As a customer, when do you really feel a company is listening?

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“Speak into the phone and let me know why you’re calling today.”

“It sounds like you’re calling about tech support.”

“Most problems can be solved in just one phone call by resetting your modem.”

“Press 1 to reset your modem”

“Please wait 30 seconds for your modem to turn off and on again.”

“If you see all of the lights flashing, please try to visit a site on the Internet.”

“Are you able to browse a web site? Press 1 for Yes, and 2 for No.”

If this exchange sounds familiar to you, you might have recently called Comcast. Continue reading “As a customer, when do you really feel a company is listening?”

The API of Me

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What is the “API of Me”?

When you think about browsing the web on your computer, tablet, or mobile device, you undoubtedly think about the ads presented to you, the information stored by companies whose websites you visit, and the other information they might know about you. If you are are particularly privacy-conscious, you make take additional measures to mitigate the tracking and categorizing of your online activity, or “digital exhaust” in addition to the explicit places you visit.

This tracking presents opportunities and disadvantages for all consumers, and particular benefit or detriment depending upon the consumer involved. If you are a frequent visitor to an outdoor products site that sells skiing equipment and you also visit a ski resort web site, you might not mind seeing an advertisement or a special offer to purchase sporting equipment. If you research a mental health issue that you didn’t wish to share with others, you might be shocked to see relevant content to your search show up in your search results on Facebook. Yet both of those scenarios are technologically possible and increasingly in use as you peruse the Internet from many sources. Add to that data the ability to provide additional context from when and where you view these sites, and retailers and others alike already have deep information stores with which to present us with information.

Is there a way to shape the ads you see and protect your data?

So how can you – the “typical” consumer who would like to get more relevant information while maintaining the privacy and security of your information appropriate to your comfort level – regulate what these companies know about you? Some of this information is regulated (the degree to which your wireless provider can track your movements and share data with advertisers) and a lot of this information – especially that which can be correlated and presented using the techniques of “big data” – is much fuzzier.

I believe that we as consumers have a right to control the data we share about and between the services and products we use, and that the economic benefit of using and sharing that information by companies should be more transparent. “The API of Me” is the name I’d like to propose for a system of capturing, sharing, and limiting information about consumers that presupposes the following ideas:

  1. The current online identity system is hopelessly fragmented and controlled by companies, not consumers.
  2. Customers and browsers (people who consume media and do not purchase) have a right to know how their information is being used.
  3. Companies have a right to make money off of this consumption and have a moral obligation to share with customers how their data is being used to make money.
  4. A system should exist to allow customers to make their preferences known that allows the customer to maintain the repository of choices and information and to provide some, all, or none of that information to companies who ask; the system should also respond similarly whether there is an account or not.
  5. We all need a service that can expand our existing electronic identity to other future uses and to allow those future uses to learn more about us and to provide better service, more utility, and societal good while minimizing the possibility of “bad actors” to make inappropriate use of that information.
  6. This idea needs to support an elegant, multi-factor authentication solution that’s as simple as possible, and no simpler.

And why would anyone use this idea?

Why would customers use The API of Me? There are more and more identity services in use today, and as they cross-reference the items we search, our movements, and the items we consume/read/watch, it’s more important than ever to have the ability to selectively publish information without being overwhelmed by a complicated array of privacy controls (have you looked at your Facebook privacy settings recently?)

Some would say that we shouldn’t have such a comprehensive source for individual information because of the danger of having it compromised when the inevitable lousy passwords are used by people who can’t be bothered to secure their personal data locker. Yet the increasing ubiquity of Facebook, Google, and Twitter-based identity systems make it more and more likely that this is a danger anyway. I’m proposing that some smart people determine a well-designed way for the 80% of us who care and want to solve this problem to be able to do so and gain more control over our data.

And why would businesses care about the API of Me? Consumers are social beings who want to have relationships with the businesses they use. They may not actually want to be contacted by those businesses, but they do want to know how and why their information is being used, and some of them even want to have the option of being paid for the use of this information. Businesses can use this knowledge to open up whole new personalized markets that don’t exist today, and better avoid alienating customers who really want to opt out.

The Future: Personal Data and Micro-segmentation

Right, you say, what if everyone opts out? But they won’t. Businesses built more like the Apple App Store, the Zappos shoe-buying experience, the Amazon online store, and the Nordstrom clothing business will thrive with better, more data-driven relationships with customers. And lower-end, logistics-savvy companies like Wal*Mart are already using Big Data in the aggregate to deliver diapers, beer, and other necessities to communities in advance of a forecasted weather event.

The future of micro-segmentation depends upon the consumer being able to self-segment. And whether that desire is to provide as much information as possible in exchange for payment or to opt-out completely, The API of Me gives consumers the ability to specify what data they will share and how they will share it, and companies a reliable near-infinite segmentation that they can use to better serve customers and open new markets.

Looking for perspective? Visit a big volcano

It's bigger than you think

Seriously, go look at a Volcano. Ok, some people might not have the privilege (or the unfortunate nearness) of living near a mountain like Mt. St. Helens, but the next time you are nearby, you should go. But why?

Geologic Time is Long

In the era of “internet time”, where everything changes in nanosecords and it’s tough to remember what you ate for breakfast much less what happened yesterday, visiting a volcano (a still active volcano) like Mt. St. Helens reminds you that our lifespans are very very short in the face of geologic time. The last major eruption of this volcano happened around 1500. The 1980 eruption (which some of us remember) was a blip. Looking at the geologic record provides us with some interesting clues and encourages us to think in much different ways. If you’re interested in thinking about time for the long haul, you might want to check out the 10,000 year clock project.

Nature Doesn’t Care What You Want

Although we clearly influence and change the scape of the planet, the sheer scope, scale, and speed of the changes that can happen in the face of an eruption like the one at Mt. St. Helens dwarf any changes that you or I might try to make on the planet’s course. That doesn’t mean we should give up on our individual efforts – but what it does mean is that the planet can be fickle. In the 1980 eruption, enough material was displaced to fill almost three quarters of a cubic mile. That’s a lot of stuff. See more details about the 1980 eruption here.

It’s Awesome

The sheer scale of the mountain is amazing. You can see Mt. St. Helens for miles on the approach to the Johnson Ridge Observatory (accessed from WA state 504), and yet it still is an incredible site to see. The photo above was taken a Johnson Ridge, about 5 and a half miles away from the Volcano and at an elevation of about 4200 feet (the mountain is around 8,000 feet in height.) Looking at Mt. St. Helens from that distance, you feel as if you’re facing it square on, yet can see the vast influence the mountain had on the surrounding valley when it erupted 31 short years ago.

Of course, Mt. St. Helens isn’t the only interesting natural wonder out there. But it’s a pretty cool one, and I’m amazed to think that I hadn’t been there and had driven past the general area tens or hundreds of times before I decided to go. And I’m glad I did.

Can you build great customer service at scale?

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How do you scale Customer Service?
Ultimately, you have to embrace the idea of Commander’s Intent (e.g.

This means something like the following:

  1. Define the objective broadly, e.g. “Provide Amazing Customer Service.”
  2. Establish a command hierarchy and roles and responsibilities, e.g. “This person can engage on any topic”, “These people may engage on some topics”, and “these people may share canned messages and may not engage on any topic, but can acknowledge the customer and pass on their concern to a higher level in the organization”
  3. Set some guardrails, e.g. “NEVER do this. And if you have questions, ask these people.”

Beyond that, the devil is obviously in the details, but I believe that if these principles are upheld:

  • Delight the customer
  • Have fun
  • Try to do the right thing
  • When any of these things don’t apply, learn from the experience

You are going to be able to handle between 80-95% of the issues. There are a few things that demand high-level support, and they emerge so infrequently that most of the time, any employee you trust to talk to customers should be able to handle customer service.

Use All of the Resources At Your Command, Including Your Customers

To scale this idea, you need only follow the metaphor of commander’s intent and include resources outside of the organization.

This could include:

  • “community members” who answer on behalf of the company or product once vetted;
  • a “customer advisory board” that helps you on an ad-hoc or planned basis to discuss wacky and mundane issues;
  • and technology that helps you channel inbound inquiries from multiple channels into a central place where you can acknowledge, triage, answer questions and then close the loop with the customer.

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