Spyware: A Customer Relations Problem

A while ago I wrote about the problems caused by various forms of malicious software that download to your computer while you are surfing the Internet.

Spyware is probably the most dangerous. Like the flu, it comes in several forms. Some are used to steal personal information and therefore play an important role in identity theft. Less virulent forms set up shop on your hard drive and capture data about your activities on the Internet. At some point these programs transmit back to central servers that crunch the data.

The people on the other end function much like market researchers, selling the information to vendors who use it to refine products and offers. Some vendors even send the pop-up ads that we all love so much. Spyware and pop-ups can degrade the performance of your unprotected computer to the point where the machine might not run.

Spyware has become such a problem that even Congress is getting involved. But here’s my question: Why is it that technology companies are not getting more involved in supporting and promoting the battle against spyware? These companies don’t seem to recognize that spyware may be the most important customer relationship management issue of this decade.

Dell’s Case

Back in October Dell formed a coalition to fight spyware. Along with other vendors, it is providing spyware removal programs. According to Mike George, vice president and general manager of Dell’s U.S. consumer business, upwards of 12 percent of service calls to Dell in 2004 — that’s one in eight — were spyware related. One in five, or 20 percent, of calls to Dell’s help desk were spyware related. If you are an executive, seeing one in eight support calls caused by a preventable problem might make you see red. Having been on the initiating end of one such call, I can also tell you that they can take a while.

Thus far the remedies for the spyware problem have largely been marketplace-based. People are advised to be careful, buy and install firewalls, and use spyware and adware removal software, some of which is available free. And now government is getting into the act.

Uncle Sam

Depending on your world view, you might think of government involvement as a potential problem, or you might think it’s about time. I am of the latter persuasion.

I know there is a strong current in our political life that essentially says that we are free individuals and don’t need government interference in our lives. That’s fine as far as it goes, but in this case in particular, I think there is an important role for government — a role that is as important as, and not much different from, putting police on the streets.

On the surface, spyware might look like a problem faced by individual computers — sort of like getting a flat tire while driving on the highway. If that were the case, then fixing our own flats wouldn’t be a problem. But what is really happening is that a sophisticated group of pirates is spreading nails on the cyber highway and giving everyone flats. Individuals are relatively powerless to thwart this kind of organized crime — unless you think of lynching as an important precedent in the evolution of Western legal theory. So there is a role for government in this situation.

Right now there’s a bill — HR29, sponsored by Mary Bono (R-Calif.) — working its way through Congress to eliminate spyware. I have read the bill, and it’s more than pretty good. It covers the most egregious offenses committed by spyware and other forms of malware, such as surreptitiously capturing personal data and transmitting it back to a faceless “market research” firm. But the bill also makes it illegal to take over your browser and change your start page and lots of other things.

A Business Problem

So why aren’t technology companies getting more involved in promoting this legislation? Why is it that companies like Dell need to see the bottom line implications before taking even a private enterprise action?

For technology companies, spyware is a crucial customer relationship management issue for the simple reason that spyware prevents customers from receiving the full benefits of their technology investments. Many companies are now offering anti-spyware software, which is a good thing to do. But they need to look beyond the engineering solutions and recognize that this is a business problem as much as a technology problem.

Spyware is first and foremost a business problem because it challenges the integrity of the Internet as a 21st-century business tool. This must be solved with a business solution. There are already too many flavors of protection, from firewalls to virus scanners to spyware removal programs and a good deal in between. These solutions will not solve the larger problem. Some will be more effective than others, and one result will be an Internet that is the equivalent of Swiss cheese.

But a more devastating result will be to stunt the growth of the Internet as a business tool. That’s why HR29 is so important. It sets a standard for proper behavior on the Internet — a standard that can be expanded and improved upon as successive generations of technologies and users come to rely more heavily on the information superhighway.

And that is precisely why technology companies — and especially CRM companies — ought to be tripping over themselves to endorse and support swift passage of this bill. It is the ultimate act of customer service that has long-term benefits for the health of our industries.

Denis Pombriant is founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group. An influential thought leader in the CRM industry for more than five years, Pombriant researches emerging trends in CRM and publishes research reports that can be found on the company’s Web site and on other influential Web sites in the CRM market. In 2003 CRM Magazine named Pombriant one of the most influential executives in the CRM industry. He is also quoted extensively in Paul Greenberg’s CRM at the Speed of Light, third edition. His latest report is titled “KeyFindings: CRM Market Events, Observations, and Analysis 2004.”

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