musing about the customer perspective

Over a decade ago, when I was working at an investment bank, one of the topics that kept coming up was “the multiprovider portal”. [Yes, it was that long ago, those forgotten times when investment banks still existed, when startups made no money, just “revenue”, and nobody cringed if you used the word “portal”].

The multiprovider portal was a simple concept. Let’s take an example.

At that time, it appeared that portals were built by financial services providers for financial services providers and nobody else. Customers went to the portal of the provider. Everything was very product and service and provider centric. Which was fine and dandy as long as nobody complained. But customers did complain. Customers wanted something better than that which they were being offered. If they held multiple accounts with one bank, they wanted to manage all those accounts from one place. More importantly, if they held accounts with a number of banks, they wanted to manage all those accounts from one place. As a result of this demand, people started offering account aggregation services.

At the time, we felt that companies would want something similar from their investment banks. Most large corporates had relationships with more than one investment bank. Usually at least two, sometimes more. So rather than force the customer to go to different portals for different services, we wanted to build something different. Allow the customer to use our portal to manage their relationships with investment banks other than us. Allow the customer to build a portal designed around the customer, as it were, rather than the service provider.

Imagine the scene: A customer of “our” bank using software provided by us in order to do business with other banks. Perish the thought. Well, the thought did perish. [So, too did investment banks. But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.]

Roll the clock forward from 1998-99 to a few years ago. I remember those early discussions with Doc Searls as he convinced me through and through about the importance of Vendor Relationship Management. At least part of the drive behind VRM was this whole thing about doing things with the perspective of the customer. Amazon, do you realise that I buy books from people other than Amazon? For Amazon read eBay, Borders, Barnes and Noble, Abebooks, <insert name of preferred bookseller here>. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could aggregate all those purchases somewhere, so that my recommendations were based on my true purchases? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could choose which purchases I wanted to include and which ones I wanted to exclude, so that I didn’t get recommendations based on books I bought my 10-year old, or books I bought as presents for others? Wouldn’t it be nice if I had the ability to switch on “private shopping”?

Doc spent time explaining to me that people weren’t “getting” this inversion, this 180 degree shift away from Customer Relationship Management to Vendor Relationship Management. Where everything was viewed from  the customer’s perspective, not the provider’s.

I kept on wondering why people didn’t “get” it.

Now move the clock forward to today. When I move to the world of “social media”, hearing all the arguments about authority and power and traffic, I get slandered, libelled, I hear words I never heard in the Bible……just trying to keep my customers satisfied. Satisfied.

I must be wired differently. When I started using Facebook, and realised the value of the news feed when used properly, I used to keep my status updated regularly. Then, when Twitter came along, I did the expected thing and connected my tweets to Facebook status.

Until someone complained. Until I realised that some of my facebook friends weren’t interested in the high-frequency status change that twitter represented. So, hearing the complaints, I changed. I cut the connection between Twitter and Facebook. Now, if someone wanted to know about my status with twitter-like frequency, they came to twitter, not to Facebook.

More recently, a few days ago, I started playing in earnest with blip.fm. And I misread the small print while turning on the twitter service, thinking that only the tweets I preceded with a “!” would go to twitter. My bad. So when I started using blip, every blip I made resulted in a tweet being sent to twitter.

Until someone complained. And I realised what I’d done. And I fixed it.

2009 is going to be about big changes in this space. I guarantee it. Put whatever’s left of your house and your savings on it.

People will not come to “my” blog. They will go to “their” feed aggregator, where they can read all the people they’re interested in reading. If they see something of interest, they will dig deeper and come to my blog.

People will not come to read “my” tweets. They will go to “their” tweet aggregator, where they can read all the tweets of all the people they’re interested in following. If they see something of interest, they will follow the links provided.

People will not come to see “my” pictures in Flickr. People will not come to hear “my” music wherever.

“My” time is over.

It’s a different perspective.

Readers want everything and everyone they read aggregated; they select what to read, when to read it, how to read it. How to read it, where to read it, what device to use.

Similarly, listeners want everything they listen to and everyone they listen to aggregated for them; watchers want everything they see and everyone thet see aggregated for them.

We have had aggregation before. Past paradigm aggregation was about content owners and distribution and channels and audiences. Which allowed for words like authority and traffic. Which begat strange things like advertising.

Next paradigm aggregation is about the owner of the power to bestow attention, and to do something with that attention. The customer.

So the customer will not watch a television channel, but instead create her own, an aggregation at viewing guide level. The same with news and reviews, the same with music.

  • First, the ability to aggregate a directory of services selected by the customer rather than the provider.
  • Second, the ability to drill in, to dig deeper into these directories in order to do something with the particular service. Time shifted, place shifted. She will read your blog if she finds something of interest, when she wants to, how she wants to, using the device she chooses.
  • Third, the ability to participate, to feed back, to comment, to rate, all these services.
  • And finally, the ability to reuse all or part of the service so provided in a Creative-Commons-like way in order to produce something else, and to share that something else.

Just musing.

45 thoughts on “musing about the customer perspective”

  1. JP,

    I think what you’re getting at here strikes where I was going with my post on the social network operating system*, and the fact that it’s aggregator centric (and therefore exists in the users browser) rather than service centric.

    Most of the good aggregators already let you do the first two things in your list, though perhaps not for all media. The real trouble starts when you need feedback. A crucial point here is that the user not only needs to be able to provide feedback without going through a context change, and they need to have the choice about
    modality (e.g. reply to individual, group or everybody). Further trickiness (identity and privacy bounded) appears when dealing with modality changes (such as globally commenting on the usefulness of an individually directed link).

    * http://thestateofme.wordpress.com/2008/12/16/a-social-networking-operating-system/

  2. So do we need independent portal providers before the vendors manage it for themselves… after all Amazon is already a shop front for many of its rivals through Marketplace? Who or what provides the ability for you and I to create feeds where you can aggregate in my postings on coaching and wine but not politics into your preferred reader and I can appreciate your musical taste but not your taste in books within mine? It’s not a million miles in pure functionality from what Twitter and Facebook already do; but their business models seem less than perfectly formed (especially Twitter)… what is the driving force which will bring the investment and return to make this happen sooner rather than later?

  3. I think that we will have places like Twitter where we signal the other places we are to be found active. When we act as publishers we will point out the links to the specific within the general. When we act as subscribers we will move from the general to the specific when we feel like it. So someone will “see” I am on blip.fm and then choose to come there if they feel like it.

  4. Spot on.

    Increasingly, I’m irked if I can’t view my aggregated content in a way that’s convenient for me—on my mobile phone. I’m no longer a student, have a long commute, and can no longer have the luxury of dedicating a large part of my time with my personal computer consuming rather than producing information and content.

    On my Smartphone, Twitter works really well, AJAX|Javascript heavy stuffs, not at all. Google’s mobile reformatting service helps with some aesthetic obstacles, but can’t do much when providers transmitting their content in an overly complicated, or insufficiently supported way. Maybe I am in the minority at the present, but simplicity wins. Simplicity is flexibility, and flexibility is control for the user. And sufficient control, as you say, is often the difference between whether someone is going to continue being a user at all. The bar was low before, but I see it as a good thing that people are demanding more.

    (As an aside, I wonder why most blogging software have fields for name, email, website, but *not* Twitter handles.)

  5. Wasn’t it this week when Nokia became the world’s biggest computer manufacturer? Customers care about choice. Choice of device, choice of places to go, choice of people to see/read/listen to. And none of the choices can be a firehose controlled by someone else.

  6. I think you’re absolutely correct. Customisation is still constrained at this stage, but the tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated

    So, JP, will you soon offer customised RSS feeds to give me the choice to subscribe to particular categories or tags, rather than all of your posts?? :-)

  7. Agreed. Utterly agreed. I’ve been visiting media companies lately and showing them how atomized content is the new black, because of how people will be equipping their systems with it, not the other way around. You’ve laid out out perfectly.

    So excited about this.

    (Oh, and your (c) should be extended in your footer).

  8. The only flaw I see in it is that I think you underestimate the “My” in all of this. I believe you are dead on about how people will find what interests them, but our world has always been populated by magnetic people, and those they attract. The sites most drilled down to will still be “My-centric” – it will just become (I hope) easier to filter out the “Why?-centric” stops along the way.

    Great post

    DNW

  9. Bravo! Excellent point. I think it is highly appropriate to let others CHOOSE for themselves what it is they want to hear or focus on.

  10. Excellent perspective, and something I will share with my team and clients! I’ve also added you to “my” reader so I don’t have to rely on Chris Brogan to send me a link.

  11. Agree with the underlying premise, though isnt what you’re describing just a richer portal by another name (eg, ala MyYahoo). The distinction here being robust customization and media types..

  12. Simon, you’re spot on. We need better ways to make our firehoses into smaller and smaller capillaries. So yes, this year we will see people subscribing to selective portions of feeds, in effect minifeeds within feeds. You may choose something like “read all of JP’s posts except those on cricket and on cooking”. or the very opposite. Today I’m too lazy and it would appear that the tools aren’t good enough. But tomorrow will be different.

  13. Chris, thanks for the feedback. Will be doing a follow up post on this today, let me know what you think. Trying to take the atomised feedback argument a little further.

  14. David, I think the “my” continues to be strong. As (I hope) my next post tries to show, the shift is from me the publisher and me the subscriber to me the publisher/subscriber.

  15. Jupiter, Byron, Kelly, thanks for the feedback. Hope you enjoy the next post as much. Nemrut, I think it’s quite different from MyYahoo, see whether my next post helps make sense of it.

  16. Really interesting examples. Do these predictions imply development of existing sites (Facebook, Friendfeed) or entirely new models? Aggregation makes sense, but what about the overload it entails?

  17. Phoebe, I think it’s both. There’s scope for existing sites to develop. And there’s room for new entrants. Who would have thought there was room for Twitter? And after Twitter, Friendfeed?

    Aggregation will not entail overload if the tools get better and the etiquette gets understood better. More on that later.

  18. Looking forward to reading it. I suspect that part of what is happening is that the “mystyque” of the seller side of the world is being peeled away, and they are forced to appeal on a more personal level – 0r be left in the dirt.

    DNW

  19. Great Post and nice examples!!

    It really made me think of numerous ways in which the aggregation would have helped in lot many ways.

    How, where and who of this aggregation is the trickier aspect!!

    Looking forward to your next post!!

  20. David, Ganesh, Jonathan, thanks for your comments.

    I think the aggregation market will always stay fragmented, no subscriber wants to help build a monopoly any more, especially when the “rules” about “whose data” are still not agreed to the satisfaction of the subscribers. Roll on VRM.

    I haven’t seen the browser extension by 509inc, so I will take a look and let you know.

  21. Aggregation begat advertising/authority & traffic….hm, pondering what this industry/language personal VRM will produce…

  22. Looked into 509inc but maybe David can provide a direct link to the relevant extension?

    ‘Roll on VRM’ indeed….but the elephant in the room is that the rest of the industry is fundamentally not prepared for the (absolutely) necessary change.

    Hence my original comment. :)

  23. Aggregation of content is old hat. The Real disruption will come when serious *synthesis* of content becomes possible. Ignore minor irritants like copyright issues, and imagine a future version of Google News which synthesises the content from news pages… science fiction, perhaps – and scary.

  24. Karra, not sure about that. I’ve tended to believe in filtering on the way out, not on the way in. The problem with synthesis is that something artificial is created, you lose the authenticity of the original. I know that “content producers” believe that it is what the subscriber wants, yet it is the reason why we are where we are.

    Desiree, of course there will be an explosion of new terms and, with a little bit of luck, most of it will go away. What is important to remember is that none of this is new, it is actually a renaissance. A return of what we had before the broadcast age.

  25. The Monetization Story… (yet again!)

    I agree that aggregation and the tools available to the subscriber are trending towards consumption in formats and such that the subscriber wants. Until the service disappears because not only is there no current way to monetize, but no apparent future way either. Full disintermediation of publishers isn’t possible unless we’re really ok with full-on citizen journalism only; among other things. (Possible exceptions include entities funded by governments, not-for-profits or hobbyists.) The alternative is to truly come full circle and come up with some kind of paid subscription model.

    Freemium based giveaways entice, but only exist as long as SOMEthing is getting paid for. Isn’t 2008 almost over? Has this ride not fully stopped yet? Even with services whose incremental costs of distribution approach zero, it still isn’t zero. Forget about crazy tens of millions in valuations. How about just the ability to make enough to feed a few programmers and keep a few dedicated hosts alive?

    Methinks there’s still a bit too much of ye’ ole’ KookAid(r) being quaffed. I’m all for the power with the subscriber. (I’m one myself.) Though I’m still not seeing the utopia that a lot of others seem to point to.

    Scott

  26. Scott, I think we’re seeing newer and newer ways to monetise every day, they’re just not the old ways. I keep recommending Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free article to anyone who’ll listen. If you haven’t read it, please do.

    We *have* to concentrate on building things that customers *want* to pay for, rather than finding new ways of forcing customers to pay for things they *don’t* want to pay for.

    Historical advertising and subscription models are dead. Deader than free.

  27. Thanks. It was a great read.

    To make some of those things happen will require some new forms of infrastructure. His insights suggest some possible inflections along the value chain that might be worth drafting up a business case or two!

    Scott

  28. So true.

    Just looking at how I got to this post in the first place. I have your blog in my Netvibes feeds, which oscillates at around 1,500 unread posts at any given time. But I still read your blog about once a month, because I follow Neil Perkin on Twitter and just saw that tonight was the closing night to vote for the Brain Tank Post of the Month and this post is nominated.

    It’s aggregation and complete customisation, along with the ability to stay on the surface or dig in as deep as one wants into anything; as you said. I don’t know what it’s going to look like and it changes regularly, but completely fascinating!

    Thanks!

  29. Scott, there’s a lot of work being done by Doc Searls et al on 21st century infrastructure, do you want me to connect you up. Also, I would strongly recommend you read Carlota Perez’s book on Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.

  30. Willem, take a look at what Clay Spinuzzi is saying on his blog on the value of ambient status. I think you will find that topic of related interest.

Let me know what you think