Dept. of Free Billion-Dollar Ideas
Please, let’s build the platform that finally connects business with its customers, at scale, in context, and with true value exchange.
From time to time we all get great ideas, but then we do nothing about them. But this one has been running around my head for years, and recently, I’ve had this conversation with enough people that it seemed time to simply write it down — and hope releasing it into the universe might possibly help bring it to fruition in some way.
Because damn, we all need this thing to exist.
The idea is simple: an easy to use, consumer friendly platform that connects businesses — all manner of them — to their customers so they can work out issues, share information, and maybe, just maybe, be in an actual relationship. It sounds obvious, but it’s proven insanely difficult to do.
Backstory: I’ve been talking about moving a company’s marketing and communications approach from one of advertising and sales to one of conversation and relationship for more than a decade. I thought social media was the obvious sea change we needed to get there, but so far, I’ve been proven wrong (does anybody remember the conversation economy?!).
Think about it. When you have a problem with a company or its products, what do you do? Pick up the phone? That’s evolved from mild purgatory to utter hell — automated voice bots and indifferent, often passive-aggressive phone agents. Complain on Twitter? If the company is active on Twitter (or Facebook), you’ll likely get a response, but whoever’s on the other end will have no idea who you are, and most likely won’t be able to solve your problem (Comcast, you’re an exception, but damn, your trucks are still dumb terminals…). Email? Good luck with that. Whoever answers customer email is most certainly going to push you to a useless website, a bot-filled voice mail tree, or back to social media, where you get to start all over again.
How did it come to this? Nearly every company operating at scale (and honestly, my product idea must also work at “sub scale,” but more on that at another time) has already invested in expensive “CRM” software that supposedly fixes all this. But of course, none of it does. The agents on the phone have no idea that you’ve complained over Twitter, for example. They have no understanding of your purchase history, of your past complaints (or positive input, if they ever garnered any), or how much (and how many times) the marketing department has attempted to convince you to take one action or another through targeted advertising. In fact, they have absolutely no idea who you really are, and for whatever reason, they seem unable to fix that situation. Data silos, I’m told. Damn data silos.
All the current purveyors of “CRM” systems — short for “customer relationship management” — will tell you that they’ve got a solution that works perfectly. But they don’t, and it doesn’t. If it did work, well, the situation I described above wouldn’t ring so true to so many of us.
Here’s why “business CRM” sucks: They’re designing for the wrong customer. They all design from the point of view of the companies who pay for their shitty software. And what do those customers say they want? More sales! More conversions! More revenue! More Milton Friedman, damnit!
So those CRM systems manage all of us as “prospects” to be sold to. It’s called Salesforce for a reason, after all. These platforms “manage” customers into ever spiraling “funnels” of “conversion” and “upsell.” Each touch point — that’s industry code for an actual conversation between a customer and a business — is scored by its potential to do one of two things: Cost the company money (hang up, quick!), or put money in the company’s till. Everything else is not only deprecated, it’s ignored.
That is some high grade crazy, and it has to stop.
A company that starts from the point of view of the end consumer is going to end up beating them all. Here’s how I think it should work:
- I have a problem, a question, or some input for a company I either do business with, or want to do business with.
- I head to the platform that has proven itself the BEST place to engage with business, because the platform’s UX just gets what I want — my intent — and all the companies on that platform understand how to communicate with me on that platform.
- When I engage on the platform, it might take a second, or it might take an hour or more, but the answer that comes back is dead on right. The intelligence behind the platform is human — even if it’s actually a chat bot, or a super AI for that matter. On this platform, it feels like a hardworking, caring, deeply informed human being is attending to my needs. It feels like I am in a committed, intelligent, and useful relationship with the company. And it’s an ongoing relationship, each time I come back, the relationship deepens.
- As a consumer on this platform, I exhibit similar behaviors I might exhibit on all those old school, non-useful platforms like Facebook or Twitter — I follow a brand, I might even call myself a fan. But first the company has to earn that fandom by proving itself worthy of my engagement and admiration.
- Companies only join the platform when they Have Their Shit Together. That means they can’t say things like “Oh sorry, I didn’t know you were already a customer.” They can’t say “Oh, jeez, you mean you had this problem last month?” They are not allowed to say “I didn’t know you already returned that item.” And — this is super important — they are not allowed to advertise to me. They pay the platform for the right to use it. They adhere to the community standards of that platform. They Do Not Try To Sell Me Shit.
- This all means the intelligence behind this platform requires companies on it have a single view of their customers. The platform enables this potential in any number of clever ways, including a deep understanding of how digital marketing, programmatic, cutting-edge customer service, call center integration etc. actually works.
Now, I could go on, but I think you get the picture. This is really hard to do, but all the pieces are in place. It’s not impossible. It’s just hard. And aren’t we supposed to try to do hard stuff in tech?!
Pulling back, I can see several places where this kind of a platform might emerge. And no, it’s not Facebook (at least not “white and blue Facebook” — they simply have no idea how to design for anything other than what they already are good at). And it’s not Google or Twitter. And it’s not Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, or NetSuite. None of those companies have the consumer-facing chops needed to get this right from a design perspective.
It might be WhatsApp, because I think that’s where they’re taking it over at Facebook. But…well, I think the DNA is too set around advertising and sales over there. And it certainly might be WeChat or another such platform in Asia, where real relationships between business and consumers are already starting to blossom.
But I think we need a different kind of company. One with massive resources and significant AI, data, and tech chops. One with deep ties to the enterprise marketplace and brand permissions not corrupted by years of chasing advertising revenue. One that is hungry for a consumer facing hit that fits hand in glove with their core competencies and their core mission.
In short, I think that company is Microsoft, and they’ll stand this service up as a new feature of LinkedIn. What do you think?
Stories Worth Watching as We Head Over Hump Day
Non voting shares? How on earth is this a “public company” anymore? Oh…Snap!.
Look, algorithms just want to give you what you want.
I’m pretty sure non-voting shares aren’t how.