I Love Disruption

I once played organized football — not that I was any good at it, but I played it with relish. My favorite parts were anything that had to do with disrupting the opponent’s carefully planned plays, which included covering kickoffs and punts as well as regular defense. This bit of information has almost nothing to do with this column except that it points out an early character trait (some would say flaw) that has perversely influenced my career.

Show me a train wreck and I will study it for hours, analyzing what went wrong and theorizing about the cascade of minor events that led to catastrophe. On-demand technology has been the train wreck of my life, though paradoxically, its ever-unfolding cascade of follow-on events has produced the opposite of a train wreck. True, on-demand has caused and will continue to cause dislocation and catastrophe for some who misunderstand its import and refuse to either get out of the way or board the oncoming train.

I love disruption, though these days I see it more as an opportunity to roll the dice and start over. Disruption is to a crowded marketplace what a green field is to a cow, it opens up myriad possibilities.

A couple of companies made announcements recently that make an old train-wreck watcher almost gleeful. One sows the seeds of changing the user interface, and the other promises to change how we market.

User Interface

Ever since the ice age ended and we quit punching holes in cards, we have applied some of our expanding computing power to making better user interfaces. That invariably meant improving what a user had to read in order to do useful work. Graphics were a huge improvement, and through graphics we got the idea that we could employ universal symbols to do the work of some words. However, people are more than strictly visual — ask an iPod owner. More fundamental to our existence as people, we speak and listen, but the spoken interface has so far eluded mainstream computing, a measure of how hard it is to get right.

Last month, one new company, Ribbit, made an important contribution to changing the user interface from something that is only written and silent to something more. Ribbit concluded a private beta for customers of its voice interface product. The way it works is pretty simple. Ribbit lets salespeople dictate notes of encounters directly into the SFA (sales force automation) application while the results of a meeting are still fresh. More importantly, the user interface can also kick off workflows that make things happen — send a letter, invoice, schedule follow-up, whatever.

Ribbit calls itself Silicon Valley’s first phone company, and while that makes sense, it downplays the real power of their solution. As a VoIP provider, Ribbit can play traffic cop for all of the phones in a company, recording calls that salespeople can decide to keep or not. Customer calls can be recorded verbatim, and all of a sudden, salespeople and their managers can have a complete record of what was said, including nuances like emotion, rather than someone’s recollection. Finally, Ribbit also offers transcription so that a text record will be available when needed.

The significance of this solution is not the fact that mundane conversations can now have immortality. Ribbit is also offering an API (application programming interface) that enables developers to embed voice as another interface into any other applications as well. Suddenly there is clarity in this disruptive approach to the UI. With voice as an increasingly regular part of the UI, the cell phone becomes more valuable as an input device, and our wireless devices can assume a more natural role in the human-computer interaction. Perhaps that will lead to smaller PDAs without keypads. It will certainly make emoticons quaint reminders of an age when computers were largely silent.

Data, Data, Data

The thing that runs our marketing outreach — and which is its greatest potential limitation — is access to correct personal data. Small companies need it to get growing and keep growing, and large companies need some way to continuously cleanse it. So far, data provisioning companies have made a tidy sum cleansing and selling contact data, but that may be a thing of the past if Jigsaw has anything to say about it.

Today, Jigsaw announced that it is offering free and accurate contact data to its users. The company can do this because its users are the people responsible for inputting, cleaning and correcting the data in the first place. This application of social networking concepts makes it cheap, cheap, cheap for Jigsaw to maintain and provide the data.

For example, a company with 100,000 contact names in its database for customers, prospects and the like has little means to ensure the information is right. Frequently bad or expired data is not caught until a piece of mail is sent back unopened. Then what? An expensive effort ensues to fix the broken data, or perhaps the contact is simply written off.

Having the ability to keep contact data up to date and clean won’t win anyone a Nobel Prize, but it will have a disruptive impact on companies that specialize in cleaning contact data and selling it. More importantly, from my perspective, it is an important factor in what I believe is an evolution toward a new CRM module: the customer module.

I have written about the customer module before. Briefly, it will give companies the ability to know who all of their customers and contacts are as well as enable them to carry on a dialog that will shed light on customer likes, needs, biases and lifestyles. All of these are important things to know for co-creating value in a market that’s tight — and getting more so — and table stakes in a social network.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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