• May 11, 2010
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

Customers in the Cockpit

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When the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto wrote their 95 Theses in 1999, they recognized that the Internet offered the opportunity to radically change the communication between businesses and customers. The use of traditional mass marketing would fade, they believed, in favor of human-to-human interactions. The authors may not have anticipated the degree to which social networking would be part of the equation, but that explosion has simply lent greater credibility to their decade-old claims. Today’s customers are expanding their networks, knowledge, and influence. 

Combined with the Internet’s delivery to customers of an overwhelming selection of brands and products to choose from, it’s easy to see that the very nature of the vendor-customer relationship is changing. Jeffrey Rayport, founder and chairman of advisory firm Marketspace, said as much in his keynote presentation at our CRM Evolution conference last year. Rayport, co-author of Best Face Forward: Why Companies Must Improve Their Service Interfaces with Customers, stated that “customer relationship management” might soon take a backseat to “customer-managed relationships”—what many (including the Cluetrain authors) call vendor relationship management, or VRM. Whatever the terminology, these emerging phrases connote customer control. 

What does this mean for vendors? The final Cluetrain thesis may shed some light on this, in its attempt to describe a customer sentiment that was only developing in 1999, but has since taken full flight: “We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.” Today’s customer is demanding more from vendors—more transparency, authenticity, options, accountability, responsiveness, and consideration. She doesn’t want to be treated as a number, but as an individual. And if she has a bad experience with your company or brand? Expect her to tell her friends. (For a look at all 95 Theses, and what to expect from the Cluetrain’s next decade, turn to “Manifestos Are Conversations.")

In Associate Editor Lauren McKay’s feature “It’s Not Your Relationship to Manage,” Doc Searls, one of the Cluetrain quartet, takes the notion a step further, suggesting that the typical company is too focused on selling to customers and not enough on the customers doing the buying. “Customers are limited in how they interact with vendors,” McKay writes, “be it through terms of service, payment requirements, and even product searches.” Read this story to learn where we stand in the development of VRM tools, including suggestions from Searls and others pursuing the goal. 

Whatever tools do emerge, the vendor will not be powerless. Nor should it let customers walk all over it. Just because a company cedes control of customer relationships doesn’t mean it cedes influence. 

So how can a vendor respond? By making it personal, argues Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group, in his Customer Centricity column, “Putting the ‘Self’ in Self-Service 2.0.” A one-size-fits-all, vanilla solution is likely no longer an appropriate way to do business, especially if you have the ability to help customers co-create their own personal experiences with your company or with its products or services. Turn to Arussy’s column—and then to CRM’s exclusive excerpt from his new book—to read about companies that are actively engaged in co-creating their customer value proposition, plus a great example of how banks can help customers co-create online experiences.

That customers are gaining control of their vendor relationships warrants some serious attention—in fact, we’ve dedicated this month’s entire issue, which we’re dubbing “The Customer Empowerment Issue,” to the topic. There’s no doubt that the Cluetrain has arrived. Is your organization on board?

David Myron is editorial director of CRM magazine. He can be reached at dmyron@destinationCRM.com.

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