Fear of a Customer-Driven Planet

SAN MATEO (03/20/2000) - Are you frightened by your customers? Stop before you answer that, and consider the debate swirling around Amazon.com Inc. over its patents.

After Amazon gained its patent on affiliate programs, following on the heels of a patent for "one-click buying," the online retailer has found itself to be the target of a grassroots protest movement.

We've all heard about how the Internet levels the playing field. Thumbing through my handy Cliche-to-English dictionary, that means that the little guy has a voice, too. Anybody, or very nearly anybody, can have a Web site.

Opinions are no longer the exclusive providence of the professional pundit.

The traditional media sources -- The Wall Street Journals and the BusinessWeeks of the world -- have opined on Amazon's recent patents. Online magazines such as Salon have run their pieces. Web sites such as stopamazon.com have been started. But the heart and soul of the movement to criticize Amazon's patents is the Weblog.

The Weblog is the raw voice of the people -- your customers. Essentially, a Weblog is an online diary with hyperlinks. It's a point of view and a collection of links to anything on the Web. It's a remarkably potent means of communication. A Weblog is a lens to view the world through someone else's eyes.

Some Weblogs are tiny personal projects. Others have become powerful and influential voices. The boys at Slashdot and Dave Winer's scripting.com are just two examples.

As disgruntled Amazon customers started to organize and talk about the patent issue, Tim O'Reilly, of the O'Reilly Books imprimatur, published an open letter to Amazon on the Web. With O'Reilly at the vanguard, the mountain came to Mohammed. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has responded directly to his customers in an open letter on Amazon's Web site. Available at www.amazon.com/patents, the letter by Time's Man of the Year attempts to allay the concerns of the people who will never be on the cover of Time.

Bezos apparently agrees with many of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's critics. Amazon isn't giving up its patents, but it suggests revisions such as a shorter patent time frame on business process ideas.

The reaction to Bezos' letter has been mingled with a certain disbelieving pleasure -- such as discovering Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster have dropped by for tea. The top man of an online giant has addressed his customers. No doubt staffers are on hand to filter up the message, but the point is that Jeff Bezos is listening and reacting to his customers.

But why does this surprise us? It says a lot about our mind-set.

If we really believed all the marketing hype claiming that companies care, that building and nurturing customer relationships is the most important thing in a business, would we be surprised by a CEO who pays attention to his customers?

If anything, Bezos' response is the exception that proves the rule: Most companies, despite their feel-good marketing messages to the contrary, would rather their customers were seen and not heard. Shut up and fork over the money is the implied mind-set.

But those halcyon days of glibly ignoring your customers are coming to a close.

The Internet does live up to some of its hype, and, yes, it gives a voice to your customers. Companies such as Deja.com, Epinions, and Productopia are building businesses around giving a voice to your customers.

In the past, customers had a tough time communicating with each other about your company, its practices, and its products. The Internet provides a mechanism for self-organizing customer movements. Ignore the din of your customers and their displeasure, and you'll be risking your business.

In the debate over Amazon and its patents, many have cited the Cluetrain Manifesto. It's a strident call to arms, challenging the corporate mind-set.

Note clue No. 83: "We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal." Your customers -- the people -- are speaking. Are you listening?

Send e-mail to sean_dugan@infoworld.com. Go to www.iwsubscribe.com/newsletters to get the Net Prophet delivered to your inbox.

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