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Introducing Product Relationship Management - it's what customers want.

Most businesses these days have Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems which store and process vasts amounts of information about us. They use this information to generate communications, amongst other things, which target us to buy their products and services. CRM is all about how a business relates to its customers: Past (keeping them loyal through aftersales and service), Present (helping them buy through bricks and clicks channels) and Future (prospecting).

Most businesses will at some stage have declared themselves 'customer-centric'. They will probably have drawn diagrams on whiteboards that look something like these:

But there's a problem with this whole approach of keeping the customer at the centre of your world and the focal point for everything you do. Is it what the customer wants? Of course companies who ignore their customers eventually go out of business. And those who treat their customers well, tend to thrive. But is it really in the best interests of their customers to ensure that they are constantly the focus of their attention? Do we even like being the focus of attention?

I've spent most of my career in the car industry (including over 30 years building companies that sell online or SaaS services to car manufacturers and their dealer networks). There's a general belief in the car industry, which is shared no doubt by every other sector, that the closer you get to your customer, the more that customer will want to do business with you and recommend you to their friends. I believe that this approach doesn't take into account customer sentiment. In fact I suspect there's a danger that a negative reaction might occur where over attentive businesses might drive customers away.

I'm sure I'm not alone in not wanting to be close to brands that want to sell me stuff. I know all corporations want is my money, not my happiness. I don't want to be friends with their retailers and sales people. I don't like them trying to be my mate and trying to understand everything there is to know about me, my family, where I live, my hobbies, my interests, my wealth, my buying habits and my trouser measurements. Frankly I don't want the businesses I buy stuff from, or I am thinking of buying stuff from, to know anything about me that I haven't specifically told them or that they might need to know to make sure their product is right for me.

All I want them to do is answer my questions. And if I do decide to become a customer, make sure what I buy from them is good value, arrives on time or is easy to get hold of, and keeps working... forever. That's it. I don't want them to assume I'm their new best mate. I just want what I bought to work and not to have cost me too much. I want the business who sold it to me to relate to the product I bought, and NOT to me. Get it to me, keep it working perfectly, make me aware of anything that might interest me, and other owners like me, to help me get the most from it. Then when the time is right, help me replace it when it becomes obsolete, when I get sick of it, or when a better version becomes available.

Relate to the Product, not to the Customer. As far as I am concerned, who I am is not important for companies to know. In fact I'd much rather they didn't know. It's what I bought that I am happy we both share an interest in. As a customer, I believe it's Product Relationship Management, not Customer Relationship Management that should be the focus of all businesses and the world in general outside my circle of friends.

Having said this, of course businesses need to keep as much relevant information about their customers and prospects as possible. Nothing's more annoying than getting irrelevant or inaccurate letters and emails, or them not knowing who I am or what I've bought from them when I call. But the majority of speculative communication that they traditionally aim at customers (eg. junk mail and those intrusive ads we all hate), alternatively needs to be focused at the product they sold me (I'll show you how in a moment). It's what we BOTH are most interested in. The business(es) that made it and sold it to me have one job, and that's to make sure I'm happy that I bought it. Don't think of me as a customer, where their thinking is that what I bought is secondary to what they hope I will buy from them in the future. Think of me as an owner who may well return for more, not because I like the businesses who sold me stuff, but because I enjoy owning it. It's not the buying that's important for future business, it's the owning!

This sort of thinking is hard for most businesses. Their priority, quite rightly, is on sales and profit. What people previously bought from them tends to be relegated to Customer Support in the hope that we won't experience too many problems - or these days, give poor feedback and discourage future buyers. It's about damage limitation not opportunity building. But that thinking is at odds with everyone except those who've decided to be in the market for their products today. It largely ignores Past customers and treats Future customers crudely and naively.

Is it a coincidence that OWN is an anagram for both NOW and WON?

So how do businesses combine maintaining an ongoing interest in the things they've previously sold us and not with the people who bought them? Imagine your car, smartphone, house or tennis racquet has its own Facebook page or website. In other words a digital presence all of its own which I call its Blogbook. Today this idea is part of the Internet of Things (IoT). As the owner of those things, you have control over their digital presence - just as you do the physical objects themselves. The fact that you own them needs to be information only you need to know. The fact that they exist can be shared with anyone who might have useful information to help you maximise your enjoyment of whatever they are.

When I presented this idea to the marketing director of a large retailer a few years ago, he likened the concept to something they conceptually called the Kitchen Drawer - the place you jam all the documentation you get when you buy stuff (receipts, manuals, warranty stuff). I liked this idea, but it didn't convey how that documentation is connected to the outside world. Nor did it suggest its multimedia aspects.

The image below is from a presentation I gave many years ago to illustrate how PRM (or in this case, Vehicle Relationship Management) relates to the way interested parties, including the car's owner, connect in data terms to the product itself. As you can see, the Suppliers (including the people who originally made and sold the car to the Owner) and other information providers, generically called Publishers in this model, don't have direct contact with the Owner. They only have 'contact' with the vehicle itself. In other words only the current owner knows who he or she is (and of course people who need to know like the government). The only thing everyone else knows is that the car exists.

There are many aspects to this concept as the item itself passes through an ownership lifecycle. And where something like a car is involved, that can be several ownership lifecycles where new owners pass in and out of the car's world.

So something called 'Recommerce' also features here where, in this case, a car has a value while it is being owned and not just when the owner decides to sell it. In other words, it might attract offers to buy it from members of the public as well as from the trade - at any time, and not just when the owner decides to sell it (which most will put off for as long as possible). Recommerce, or the Circular Economy and Collaborative Consumption, are becoming hot topics these days where rather than throw something away when you want to replace it, you recycle it, ideally for an agreed price, thereby enabling someone else to continue enjoying it. Your cost to change it is also reduced - which for a car, usually represents a substantial part of the trade-in deal.

Another feature of digital PRM is related to information surrounding the item. These fall into two categories:

  • Information related to its Ownership (ie specific to this car), such as receipts, service records, valuation, warranty and insurance documentation, finance agreements, taxation and other government requirements etc;
  • Information shared by every other example of that item or Generic information. This might include things like owner manuals, pictures and videos of people using it, specialist magazines and news articles etc.
Probably one of the neatest ideas behind PRM is something called Wikifiles. This is essentially a database of Generic information (for example about that model of car) which is populated by other owners of the same thing, its manufacturer and perhaps other enthusiasts or experts. One person adds, say an owners manual, and every owner of that model benefits from it. It also means Wikifiles grows as documents, including videos etc, are added and updated. It's like a Wikipedia for all products.

Equally, as an item and its Blogbook passes from owner to owner (this is most likely to happen for things we already trade such as 'used' cars, houses and collectables), so will their history. A bit like a Facebook profile, its Blogbook is where previous pictures and stories as well as its history and provenance (important for antiques and classic cars) pass down on a timeline and where only the current owner has control over who sees what information (eg the public, previous owners perhaps or nobody other than the owner).

Likewise news items and alerts related to that specific item (such as warranty reminders) or new generic information relevant to all examples of that item (like some product advice from the manufacturer) can either be channeled direct to the owner through whatever means they wish (eg email), or they remain available for viewing on that item's website or Blogbook. But the essential aspect is that nobody knows who the owner is so all this information is aimed solely at the item. And from there, the owner can decide what to do with it.

This would be a huge step forward in the vital privacy debate. Imagine an end to all that junk mail and nuisance phone calls.

There are many other aspects to PRM and the information management system opportunities surrounding it (my career has been spent inventing these sorts of things). These might also include various social aspects related to shared ownership interests as well as recommerce mechanisms for bidding, refurbishment and trade between owners. A few years ago I set up a company, which I called R9... or rnine - which looks like the word MINE :-) - to exploit the various ideas behind PRM, but despite a considerable amount of interest and support for the concept, the scope for it was so huge that it never achieved the momentum it deserved to get off the ground. I may have deep pockets, but my central business principle is to find a customer for something first before committing investment to build what they want.

But together with a small team of fellow PRM enthusiasts, we did develop...

The PRM Charter

   We don’t focus on people, we focus on what they own.
   We will only communicate with their possessions unless owners opt-in to direct contact.
   Protecting an owner's secure and private continuous access to their ownership documentation is our highest technical priority.
   Communications will always be relevant. We will not permit communications offering products and services that are not related to each item.
   An item is unique, it cannot be owned by more than one person at the same time.
   Valuations will either be genuine bids or estimated by a recognised market authority.
   Technical specifications will be validated by the original manufacturer wherever possible.
   Owners are the highest editorial authority. They will determine what information proliferates and what is downgraded.
   We will categorise items using indexation standards that offer the richest potential for ownership value. Commercial considerations will always be secondary.
   R9 (the company I founded to develop PRM) will be funded by businesses, never consumers.
   Businesses will be offered the opportunity to pay for enhanced ownership experiences within the remit of this Charter. They will not be able to pay for any data or activity which is not in the best interests of the consumer.

In 2001, when I was growing an internet start-up in the UK called 2nd Byte (later sold to Autotrader) whose customers were car manufacturers, I realised that PRM, or Vehicle Relationship Management when applied specifically to cars, could become important. At the time I wrote this article which was published in the British automotive press. My thinking hasn't changed much since then. Although the article looks in detail at car buying and selling processes, it asks the question 'who should own the relationship?' - the customer or businesses trying to sell to the owner? PRM says it's the customer who owns it and should therefore control it. But it will rely on businesses and other sources populating the item's Blogbook and related Wikifiles database with comprehensive, relevant and timely information to enable the owner to optimise their ownership experience. And this may encourage owners, and their friends, to spend more money... which would be good for business.

I would also hope that not only will PRM be a valuable and welcome move in the right direction regarding privacy (about which I've also written at length), it might also help to enhance opportunities for Collaborative Consumption, Recycling and the Circular Economy.

I've been thinking and talking about PRM for many years. There's a great deal more to it than I've included in this introductory post. Maybe one day I'll write more but in the meantime I hope this has intrigued you.


  1. Really interesting idea. Socialising the things we own. Good luck with it.


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