The ‘R’ in VRM

Jeremie recently asked “What does the R mean in VRM?

The question I ask myself about VRM though is what does the Relationship mean? Many of the situations that have been proposed for VRM to play a role are Vendor (am I the only person to call them VenDUHs in conversations?) selection systems, where you establish a new relationship or transaction.

Absolutely right. I would call much of the conversation so far about Vendor discovery & selection, rather than just selection, but Jeremie’s point is still valid. Where’s the relationship? The idea of a personal digital RFP that people can use get bids from vendors in an open marketspace is powerful, but, by itself, would not fulfill Doc‘s vision of VRM. As I mentioned previously, at a minimum, people need tools for the search before the RFP. Many of those searches will by inherently complex and could benefit from a tool that handles Advanced Search. But there’s more…

People will also need tools to better handle their relationships. Today, those relationships are often codified in various forms of identity: credit cards, loyalty cards, membership cards, business cards, driver’s licenses, passports, issued by corporations (including public sector/govt. corporations), but they needn’t be. Doc Searls makes it clear in Turning the world I-side out:

All the identities in our wallets and purses, from social security numbers to credit card numbers to library and museum memberships, are given to us by organizations. More importantly, they represent “customer relationship management” (CRM) systems that at best respect a tiny fraction of who we are and what we might bring to a “relationship”. What CRM systems call a “relationship” is so confined, so minimal, so impoverished and so incomplete that it insults the word.

VRM turns that upside down, in part by placing identity firmly in a user-centric context–a context where Identity isn’t just accessible by the user, it is defined by the user. When users can define and apply their identities easily, the entire vendor/customer game changes.

When you can cost-effectively leverage your entire identity across multiple contexts without sacrificing privacy, you get more satisfying products at better prices. Soccer Moms can get time-saving family-friendly offers while twenty-something hipsters get access to a world of services perfect for their late-night indulgent lifestyle. And nobody needs to know when the Soccer Mom by day is also a twenty-something hipster by night. Everyone gets what they want and everyone gets more value without losing the sense of privacy we demand. Vendors make higher profits with more targetted offerings, all seamlessly available to anyone accessing the marketspace, with extremely low marginal costs.

Bringing this back to Jeremie’s question, my answer is that Vendor relationships are both dependent on, and assertions of, Identity. You can’t have a relationship with a vendor unless they can tell who you are.

Amazon can’t recommend new books unless they know the user. I can’t pay my gas company bill without my account number (or other way to identify myself).

Sometimes people leverage their relationship with one vendor at another, like I use my KCRW fringe benefits card to get a discount at Borders. The KCRW membership card is both a statement of my identity–as an assertion of my relationship with KCRW–and it is a modifier of my relationship with Borders–giving me discounts. I have a Borders membership card, but I haven’t figured out if I can link my KCRW identity with the Borders identity so I have to present both every time. If I could just have both relationships show up automagically when I use one of my credit cards, that would certainly make life easier. If I could set it up so that any company (or maybe just select companies) that offers KCRW fringe benefits (and no one else) automatically knows about my KCRW membership when it helps a transaction, I’d get all these benefits without hassle. And as long as the cashier reminds me of it, I’ll be able to spread that appreciation to both the KCRW and vendor’s brands appropriately. Private, automatic benefits, with explicit acknowledgement and branding.

In other words, give users control over their identities, and you give them control over their relationships. And everyone wins.

VRM needs interoperable Identity systems. VRM applies Identity to give users control over both vendor relationships and individual transactions. Vendor selection and discovery turn personal digital RFPs into new relationships while giving vendors you already have a relationship with an opportunity to participate in the process. As new vendors are discovered, they become new relationships, and the wonderful cycle continues.

VRM is definitely more that just vendor selection. With the power of Identity, it can truly reshape how people relate to vendors.

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