need to provide the kinds of products and services that will make customers want more. That's a far trickier proposition.
According to the article, companies including BT, Intel, Oracle, Novell and Sun, as members of the Liberty Alliance, are trying to create and integrate policies for the sharing of volunteered personal information. Says Brett McDowell, executive director of the alliance:
If these programs are put in place, there is no way this won't change the way markets work.