Jeremy Zawodny joins VRM (perhaps unknowingly)

Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo!, recently asked Where to buy unlocked GSM mobile phones? perhaps unknowingly following in the footsteps of VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) pioneer Doc Searls.

I’m a big fan of Jeremy’s blog, even if that is where he introduced me to the most time consuming addiction I’ve had in years (thanks a lot Jeremy). It is a nice balance of professional and personal posts, useful enough for folks in the search business and authentic enough to feel like you know Jeremy and even come to like him. In short, an enjoyable and successful blog.

In his recent post, he asked:

I may be in the market for a relatively cheap quad-band GSM phone that can be used in various foreign countries. Nothing fancy. I just need something I can drop a SIM card into and make calls and maybe send a few text messages.

The trouble is that I have no idea where to buy one and what to look out for. I’ve seen some available on Amazon.com and, as expected, they seem to be all over eBay. Plus there are various on-line stores that seem to specialize in selling unlocked GSM phones to people in the United States. But I don’t know which are trustworthy.

So if you wanted a handy little Motorola or Nokia GSM phone, where would you buy it on-line? And, if you happen to have a preference, which phone(s) would you look at or try to avoid?

In case you’re wondering, I’ve been a Verizon (CDMA) user for a few years now and have no plans to change that. I’m just looking for something that’d be handy when I and others travel.

Amazing. This is functionally identical to Doc’s VRM Inquiry looking for a new phone back in November 2006:

Okay, I’m gonna ditch my Verizon Wireless account, and the silo’d-to-hell Palm 700p that goes with it (and not with other providers). The Palm is nice in some ways, but its too heavy, too crashy, too lousy at too many things I depend on. (Dialing, for example.)

So here’s my VRM intention-market gesture of the day…

I want a phone that is GSM-based (so it works overseas as well as in the U.S.), works across as much of the U.S. and Canada as possible (Verizon has been a disappointment in this respect), has a GPS, and has an easy-to-use UI. I don’t care about PDA functions, ringtones (I like the old Western Electric bell ring, though), or camera functions. I like keys that are easy to read and use, and an address book that’s easy to synchronize with a computer. It would be nice, for personal reasons (I work for Linux Journal), if it ran on Linux. I’d rather it not (for the same reason) run on Windows. Mostly I just want it to be a good GSM phone with a GPS. And I’m willing to let the GPS function slide, just to get a good phone.

And I’m ready to buy it.

So, who gets my money, and for what? (The Nokia E62 has been recommended, but I’m not sure the phone keys aren’t too small.)

Consider what these posts have in common:

  • posted on high-traffic blogs
  • written by sophisticated Internet power users
  • requests for cell phone and cell phone vendors
  • considerable detail about what they want and don’t want in terms of features
  • lack of certainty about which product meets their needs best
  • lack of certainty about where to buy that product
  • a request for help from their readership
  • customers ready, willing, and able to buy, right now

What’s fascinating to me is that both of these posts are clear VRM gestures well before any sort of VRM infrastructure is built to handle it. Doc’s worked. And Jeremy’s probably will also, because he has a large enough, friendly enough, and sophisticated enough readership to help him find a phone that fits his needs.

I know that two VRM RFPs don’t make a trend, but for them both to show up in my feed reader and be for GSM phones by sophisticated guys who know as well as most how to research and shop online… I believe it is a bellwether of things to come.

I’ve written a few times about the VRM personal RFP. From my view it is one of the “low hanging fruits” of the VRM world. Shopatron has already demonstrated a viable approach for turning confirmed orders over to a streamlined marketplace of vendors. Now both Doc and Jeremy are showing that even without that streamlined marketplace, for some purchases, just blogging a psuedo-RFP is better than the alternatives.

Many people have raised criticisms about personal RFPs.

  1. People don’t want to do all that work
  2. People don’t want to wait for responses
  3. You can’t change vendor behavior
  4. It’s too complicated
  5. Vendors can’t handle open-ended RFPs
  6. There’s a catch-22: without orders, no vendors. without vendors, no orders.

On the surface, these all seem like valid obstacles. But each one is either untrue or irrelevant.

First, for some purchases, people already do an incredible amount of work. I’ve interviewed a TV buyer who spent 18 months gradually, slowly researching his options before finally purchasing a new 42″ plasma TV. And it took a full three months after he was financially committed to buying it to actually settle on the model and vendor. Another interviewee spend 28 hours over four days researching travel and work options for teaching abroad. She knew what she was looking for, had plenty of experience, and found that this was the kind of research she needed and was willing to do to plan and create her trip.

Clearly, people are willing to put a lot of work into these kinds of purchases. These are complex searches. And it seems clear to me that there are a lot of these kinds of searches that could be made easier with the right tools, including VRM personal RFPs.

Second, there is no reason that a personal RFP requires any more waiting that submitting an HTTP request. Sure, some models of RFP fulfillment have a certain amount of delay, especially if vendors need a human to process the order. I don’t know the reason for the delays at Priceline, but at Shopatron this delay is effectively hidden from the user. Shopatron’s approach works because they have a fixed set of products and vendors–and a fixed price–where they can assure timely delivery: the delay gets eaten up in the shipping and handling rather than in the purchasing.

Once more scalable VRM protocols are defined, vendors will be able to participate in real-time. If Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise are all in the VRM marketspace, there isn’t any reason they couldn’t automate responses to RFPs for rental cars. It’s not automated yet, but then again, neither were any of the direct to consumer shopping services in 1993. The web changed all that, with realtime responses for product inquiries, orders, tracking, returns, and more. So, count on a large number of VRM RFPs creating responses in seconds, especially in well-established markets like travel and real estate.

Third, vendor’s behaviors change all the time. The World-Wide Web changed a lot of things. And so has Shopatron. While new innovations always face challenges the more they disrupt current practices, there are always vendors willing to be first movers if the payoff potential is large enough. There will also be vendors who will fight tooth and nail before they do business any different than what got them where they are today. That’s just part of the challenge. We not only have to find the right vendors, we have to find the right solution, the right way to communicate it, and the right way for them to say “yes.” That’s called sales. Fortunately, I can think of nothing more motivating to a vendor than a confirmed, qualified, and capable customer.

Fourth, it is becoming increasingly clear that people demand solutions to complicated problems. Of course, we want it to be as simple as possible, but we are well beyond the early days of the world wide web where people were learning how to click on hyperlinks. People have sophisticated needs and while the simplicity of the Google search box made a huge difference in how we surf the web, even Google knows they have to move beyond that. We know that getting the right answer can’t happen magically. We are decades away (at least) from mind-reading computers that distill basic needs into real-world products and services. Some how, some way, we must express our intent so that people can respond, even better if computers can respond automatically. The challenge is figuring out how to package RFPs like Doc’s and Jeremy’s without losing the ease, flexibility, and specific vagueness, boundaries that were clear but within which many options would work. The technical challenge is significant, but I don’t believe it is too complicated for users. Instead, I suggest that the solutions we’ve seen so far might be too complicated for users. Sort of like the Internet before hyperlinks.

Fifth, while many vendors can’t handle open-ended RFPs, that doesn’t mean the entire system fails. It simply means that that vendor can only respond to limited RFPs. An unnamed car rental agency responded to Doc’s presentation of VRM with the certainty that they could never respond to all the varied options that people ask for. Their inventory management systems simply don’t have that kind of flexibility. However, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t respond to those RFPs that fit within their parameters or even respond to partial hits with proposals that clearly specify their limitations. When the waiter apologizes because the restaurant is out of your favorite beer, do you leave the restaurant? Not usually. A VRM RFP needs to enable a sales conversation to take place, one that affords vendors a chance to suggest partial RFPs based on existing capability and capacity. High-end vendors who specialize in custom, high margin requests, would be free to propose a solution that meets the full RFP. Ultimately, the user selects which vendor gets the order.

Sixth, this kind of catch-22 is actually a network effect. It is true that in the beginning there won’t necessarily be a lot of users to attract vendors and that as vendors start to participate, there will be limits on the types of products and services available. This is a catch-22. However, as new vendors join, it becomes increasingly attractive to customers. And the more customers, the more attractive it becomes to vendors. And when this is delivered in an open-standard, open-network environment, the runaway tipping point can happen quickly and in many different markets at once. So, rather than complain about the catch-22, find those seed markets where vendors and customers can readily see the value, and build services to connect people with vendors. There will be early adopters. In the right markets, those adopters will trigger a network effect that catalyzes the entire marketspace, just as the World-Wide Web grew from academia to technology markets to technologists to eventual mainstream adoption.

I don’t know if Jeremy realized he was making a VRM gesture or if he would even consider his post an “RFP,” but perhaps he will see this post and think a bit about how VRM is addressing something fundamentally new, and yet, incredibly close to what we people already need.

The $64,000 question: why didn’t Jeremy just search Yahoo!?

There’s a lot of room to go in search… and NONE of the current search providers–not just Yahoo!–could have answered Doc or Jeremy’s inquiry more effectively than their blog posts. In fixing that problem lies the hope of VRM personal RFPs.

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