CRM Futures: What If the Customer Were in Complete Control?


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Imagine a world where advances in technology and changes in lifestyle and attitudes lead to a seismic shift in the way in which consumers interact with suppliers. What if there is rapid lift-off in mobile commerce, and device recognition and voice authentication make the PDA the dominant channel for most consumer purchases?

What if the speed of everyday life and the need for greater privacy become so ingrained in the consumer psyche that face-to-face transactions become the exception, not the rule? Think this world is far away?

As a consultant in strategy and CRM, I can tell you it’s not as far away as you might think. In fact, the technology is already here.

Consider that advertising agencies are today facing a breakdown in the power of mass media and are struggling to find new, more interactive ways to engage consumers.

Imagine a new type of consumer, the “initiating consumer,” who receives no direct mail, no TV advertising, no pop-ups. Why? Because the consumers have opted out; their lives are so busy and their time so precious that they manage their interactions with suppliers of all sorts of products and services through alternative channels. They are prepared to provide personal profile data in such areas as purchasing habits, lifestyle and health records, in turn initiating all their purchases—insurance renewals, tailored healthcare packages, home delivery of a pre-selected shopping basket, a new car—from the comfort and security of their own PDA.

Their needs and preferences are managed via their personal web site, which has dynamic links to their PDA. Trusted search engines continuously sweep these sites and interpret purchase requests based on consumer profiles (which are constantly updated with transactional data and lifestyle changes) and then make “best buy and next choice” recommendations for specific purchases. It all happens continuously, with billions of requests being picked up worldwide and matched with products and services.

So how are these myriad different requirements being met?

Enter the broker.

A new paradigm

Brokers aggregate consumer bundles of demand and “punch out” aggregated bid opportunities to relevant product and service providers for those consumers who have initiated a purchase. For the consumer who wants a red two-door, four-seat hatchback (and the other 60 consumers with the same generic requirement), the broker sends out requests to all major car manufacturers who can deliver direct to the consumer’s location within five days. After receiving the offers, the broker relays the best buy recommendation, which the consumer accepts or rejects. In addition to cost, product specifications and other data, recommendations are based on comprehensive reputation rankings that are updated in real time.

This truly gives the consumer new powers. Want to buy groceries for life? You can. Which supermarket wouldn’t want to lock up your loyalty and bid to provide a standard shopping basket each week? The market-share gains from non-participating retailers could be huge.

Want to buy a unique healthcare package for you, your parents, your partner and two children? No problem. Just specify your requirements, from day care for a parent with Alzheimer’s to dental care for a 13-year-old. And because your electronic health record—which you, not your doctor, own—is included in your profile, the search engine has all the relevant information it needs to find the best buys.

What will it take to bring about this disruptive innovation? Interestingly, pretty much all of the technology exists now: individual web sites, search engines, demand aggregators and real-time pricing.

The biggest requirement for the birth of the initiating consumer will be trust—trust that the system will work, trust in the use of personal information by privileged access providers—and comprehensive governance. Emerging mobile-commerce standards and government-led privacy legislation will help establish this trust.

If the customer were truly in charge, it would send a shock wave through business as we know it. Think the budget airlines have made a difference? This would be bigger still. The role of traditional distributors and service agents, from auto retailers to local physicians, could change beyond recognition.

For leading manufacturers and service providers the potential gains are enormous: lean supply chains, results-based marketing expenditure, lower distributor costs and more investment in providing still better products and services. For consumers, buying myriad products and services will be a whole lot faster, simpler and better. And for search engines and aggregators, there is a whole new industry in the making.

If you are not thinking about how your organization would respond to this new paradigm, you may not be around to be a part of it.

Howard Barrett
Unisys Enterprise Solutions Practice
Howard Barrett is a member of the Institute of Marketing and lives in London. He held senior sales and marketing positions in consumer products and services before starting the CRM practice for a Big 5 firm. After leading the firm's expansion into Europe, Barrett joined Unisys.


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