Taking Responsibility for the Customer-Vendor Relationship
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The first ever VRM Workshop conference just wrapped up, filled with smart discussion, great ideas, and forward momentum. One topic quickly gaining traction is the Relbutton, an early-stage VRM tool in the works that allows customers and vendors to visually declare their willingness to relate to one another on equal terms. "Relate" here means a wide variety of potential communications, transactions and intentions that might flow between a customer and vendor. "On equal terms" means that the responsibility for initiating, sharing and storing interactions rests equally on the two parties.

It might seem odd that such a distinction of equality is necessary here, but in our current economic reality, the responsibility for customer-vendor relationships lies almost entirely with the vendor. Historically, this hasn't always been the case. For at least a century, customers have subtlety and perhaps unwittingly handed over to vendors increasing responsibility for initiating and supporting their market relationships.

Customers once shopped primarily at marketplaces and bazaars, purchasing directly from individual sellers. Now customers interact with vendors in very different ways, relating with larger and more formally-structured organizations. In a bazaar, you might have set the price along with the seller. Nowadays, this price is generally dictated in advance. You might have located a product in the market by asking around or actively seeking out merchants on your own. Now, vendors take on the responsibility of finding and informing customers through their well-honed marketing, selling, and advertising push machines.

These advancements aren't designed to be nefarious. Customers often benefit from this shift in responsibility. For one, it's less work for us, and many enjoy simply choosing from among the product options marched before them. Additionally, I suspect vendors are initially unwilling to take on this added responsibility. Like all responsibilities, it means more work and increased risk. The first vendors forced to publically declare their prices in a market probably did so begrudgingly. And I don't know about you, but nothing sounds like more fun than implementing a corporate-wide CRM system. Good times.

This shift from shared responsibility to primarily vendor-owned has occurred for two reasons. First, relationships with vendors have gotten significantly more complex. As sellers morphed into more stable, meaningful and larger organizations, they found themselves with new needs – product development, brand management, enduring customer service, and shareholder accountability – all demanding excellence in order to compete. Addressing these needs required more and deeper relationships with customers, and the emergence of information technologies made managing these relationships possible. Good vendors now touch the customer at virtually every step of their value chain and tools like CRM systems helped feed the flames.

The second reason for vendors taking the relationship responsibility is that customers didn't step up and do it themselves. Individuals have been too distributed and independent to take on any sort of enlightened responsibility. It's hardly surprising that vendors picked up the ball. However, the Cluetrain Manifesto has taught us that the Internet holds the power to change this dynamic. Distributed connectivity has enabled a new set of communications and transaction environments to support individually-driven marketplace activity like customer price setting, product finding, and product reviews.

But these new internet offerings constitute proprietary destinations that are formal vendor organizations in their own right. What VRM is championing with the relbutton is a new type of distributed tool set that does not belong to any one company, that is vendor-agnostic, and that is mutually-beneficial for both customers and vendors. With the relbutton, individuals can begin to once again share in the responsibility of initiating and maintaining relationships, for example, by proactively communicating their needs in a more open and uncontrolled way. Shared responsibility is an important factor in all healthy relationships, and as VRM tools gain adoption, this paves the way for a more natural and authentic way of doing business.