Another shot from the Koby side: Customer as Pantheon

International sport is sublimated warfare, as anybody who follows the Olympics from a chauvinistic point of view should confess. As the latest summer games get underway, it’s good to think back, way back, to these events’ putative origin in ancient Greece. Originally, the games were conducted in a distinctly religious context, in which the warring Hellenic peoples declared a quadrennial cease-fire in order to pulverize each other on the playing field, while also engaging in ritual sacrifices to their shared pantheon of gods.

customer as pantheonBusiness is also a type of sublimated warfare, a fact that economist Joseph Schumpeter’s famous notion of “creative destruction” calls out. What gods do we worship in the battle for the proverbial “almighty dollar”?

You could say it’s a purely monetary, in any capitalist economy, but Doc Searls, who runs ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has come down strongly on the side of some idealized notion of the customer as the new deity. He published a provocative article on this topic a week ago in the Wall Street Journal. It’s definitely worth reading.

Every marketing, sales, and customer service professional would genuflect to the dogma that the customer is central. But Searls takes a very different, quasi-ideological tack in his attempt to argue that most of today’s customer relationship management (CRM) best practices are not just dead wrong, but also a bit sinister.

Searls’ core focus is some radical notion of customer empowerment, in which you and I are “independent of controlling organizations and better able to engage with them.” To make this real, he proposes a new paradigm called “vendor relationship management”, which, he says, “works on the demand side of the marketplace: for you, the customer, rather than for sellers and third parties on the supply side.” One key empowerment service he proposes is the “intentcast,” in which the consumer uses their smartphone to send a request for offers to the online marketplace, without revealing private information to anyone other than vendors you trust.

data-miningAll of this is really interesting, but Searls undermines his case by demonizing established customer-centric business practices such as data mining, next best offer, marketing campaign automation, loyalty programs, sentiment analysis, experience management, and personalization. He lards his one-sided discussion with loaded phrases such as “insane,” “customers…choos[ing] their captors,” and “herd[ing] customers as if they were cattle.”

And he singles out big data as the root of all this evil: “[B]ig business thinks that the best way to get personal with customers on the Internet is with “big data,” gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge—so they can be stalked wherever they go, with their “experiences” on commercial websites “personalized” for them.”

Oh, brother. You can make a solid, substantiated case for the possibility that Searls is looking at e-commerce through the wrong end of telescope. I don’t know about you, but, as a consumer (ignore the fact that I’m a big data evangelist at a large vendor), I’m more than happy to have businesses compile detailed profiles on me, my preferences, and the like. I’m not constantly attending to my sacred consumer-god role, so I appreciate when businesses reach out to me proactively and target me with offers and experiences tuned to my specific needs. I have no illusions about the monetary motive that drives every single one of the merchants I have relationships with. But we live in the modern world, and I think most people are cool with profit-seeking capitalism, when you come right down to it.

Yeah, sure, I’d love it if I could use my smartphone and other gadgets to streamline my engagements across a wide range of federated (i.e., non-siloed) businesses. But I also appreciate the fact that many of the businesses I have relationships with use predictive propensity models to anticipate what I might need before I realize it–and I welcome them proactively sending me solicitations. Keeping my finger on the delete key is a small price to pay for not having to constantly formulate coherent outbound “intents” or requests-for-offer of the sort that Searls sketches out.

economics 101Searls grounds his discussions in his concept of an “intention economy.” This feels to me like a retread of the time-worn “rational consumer” dogma. Many researchers–in economics and other fields–have spent their career debunking or at least severely qualifying the validity of the rational consumer theory. It’s what we were all taught in Econ 101: that each of us guides our economic choices through continuous, conscious, proactive analysis of our personal requirements, finances, and alternatives. In other words, it assumes that the rational consumer has their proverbial act together: pays single-minded attention to optimizing their little corner of the economic world.

Single-minded? Often, we find, real-world consumers are of many minds: rational, irrational, and all shades of human psychology in between. If we truly had single-minded consumers, they would be easy to venerate, assuming that they always made the rational choice. As it is, businesses have to ruefully swallow less-than-godly behavior with the half-hearted “customer is always right” motto. That’s fine: you must serve some master.

Intent? Half the time, I’m not entirely sure what my own “intent” is when I’m shopping. That’s why, the vast majority of the time in retail establishments, I’ll respond to salesclerk inquiries with a kneejerk “just browsing.” In e-commerce, “just browsing” mode describes most behavior of most consumers most of the time. It’s aimless, but we don’t necessarily have to assign a conscious purpose to every waking moment.

human mindRather than assume single-minded attention and intention in the consumer-god, it’s best to think that each of us makes choices through a constant internal dialogue among many minds. See Marvin Minsky’s seminal work, “The Society of Mind,” for a great discussion about how every person’s intelligence is the dynamic synergy of many “agents”–cognition, emotion, subconscious, and otherwise–that compose a mind greater than the sum of its parts.

We don’t often truly know what’s on our mind. Sentiment analysis is tricky, because, try as you may to discern a unified rational sentiment emanating from the squabbling society of any consumer’s mind, they themselves are unclear on the matter. People say they like this or that, but other voices in their head might say otherwise or keep them from buying or recommending the product in question. Half the time, one of the voices in a consumer’s noggin is waiting for somebody or something external–such as an ad on our smartphone–to tell us we’re wrong and to suggest some other option to pursue.

Each consumer’s mind is like the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon in microcosm: a squabbling society that rarely speaks with a single, purposive voice. None of this is to imply any psychiatric condition of “multiple personalities.” But each of us often embodies many personas, dispositions, intentions, and propensities–sometimes in the same breath.

For many of us, it’s an Olympian effort to keep our warring tendencies under control when shopping.

Impulse buying is sinful but fun.

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