Doc Searls is the ghost in the ceiling of the Berkman Center. Most of our “non-resident fellows” are folks we hear from a couple of times a year when their travel schedule makes it possible for them to be in Cambridge. But Doc is religious about calling in to our fellows meetings each Tuesday and participating remotely… which means that we usually hear from him in the speakers in the ceiling of the main conference room at Berkman.
But Doc was actually, physically present at Berkman on Tuesday, which was a real treat for those of us who’ve benefitted from his disembodied wisdom so far this semester. He updated our crew on what he’s working on this year, a lovely idea he calls “Vendor Relationship Management”.
The term – VRM – is a direct reaction to CRM – “Customer Relationship Management”, a process that Doc and others wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto in angry opposition to. CRM isn’t actually about building relationships with that customer – it’s about controlling that customer’s data, nagging them at regular intervals to make additional purchases and making it difficult for the customer to leave the company, often by claiming ownership of data or settings she or he has created.
Vendor Relationship Management is designed to invert this whole process. It posits a customer with control over how much data she’s willing to give out and the ability to put specific requests to a wide set of possible vendors. Doc offers a specific example: I’m landing at LAX on December 28th and I want to rent a midsize car that has the ability to play mp3 CDs. Who’s got a vehicle for me, and how much does it cost? First, this request breaks the system of nearly all car rental companies at present. Second, in the paradigm we currently use, you as a consumer are forced to go to each company’s website and repeat your requests. A more fluid market would allow you to specify your needs and see who wanted to bid to serve you.
The idea behind VRM is moving beyond a relationship where the ownership of the data in a transactional relationship is all on the side of the vendor. It’s a move towards independence from vendors and engagement with vendors on our own terms – I may be willing to tell you my car request, but not my identity or payment information until you make me an offer.
Doc’s first steps on the project are a wiki where he and others are thrashing out these ideas, and an upcoming “unconference”, which is happening at the end of the Liberty Alliance week of meetings in late January in the Bay Area. There’s dozens of links to webposts fleshing out the VRM idea on the wiki – very much worth looking through to get a sense for the idea Doc is exploring.