Why hide on the web

Is there a surefire way of protecting your privacy on the web? The quick answer: no. The somehow longer answer: it depends.

Even if you’ve embraced the idea of transparency, whether because you think it has merit or because you gave up, you still may feel uneasy about Google’s data-mining powers. And not just Google’s; everybody and their sister can run a robust dedicated server for a couple hundred dollars, and if their application is popular, you can bet it is so because the proprietor has a good grasp of visitor tracking.

Google et al are mining customer data to make up for the lack of knowledge they can’t possibly have: your living context. Whatever you type into the search box represents your idea or request that you are making at that time, and its aggregated history creates a portrait that might represent you fairly well. But – it’s in the past. There’s a limit to what predictive analytics can do with past data.

And do customers want their providers to know their living context? Sure, some fork over a lot of personal data in exchange for deals of questionable value (like the CZK100 coupon some operators offer to PAYG customers by way of compensation for their names and addresses); others choose the opposite approach and use tools such as Tor or TrackMeNot that either hide or obfuscate your trail on the web.

I happen to believe that a (hypothetical for now) VRM infrastructure would alleviate the need of businesses to operate massive data stores when their business isn’t IT at all; by removing guesswork from the relationships and letting customers signal very precisely what they want. What I believe or not is of questionable value, however; this infrastructure doesn’t exist yet.

Paradoxically, though, the best way to minimize intrusion is to be as open as possible. If you have an online persona (blog, Twitter account, etc.), why not make it a true representation of who you are? There are proven benefits to that; starting with your career but not ending there. Instead of hiding, put out something you’ve created that’s of real value to other people. Create and share.

The need for privacy (not just) on the web is real. Many people (dissidents in oppressed countries, children) have a genuine need to protect their presence and activities on the web. For the rest of us, though, I suggest letting go of the paranoia and only protecting what is absolutely worth protecting. What you type into Google may or may not fall into that category. Most often it won’t.

Invest the time and effort you’d spend there into something valuable that you don’t want to hide but show and share instead.

End VRM debates now

Is VRM primarily about companies ceding control to customers? Or about flipping the current segmentation model on its head and remaking the economy in a way where the customer initiates every transaction?

That these questions are being asked doesn’t mean VRM is poorly defined; anyone who has mined through the endless debates at the ProjectVRM mailing list should know. The problem isn’t definition or a lack thereof; it’s implementation. We’ve grown accustomed to ideas quickly gaining shape; thanks to an ever-growing pool of RAD frameworks and toolkits. VRM has been stuck in the debate club for too long. Now that people outside the club are peeking in, they better see something real soon.

The Mine! project could provide this long-overdue proof of VRM’s viability, as well as give guidance to people interested in starting their own VRM projects. Its adoption will provide a useful signal as to whether there’s sufficient demand for VRM solutions on the customer side.

I am wary of debating VRM in the open when there’s nothing substantial to back up its claims. Now that the CRM guys have caught up, it’s imperative that the talk moves from the library to the workshop. It would be unfortunate if the VRM idea got misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused before it had its chance to even demonstrate how it works.

Moving towards VRM in the Telco space

It seems that the good people at Telco 2.0 (a blog by STL Partners) have caught wind of VRM. Terrific: I’ve touched on VRM at a couple of Telco conferences past year, and it’s generated enough interest for me to conclude the time is right.

Right for what, you might ask. For starters, for turning the telecoms business model towards the customer – as in making money from delivering the customer what he wants as opposed to no matter what he or she wants (think broadband).

But this is not about that, not today. At the very end of the post, this quote:

“[I]s it time to think about IRM, Integrated Relationship Management, the intersection between CRM and VRM?”

No. And the time will never be right. Not because we don’t need to “build bridges” between individuals and organizations; both systems try do to both. But both do it with a different end in mind.

While I am all for “customer-company pacts” and such, parties of any contract naturally guard their own interest and their tools reflect that. CRM profits companies, VRM does (will) profit individuals. Plus, VRM is pushing for dis-intermediation in relationships (in the true web sense), hence I don’t see much sense in any “integration layer” between CRM and VRM. No, let both parties go all the way.

But enough abbreviations for today.

The post calls for some kind of “intelligent call api” if I read it correctly (it’s somehow hard to grasp at 1st reading), and there’s definitely some VRM potential in that. Calling (fixed but mobile, too) is essentially “stupid”; it hasn’t evolved much despite incredible advances in the IP/Internet application sphere. It could start with CDRs; instead of a plain call log (that you pay extra for), how about giving customer access to the “raw” data (how “raw” is a good question) so that they can make sense of it themselves? It’s the customer’s data! For analogy, think health records, financial records, etc. Think Wesabe and Google Health.

I wouldn’t go as far as to call 2009 the Year of Hope and Change in customer relationships, but again, VRM is catching on and that is good indeed. We might see interesting things (or not – how is that for a well-rounded prediction?)

Will the credit crunch help CRM?

Recessions mean an end to some but also a new beginning for many. CRM is associated with the optimistic seller culture; the company builds an infrastructure so that it can get to customers quicker and be more relevant to them. At a first glance, then, it would appear that a down economy would bring down times for CRM – fewer buyers with smaller budgets means cost cutting, baby – fire those IT consultants.

With less marcomm and IT dollars, companies have another opportunity to look at the flip side of CRM. It’s the side that is considerably cheaper to experiment with: I used to call it “CRM 2.0″ before “2.0″ lost its edge and, indeed, any meaning at all. Also called “Social CRM”, it’s a diverse set of tools designed to bring the customer inside the organization – on his terms, though.

Don’t look at Facebook, you. “Friending” a thousand prospects can only bring you this far, and unless you are in a specific niche, information from your “friends” profiles won’t mean much for your sales cycle. There are meaningful applications there, such as the Lending Tree, but no ground was breaken on Facebook for the majority of industries – Telcos, Energy, or any other Big Business™.

No, look at tools that don’t rely on eyeballs and ads and instead of building the same old walled gardens leverage the power of the individual in the networked, globalized, web-and-mobile enabled culture that we’re in.

One of the hints I will give you today is a project called Mine!, driven by Adriana Lukas. Loosely associated with the VRM conspiracy, it’s aiming at giving individuals the tool to share whatever information they choose with whomever they choose via XML feeds. On a practical note that could mean, for example:

  • dumping registration forms of any kind – the company, when given access, will process the required data from the feed,
  • no more guesswork about what your customer needs – just subscribe to what they decide to publish, and you will know exactly

The caveat: the customer controls the Terms of Service. Up until now there was no negotiation between B and C. That can change: not because “the customer” has suddenly amassed great power and can dictate his terms (try that on your mobile operator), but because it can make great business sense. Both in cost reductions and new opportunities that will come with an insight into explicitly stated customer needs.

Note that these initiatives aren’t driven by a BigCo of any kind. They are counter-cultural. I think most companies will sit this one out, again, until these tools have too many legs to ignore.

I think it’s an opportunity to look at your existing CRM investment and think about how you would fit a million customer voices in it should they start blasting at you one day. These voices are already out there, on blogs and social networks and such, but don’t have a structured form yet. That’s changing.

Quote of the Day

Sun’s bs on social, social everywhere:

In order to continue the growth of social networking sites, I think that users will demand some changes. In fact, I’m probably not alone in being ready for some change. The big question is how this will be resolved. I think that some of the loose concepts around federation are very useful to help solve this. Depending on what kind of personal information you want to share, some it can be quite sensitive. Because of this, you want to be certain about how it’s stored and who you’ve given that data. The idea of a feed-based mechanism with a personal datastore like a Mine! can be quite compelling. In the end, the ability to manage and track my own data is the goal. The mechanism needs to be fairly straightforward and provide the ability for existing sites to adopt the functionality. In the short term, there may not be a lot of incentive for social networking site to adopt such a mechanism but it’s crucial for growth in the long term.

Social networks (and all other organizations keeping your data) would love it if they could keep it to themselves; customer data is the Holy Grail of CRM efforts and enables reasonably specific marketing communication.

I am more and more convinced, though, that they’ll have to give in to data portability (small-letter d and p) because we are all tired, tired, tired of filling the same registration forms again. And again. And again.

It’s your data – they should come to you and take a look if you let them. And use it according to your terms of service, not theirs.

Why CRM won’t save your soul

Rude shop-keepers. Web-mail that doesn’t accept your ID anymore. Trains that are 2 hours late, yet no refunds are forthcoming. We keep expecting things will behave according to an agreed-upon set of rules, and whey they don’t, we feel like we’ve accidentally slipped into a parallel universe – one in which we do not exist.

This happened to my wife’s friend in Bulgaria: she went to the passport office with her mother, and they told her, this cannot be your mother, your mother is dead. They flashed their IDs to no effect: the officer refused to acknowledge that the woman standing in front of him was, actually, not dead and indeed there.

Maybe you haven’t experienced anything as dramatic. Maybe it’s only happened to you that an operator at the other end of the line couldn’t match your name with your account that you kept with the company for over X number of years. And you be who? Sorry, Mr Smith, we do not know you.

Why is that?

CRM’s traditional answer was: bad information. Disconnected siloes. Employees unable to tap the information they needed at the right time. Centralize the data, unclog the information pathways, and all would be well.

But it was the wrong answer. Or put differently, it was the right answer to the wrong question.

The real question was, indeed, how do we as a company manage to treat our customers with some sense of dignity without actually bothering to zoom in on them from the extreme wide angle (customer base, segments) to telephoto (households, individuals). Hence the effort to power up the operational CRM with capabilities of analytical CRM (that is, building some sort of number-based insight into the scary X-gigabyte swarm of operational data).

But the analytical CRM cannot build any meaningful “insight” into who your customers really are while treating the customer data as any other kind of transactional data. We humans are made of shape-shifting bits. We don’t stay transactional very long.

Which is where CRM 2.0 comes to the rescue. No, it won’t save anyone’s soul. But the simple acknowledgement that customers (=people interacting with your business) are relational and want to interact on a peer-to-peer basis is a good start. When people inside an organization have the tools and processes to not only “tap into” but be part of the vast “social network” of their company’s “customer base” (I know, too many scary quotes don’t make for a fine article), they won’t say I do not know you, Mr Smith anymore.

Because they will know Mr Smith. Even though their internal “CRM” doesn’t know much about Mr Smith, the network he belongs to does. And the people inside the organization will, too, if they are belong to it as well.

I believe the quest for CRM 2.0 is one of finding the real network that can connect us all. It won’t be Facebook. It won’t be the blogosphere. It might not be a single network at all. And until we find it, we will, from time to time, feel as if we were teleported into a land in which we do not exist.

How’s that for metaphysics.

Apropos of the VRM meetup

In London, at VRM meetup yesterday. The discussions seem to be a bit preliminary still, but there’s definitely something in the air. Waiting for Adriana to release her long-awaited white paper :)

One thought that has stayed with me was: businesses will have a natural incentives to hop on the bandwagon once the tools are available (and being used). Any business will kill for a qualified lead, and VRM means, about other things, people streaming their demands / needs to whomever wants to listen

Who Owns You?

I try to avoid using multiple social-networking apps at a time, but for people who just can’t help it, a tool that aggregates their multiple accounts might be useful, which is where Google’s OpenSocial platform comes in (if I understand it correctly). Whether it’s open enough at this time is rather another question. I appreciate the step in the right direction, and at the same time keep asking: how about our lives [data, processes] outside the social networks?

MySpace is fun if you have the time for it. So is Facebook. Chances are, however, that you only keep a fraction of your time, energy, and money there. Most of your interactions are conducted elsewhere.

Even if we stay in the online sphere, there’s so much going on that stays outside social networks. We shop for stuff, email each other, download music, chat & kill time. We leave traces and artifacts that are owned by the proprietors of the services we’ve used.

CRM has addressed the need of businesses to execute, aggregate, mine, and exploit their interactions with customers. VRM is, if I am reading this right, researching ways to balance the relationships we have with organizations so that we have more control.

The problem is, organizations have resources to build and maintain the infrastructure where those interactions take place; individuals don’t. And they mostly don’t care, either; it’s the organization’s responsibility to ensure the interaction (and transaction) completes successfully with only the absolutely required inputs from the individual.

Whoever does care, however, doesn’t have an easy way of accessing, let alone claiming ownership of, the information various parties keep about him or her. There’s no way of telling Amazon, tell me all you know about me, then forget it. They, too, are a party to our relationship, and have similar right to the information produced since we begun doing business.

Europe has regulations as to what personal data businesses can keep with and without consent from their customers. There’s much of soft data, however, that aren’t subject to these regulations. Successful CRM implementations have enabled some to gain a meaningful insight into the customer’s behavior and preferences. With or without the customer’s consent.

I believe there has to be a discussion about the rights of ownership to such data. At the very minimum, businesses should be required to tell you what they know and think of you. Declined credit? Instead of a vague rejection letter, you should get a detailed report stating what criteria you’ve failed and why; what risks are perceived as to your future behavior.

This isn’t about the internet, Web 2.0 or 3.0. Forget it. We’re talking real world, real relationships, stuff that involves our everyday lives. The internet has helped to equalize some of the relationships we have, very much with the media, the government, and each other, and the debate should now switch from the virtual to the actual. We don’t go to bed and neither do we wake up as avatars.