Market intelligence that flows both ways

Doc Searls
11 min readAug 27, 2016
As long as the “customer journey” and the “customer experience” is “managed” by companies, and not by customers themselves, the results will be sub-optimal.

A search for “customer experience” OR cx yields 300 million results. That’s because it’s a hot category, meaning one in which lots of companies sell lots of products and services to other companies.

The top result in that search is the Wikipedia article on the topic, which (in the 1 February 2017 edit) begins, “In commerce, customer experience (CX) is the product of an interaction between an organization and a customer over the duration of their relationship.”

(Bookmark in your mind two words in that sentence: interaction and relationship.)

Wikipedia continues, “This interaction is made up of three parts: the customer journey, the brand touchpoints the customer interacts with, and the environments the customer experiences (including digital environment) during their experience.”

Estaban Kolsky (@ekolsky) has a nice way of illustrating the customer journey:

But the real ratio is more like the image at the top of this essay, since our lives are filled with things we have already bought, and we spend 100 percent of our lives with those things. So the real ratio is more like this:

Even the shopoholics among us only buy stuff a small percentage of the time.

And yet, as I pointed out several years back in Turning the Customer Journey Into a Virtuous Cycle

…consider the curb weight of “solutions” in the world of interactivity between company and customer today. In the BUY loop of the customer journey, we have:

1. All of advertising, which Magna Global expects to pass $.5 trillion this year

2. All of CRM, which Gartner pegs at $18b)

3. All the rest of marketing, which has too many segments for me to bother looking up

So, in the OWN loop we have a $0 trillion greenfield.

Spendings in the first two have gone way up since then, and we still have a greenfield for those two words I had you bookmark above: interaction and relationship. Wouldn’t it make full sense for customers to be in charge of their side of these relationships— preferably through means for interaction that customers themselves control?

To help imagine out how that will work, I volunteer a real-world example from my own life.

About four years ago I bought a pair of LAMO Mens Mocs at a shopping mall kiosk in Massachusetts. Here’s one:

I like them a lot. They’re very comfortable and warm on winter mornings. In fact I still wear them, even though the soles have long since come apart and fallen off. Here is how they looked in April 2014:

I’m showing this so you, and Lamo, can see what happened, and how we can both use this experience to change the world.

See, I like LAMO, and would love to help the company learn from my experience with one of their products. As of today, there are four choices for that:

  1. Do nothing (that’s the default)
  2. Send them an email
  3. Go on some website and talk about it. (A perfect Leighton cartoon in the March 17, 2014 New Yorker shows a couple registering at a hotel while the person behind the counter says, “If there’s anything we can do to make your stay more pleasant, just rant about it on the Internet.”)
  4. Get “social” by tweeting to @LAMOfootwear or posting to LAMO’s Facebook page. (For wisdom on “social” relations between brands and presumed fans, see Bob Hoffman‘s talk on the topic.)

So here is a fifth choice: give these moccasins their own virtual cloud, where LAMO and I can share intelligence about whatever we like — starting (on my side) with reports on my own experience, requests for service, or whatever. Phil Windley calls these clouds picos, for persistent compute objects.

Picos are breeds of what Bruce Sterling calls spime: persistent intelligence for things. Picos have their own operating system (e.g. Wrangler, which Phil most recently posted about here), and don’t need intelligence on board. Just scan a QR code, and you’ll get to the pico. Here’s the QR code on one of my LAMO moccasins:

Go ahead and scan the code with your phone. You’ll get to a page that says it’s my moccasin.

That’s just one view of the relationship between me and Lamo — one in which I can put a message that says “If found, call or text _______.” Another view is on my own dashboard of things in my OWN cycle, and direct connections to every one of those companies.

So look at the relationship between me and Lamo as a conduit (the blue cylinder below) that lives in the pico for my mocassin. That conduit goes from my VRM (vendor relationship management) dashboard to Lamo’s CRM (customer relationship management) system. There is no limit to the goodness that can pass back and forth between us, including intelligence about how I use my moccasins.

Let’s look at what can happen at either or both ends of that conduit.

A pico for a product is a CRM dream come true: a standard way for every copy of every product to have its own unique identity and virtual cloud (in which any data can live), and standard way any customer can report usage and other intelligence about any product they own—without any smarts needing to live on the thing itself.

If scan that QR code, I can see whatever notes I’ve taken. I can also see whatever LAMO has put in there, with my permission. Also in that cloud is whatever programming has been done on it. Here is one example of simple relationship logic at work:

IF this QR code is scanned, THEN send LAMO a note that Doc has a new entry in our common journal.

Likewise, LAMO can send me a note saying that there is new information in the same journal. Maybe that information is a note telling me that the company has changed sole manufacturers, and that the newest Mens Mocs will be far more durable. Or maybe they’ll send a discount on a new pair. The correct answer for what goes in the common journal (a term I just made up) is: whatever.

Now let’s say LAMO puts a different QR code, or other identifier, in every moccasin it sells. Or has a CRM system that is alert to notifications from customers who have turned their LAMO moccasins into picos, making all those moccasins smart. LAMO can then not only keep up with its customers through CRM-VRM conduits, but tie interactions through those conduits to the dashboards of their accounting systems (from Xero or other companies that provide enriched views of how the company is interacting with the world).

This is one huge potential key to the future of customer service, customer relationship management (CRM), call centers, loyalty programs, continuous improvement, customer experience (CX), customer engagement (CE) and other complicated ways businesses today try to solve all relationship problems from the maker’s or the seller’s side alone.

Follow the links in the last paragraph (all to Wikipedia), and you’ll find each of them have “multiple issues.” The reason for that is simple: the customer is not involved with any of them. All those entries make the sound of industries talking to themselves — or one hand slapping.

This is an old problem that can only be fixed on the customer’s side. Before the Internet, solving things from the customer’s side — by making the customer the point of integration for her own data, and the decider about what gets done with that data — was impossible. Now that we have the Internet, it’s very possible, but only if we get our heads out of business-as-usual and back into our own lives. This will be good for business as well.

A while back I had meetings with two call center companies, and reviewed this scenario:

  1. A customer scans the QR code on her cable modem, activating its pico.
  2. By the logic described above, a message to the call center says “this customer has scanned the QR code on her cable modem.”
  3. The call center checks to see if there is an outage in the customer’s area, and — if there is — finds out how soon it will be fixed.
  4. The call center sends a message back saying there’s an outage and that it will be fixed within X hours.

In both cases the call center company said “We want that!” Because they really do want to be fully useful. And — get this — they are programmable.

Unfortunately, in too many cases they are programmed to avoid customers, or to treat them as templates rather than as individual human beings who might actually be able to provide useful information. This is old-fashioned mass-marketing thinking at work, and it sucks for everybody. It’s especially bad at delivering (literal) on-the-ground market intelligence from customers to companies.

Call centers would rather be sources of real solutions rather than just customer avoidance machines for companies and anger sinks for unhappy customers. The solution I’m talking about here takes care of that. And much more.

Now let’s go back to shoes.

I’m not a hugely brand-loyal kind of guy. I use Canon cameras because I like the long-standing 5D user interface more than the competing Nikon ones, and Canon’s lens prices tend to be lower. I use Apple computers because they’re easy to get fixed and I can open a command line shell and get geeky when I need to. I drive a 2000 Volkswagen Passat wagon because I got it at a good price from a friend moving out of the country. And I buy Rockport shoes because, on the whole, they’re pretty good.

Used to be they were great. That was in the ’70s and early ’80s when Saul and Bruce Katz, the founders, were still in charge. That legacy is still there, under Reebok ownership; but it’s clear that the company is much more of a mass marketing operation than it was back in the early days. Still, in my experience, they’re better than the competition. That’s why I buy their shoes. Rockports are the only shoes I’ve ever loved. And I’ve had many.

So here is a photo I took of wear-and-tear on two pairs of Rockport casual shoes I still use, because they’re damned comfortable:

Shots 1 and 2 are shoes I bought in June 2012, and are no longer sold, near as I can tell. (Wish they were.) Shots 3 and 4 are of shoes called Off The Coast 2 Eye. I bought mine in late 2013, but didn’t start wearing them a lot until early this year. I bought both at the Rockport store in Burlington Mall, near Boston. I like that store too.

The first pair has developed a hole in the heel and loose eyelet grommets for the laces around the side of the shoe. The hole isn’t a big deal, except that it lets in water. The loose eyelets are only a bother when I cross my feet sitting down: they bite into the other ankle. The separating outer sole of the second pair is a bigger concern, because these shoes are still essentially new, and look new except for that one flaw. A design issue is the leather laces, which need to be double-knotted to keep from coming undone, and even the double-knots come undone as well. That’s a quibble, but perhaps useful for Rockport to know.

I’d like to share these experiences privately with Rockport, and for that process to be easy. Same with my experiences with LAMO moccasins.

It could be private if Rockport and LAMO footwear came with QR codes for every pair’s pico — it’s own cloud. Or if Rockport’s CRM or call center system was programmed to hear pings from my picos.

Ideally, customers would get the pico along with the shoe. Then they would have their own shared journal and message space — the conduit shown above — as well as a programmable system for creating and improving the whole customer-company relationship. They could also get social about their dialogs in their own ways, rather than only within Facebook and Twitter, which are the least private and personal places imaginable.

This kind of intelligence exchange can only become a standard way for companies and customers to learn from each other if the code for picos is open source. If Rockport or LAMO try to “own the customer” by locking her into a closed company-controlled system — the current default for customer service — the Internet of Things will be what Phil calls “the Compuserve of things”. In other words, divided into the same kind of closed and incompatible systems we had before the Net came along.

One big thing that made the Internet succeed was substitutability of services. Cars, banks, and countless other product categories you can name are large and vital because open and well understood standards and practices at their base have made substitutability possible. Phil says we can’t have a true Internet of Things without it, and I agree.

The smartest people working for companies are their customers. And the best way to activate customer smarts is by giving them scale. That’s what picos do.

As a bonus, they also give companies scale. If we can standardize picos, we’ll have common and standard ways for any customer and any company to relate to each other through any VRM + CRM system. Think about how much more, and better, intelligence a company can get from its customers this way, rather than through the ones barely succeeding now, where the company does all the work, and fails to know an infinitude of useful stuff customers could be telling them. Think about how much more products can be improved, an iterated over time. Think about how much more genuine loyalty can be created and sustained with this kind of two-way system.

Then think how much companies can save by not constantly spying on customers, guessing about what they might want, spamming them with unwanted and unnecessary sales messages, and maintaining systems try to relate but actually can’t, because the spying-gathered data doesn’t benefit from the customer’s ability to say what’s crap and what isn’t.

It’s a lot.

Finally, consider the pendulum swing from centralized to distributed computing and solutions, which Peter Levine (@peter_levine) of Andreessen Horowitz illustrates this way:

He makes many points in that talk (a good way to spend 25 minutes). One is that the vast population of things in the world will require distributed approaches to managing them. Another is that machine intelligence will become distributed, just to make architectural sense.

Now think about how much more intelligent those zillions of things will be when machine intelligence works for customers as well as companies, and customers are in full charge of the many smart things they own — and the relationship conduits they have with the companies that make and sell the things they own.

Given the rise in privacy laws (such as the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe) that essentially outlaw today’s defaulted (and very centralized) surveillance economy, we will need these kinds of solutions.

Now all we need are smart companies to make and welcome them. It helps that many of the protocols, standards and technologies for doing that are already in the world.

The ancestor of this post appeared at ProjectVRM on 19 Apri 2014. It was updated a bit on 8 June 2017.



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.