VRooMing along

A quick progress report on a number of VRM fronts.

First, lots of action around TrustFabric.org, a VRM company in South Africa. To get some background on context, start with KYC: Know Your Customer. This good-sense imperative takes on official qualities when banking is involved, or holes are left for criminals to slip through. In South Africa it takes form in the Financial Intelligence Centre Act, aka FICA (not to be confused with the U.S.’s Federal Insurance Contributions Act, which shows up on personal income taxes every year). Turns out FICA is a pain in the butt for honest folks. But with problems come opportunities. Joe Botha explains TrustFabric’s this way:

“Most of us who interact with banks, mobile phone companies and ISPs have come to fear the terms FICA and RICA. We know the pain involved in scanning and faxing copies of identity documents and proof of residence invoices. The endless duplication, which in the case of FICA often has to be repeated every three months can feel pointless and like a huge waste of our time,” says Joe Botha, CEO of TrustFabric.

TrustFabric has built a free service, which lets users securely store and selectively share their FICA documents.

Users create a TrustFabric Connect account and upload FICA documents to their Document Store. They create a unique link for each business that requires their documents. Connections to their Document Store are password protected. Users have the option to define an expiry date and receive notifications when their documents are accessed.

The Document Store service is an extension of the TrustFabric Connect service. TrustFabric Connect gives users a way to define how businesses are allowed to contact them via email, phone, text message and snail mail.

“TrustFabric is a Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) service. Businesses use CRM to manage relationships with their customers, while VRM provides customers with tools to manage relationships with businesses.” says Botha. “The new service is a natural extension of this ethos as it puts power back in the hands of the customer. It relieves both the business and the customer from the frustration, duplication and bureaucratic nightmare that is common to FICA processes.”

Here’s more on TrustFabric Connect. Here’s a story on Joe and TrustFabric. And here’s another explaining TrustFabric Connect as “a do-not-contact list that lets individuals opt-out of direct marketing, makes it easy for businesses to comply with legislation protecting customer rights and update existing customers.”

Next, relevantly, two stories on MyData in the U.K.: Consumers to have access to personal marketing data held by businesses—A new scheme, mydata, plans to “empower” consumers by giving them access to personal information held by businesses in the Guardian. Mydex is involved. I am also told that the U.K. government gets how big this is, and is taking the lead.

Gam Dias brings us vrm, fourth party and the empowered consumer, a long and thoughtful blog post. The key excerpt:

What appears to be missing is a service where vendors (manufacturers and retailers) are able to locate individuals looking for products that they might supply.Service Magic and Elance allow seekers to find providers in the Service space, yet nothing really exists yet in the consumer-product space.

vrm and the fourth party

The Fourth Party is a concept that has emerged from the VRM movement – it proposes a fourth party that acts on behalf of the Customer in the same way that a Third Party acts on behalf of the Vendor. If the Vendors are the hotel chains, airlines and car rental companies, then the third parties are ExpediaOrbitz andTravelocity and a fourth party might be the “agent” that negotiates with the travel aggregators to find the best deal.

The advantages to the customer of a four party system are huge and easily understandable. Booking my recent trip to Las Vegas involved a large number of parameters (flight times, airline options, hotel locations and star ratings, car rental companies and car sizes and above all the price parameters) – booking the trip took 3 hours and ended up with a deal for flight and hotel from Expedia and car from Hotwire. If there had been a service to whom I could have sent all the parameters and have them take care of it, then I would have paid for that and they would have probably got me a better deal if they do it all the time.

But wait… I remember a service like that from when I was a child, I think we called it a ‘Travel Agent’. But didn’t they become extinct a few years ago? Perhaps it’s time for them to re-emerge, but not only booking travel, but also handling all sorts of complex requirements, particularly bundles of goods and services. If enough people were able to publish their requests for things and there was a fee involved in finding a solution, a human outsource agent model is likely to emerge – something like the Dedicated Assistant service.

The fourth party also gets around the problem faced by Aggregators (such asKelkoo and Nextag) – to ensure that the consumer is presented with all the offers available. With a fourth party, their value will be to ensure this.

the future state

Once this starts to scale and requests are in millions and billions, then eventually the dedicated assistants will need to be augmented with more automated service that respond faster and are perhaps able to bid at auctions or take advantage of limited time / quantity deals, then my belief is that we will see Agent Technology doing our bidding online. I’ll be watching this space closely for many reasons.

David Dorf in Oracle’s Insight-Driven Retail Blog writes a nice post about VRM titled CRM vs. VRM. He calls VRM,

…a reverse CRM of sorts.  Instead of vendors managing their relationships with customers, customers manage their relationships with vendors.

Your shopping experience is not really controlled by you; rather, its controlled by the retailer and advertisers.  And unfortunately, they typically don’t give you a say in the matter.  Yes, they might tailor the content for “female age 25-35 interested in shoes” but that’s not really the essence of you, is it?  A better approach is to the let consumers volunteer information about themselves.  And why wouldn’t they if it means a better, more relevant shopping experience?  I’d gladly list out my likes and dislikes in exchange for getting rid of all those annoying cookies on my harddrive.

He adds,

The closest thing to VRM I can find is Buyosphere, a start-up that allows consumers to track their shopping history across many vendors, then share it appropriately.  Also, Amazon does a pretty good job allowing its customers to edit their profile, which includes everything you’ve ever purchased from Amazon.  You can mark items as gifts, or explicitly exclude them from their recommendation engine.  This is a win-win for both the consumer and retailer.

So here is my plea to retailers: Instead of trying to infer my interests from snapshots of my day, please just ask me.  We’ll both have a better experience in the long-run.

I should add that it’s been VRM+CRM from the start, though “vs” works in this case. (And we’re working on setting up the next VRM+CRM workshop. Hope David and some Oracle folks can make it.)

Alan Patrick writes VRM, Loopt and the Reverse-Groupon Effect. “…the thing that keeps me interested in VRM is that part of me thinks that if (i) the power of today’s web was harnessed (ii) with modular product design ansd (iii) the sheer numbers online now, it may become a reality.”

On Twitter @ScottEustace suggests that Seth Godin‘s Show me the (meta) data is a VRM post. Could be. Says Seth,

Who owns the trail of digital breadcrumbs you’re leaving behind?

Is understanding who you know and how you know them and where you visit and what you’re interested in and what you buy worth anything?

Perhaps you should own it. Richard Thaler’s provocative idea shouldn’t be that provocative, and it represents a significant business opportunity. He argues that you (not some company) ought to own your caller history, your credit card history, etc. If it was available to you as a machine-readable file, you could easily submit it to another company and see if there was a better deal available. You could make your preferences and your history (you, basically) portable, and others could bid for a chance to do better for you.

This is an idea that feels inevitable to me, and I think that entrepreneurs shouldn’t wait for the government to require it. There are already services that scrape financial pages (like Mint), but it could go further. We need software on our phones that can remember where we go and what we do, software for our browsers that can create profiles that save us time and money, and most of all, software for our email that gets ever smarter about who we are and who we’re connecting to.

Data about data is more important than ever, and being on the side of the person creating that data is a smart place to be.

Can’t get much more VRooMy than that.

In his Loyalty Blog, Mark Sage suggests that the Pizza Express app is a glimpse into the future of VRM. A long excerpt:

This is a really interesting feature that both Pizza Express and Square have in common – the provision of customer data back to the customer – and it is becoming increasingly common as customers begin to expect their data to be collected, but increasingly consider it “their” data. When I shop at Tesco I know they are tracking my purchases, however when I go online and see new products added to my favourites list it begins to actually feel like my data.

This trend of providing information back to customers and giving them access to and ownership of it is also gathering pace.

Within websites and applications for example you are increasingly given the option to login via social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. While you still login, connecting via a social network provides a subtle change. You are actually granting permission to that application to connect to you rather than the other way round. At any time, I can review my relationships with different applications and simply close them down by removing the authorisation. I can also look at the permissions I’ve granted to those applications and change what information they can see.

There has been a transfer of power within identity management. It’s now my identity and I can choose who has access to it, how much access they have and when I want to end it.

Imagine this trend being extended to all your interactions.

Within a supermarket loyalty programme for example you could link your purchase history to an app from a CPG manufacture like Unilever. You’d be doing this in the full knowledge that Unilever could then access your purchases and provide you with relevant offers (or reward points). You’d be choosing how to use your information for your benefit.

This is a really amazing thought and something that has been termed VRM or Vendor Relationship Management…

Google is also ahead of this curve, with its Data Liberation Front. Says the Data Liberation team,

The Data Liberation Front is an engineering team at Google whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products. We do this because we believe that you should be able to export any data that you create in (or import into) a product. We help and consult other engineering teams within Google on how to “liberate” their products. This is our mission statement:

Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google’s products. Our team’s goal is to make it easier to move data in and out.

People usually don’t look to see if they can get their data out of a product until they decide one day that they want to leave. For this reason, we always encourage people to ask these three questions before starting to use a product that will store their data:

  1. Can I get my data out at all?
  2. How much is it going to cost to get my data out?
  3. How much of my time is it going to take to get my data out?

The ideal answers to these questions are:

  1. Yes.
  2. Nothing more than I’m already paying.
  3. As little as possible.

There shouldn’t be an additional charge to export your data. Beyond that, if it takes you many hours to get your data out, it’s almost as bad as not being able to get your data out at all.

We don’t think that our products are perfect yet, but we’re continuing to work at making it easier to get your data in and out of them. Visit our Google Moderator page to vote on and add suggestions on what you’d like to see liberated and why.

And that’s pretty darned VRooMy too.


  1. CRM

    I am totally agree with your last post about Google CRM Says the Data Liberation team..
    Thanks for post..

  2. mark slater

    Without knowing about you and your work – it seems we’ve been building A realtime VRM tool all along – i refer to it as consumer pull – but as i read more about your thinking – i cant but feel like we should meet. We are testing in boston right now.

    i am going to email you seperately.

    kind regards

    Mark Slater

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