Customers Need Scale

Doc Searls
4 min readSep 29, 2016


Businesses love to say “the customer comes first,” “the customer is in charge” and that they need to “let the customer lead.” To help make that happen, they have CRM and CX approaches galore.

But the customer can’t come first, can’t be in charge, and can’t lead, without tools of their own: tools that give them their own ways to interact with all the companies they deal with.

They already have some of those tools, with the Net, the Web, and email. All of them give the customer scale.

In other words, the customer needs scale.

Scale is leverage:

Scale gives the customer single ways to deal with many companies. For example, she should be able to change her address or last name with every company she deals with in one move.

In today’s networked marketplace, the customer doesn’t have it. She has do deal with every company differently, in ways those companies provide, and on their separate terms alone. This is why more CRM and CX can actually make the problem worse. For example, “loyalty” programs, all of which are coercive and require cognitive and operational overhead on both the customer’s and the company’s parts.

For an example of real leverage, look at what a customer needs to do when she changes, say, her phone number, email address, preferred credit card or last name. She has to go from one website to another, over and over again, logging into all of them separately, like a bee going from one flower to another through a whole garden. With scale, she would make those changes across all those companies in one move.

That’s why she can’t get scale from the companies she deals with, no matter how well-intended they might be. They can greet her by name, give her a hug, and lavish discounts and benefits on her, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference, because they are each only one company, and they are not her.

What she needs is native power of her own. Without it, she’s up against CRM and other B2B systems sold to the companies she deals with, all of which are designed to “target,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” customers — all terms better suited to ranching and slavery than to anything that aspires to a genuine relationship.

To really come first, to really be in charge, to really lead, the customer needs powers of her own that extend across all the companies she deals with. That’s scale.

Just as companies need to scale their relationships across many customers, customers need to scale their relationships across many companies.

The customer can only get scale through tools for both independence and engagement. She already has those with her car, her purse, her phone, her personal computer, her email, her browsers, her computer, her cash. (See The Cash Model of Customer Experience.) Every company she deals with respects the independence she gets from those tools, and every company has the same base-level ways of interacting with them. Those tools are also substitutable. The customer can swap them for others like it and maintain her autonomy, independence, and ability to engage.

For the last ten years, many dozens of developers around ProjectVRM have been working on tools and services that give customers scale. You’ll find a partial list of them here.

Here is what we have been looking for, from any and all of them together—

  • Ways to manage gradual, selective, and trust-based disclosure of
    personal identifiers, starting from a state that is anonymous
    (literally, nameless).
  • Ways to manage our many administrative identities (the ones by which companies and other organizations know each of us), as well as our sovereign source identities (how each of us knows ourselves).
  • Ways to express terms and policies with which companies can agree
    (preferably automatically).
  • Ways to change personal data records (e.g. name, address, phone
    number) for every company we deal with, in one move.
  • Ways to share personal data (e.g. purchase or service intentions)
    selectively and in a mutually trusting way, with every company we
    deal with.
  • Ways to exercise full control over our sovereign data spaces (e.g. PIMS—personal information management systems) for everything each of us owns, and within which reside our relationships with companies that support those things.
  • Ways to engage with existing CRM, call center, and other relationship systems on the vendors’ side.

I believe we have most or all of the technologies, standards, protocols, specifications, and APIs we need already. What we need now is thinking and development that goes meta: one level up, to where the customer actually lives, trying to manage all these different relationships with all these different cards, apps, websites, logins, passwords, and the rest of it.

Apps for doing those things should be as substitutable as a car, a wallet, a purse, a phone, an email client. In other words, we should have a choice of apps, and not be stuck again inside the exclusive offerings of any single company.

Only with scale can free customers prove more valuable than captive ones. And only with mastery will customers get scale. We can’t get there with a zillion different little apps, most of which are not ours. We need go-to apps of our own.

And we’ll get one. I have faith that VRM developers will come through.



Doc Searls

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.