The Personal Empowerment Revolution

Jerry Rackley

By Jerry Rackley

As marketers, we make a career out of learning what customers value, and then trying to persuade them that our respective companies are the best at providing it. The channels and technologies involved in this work have changed, but the core strategy of trying to herd as many customers as possible into the corporate corral has not.

Doc Searls, author of “The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge” explains in a recent Wall Street Journal article that this is about to change. Searls explains that businesses (read between the line: marketers) have herded customers like cattle, but a personal empowerment revolution is underway that will introduce a sea change in the way customers buy.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) has been marketing and sales’ best friend for decades. It allows us to view customers in segments, optimize offerings and create deals for the largest or most lucrative segments. To begin to understand the revolution Searls writes about, turn CRM around and look at it as Vendor Relationship Management – VRM. Imagine how consumers would buy if they had the sophisticated systems, access to information about companies and ability to collaborate in real-time about purchase decisions? Well, it really doesn’t require much of an imagination, because such capabilities exist and their adoption is mushrooming.

Searls provides a helpful analogy to create understanding of what this revolution will look like. Big business, he says, is one in which customers get to choose their captors. “Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you’d like to live under house arrest.” Marketers are naturally competitive and we like to win. But do we really believe we have a sustainable business model if the primary reason we win is because we’re the least objectionable choice?

If we’re honest, the language we marketers use supports this view of customers as captives. We speak of them as targets (guilty) and use other terms that fail to acknowledge what the customer really is: an individual. What we’re increasingly encountering are fully empowered customers with complex needs, which our solutions don’t fully address. They just don’t always fall cleanly into one of our carefully researched market segments. What are we supposed to do then?

The implication for marketers is that we must serve as cultural change agents inside our own organizations to foster this revolution. When we do, we’ll find ourselves squarely in the center of two opposing forces. The first is the change-resistant nature of big business. Who is brave enough to propose shifting away from decades old business models that have produced large profits? It’s hard to do, even when faced with mounting, even inscrutable evidence that the model is obsolete. Remember the digital music revolution for which Napster was a catalyst? Over a decade after it emerged with such impact, the entertainment industry is still in a state of flux. The company that is the apparent winner in the digital music sweepstakes – Apple – isn’t an entertainment company at all, but it figured out how to give consumers the most freedom when it came to music purchases. This type of disruption is no longer the exception, but the norm.

The second opposing force is the will of the customer to function free and independently in the buying process, captive to no vendor. Searls suggests that trends, technologies and innovations will come and go, but freedom will remain the constant in the buying equation. The companies that catch this vision most quickly and create engagement environments that acknowledge that freedom will emerge as market leaders. They will know that the difference between a captive customer and a loyal one is freedom, a distinction that will be lost on their competitors who fade into obscurity as they scratch their heads, wondering what went wrong.

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