The Smallest are the Biggest Customer

Quite a few times over the last months I’ve found myself talking to somebody with a lot of customer relationships to manage.  Actually it is more accurate to say a lot of relationships.  As a certified power-law nutter I presume that some of these relationships are deeper than others and the distribution is highly skewed.
There was a short period, years ago, when I was the benefit of Apple’s out reach to their high value developers.  Somebody from Apple would appear at my office door.  We were well fed while on nice junkets.

In the conversations I’ve been trying to tease out how various people and firms organize to address this highly skewed set of relationships.  My guess, call it my hypothesis, is that they do not treat everybody equally.  That what emerges as they adapt to the highly skewed distribution is a two headed strategy.  One approach for the high value relationships, and a second approach for the rest.    This puts, for example, a new light on Apple’s old slogan: “A computer for the rest of us.”    In many cases the strategy for the rest is a kind of populism.

Letting my hypothesis run out of control I assume that firms, as they grow are consciously, or more typically unconsciously, rebalancing the resources they devote to one or the other of these.  For example Google certainly began by having very very light relationships with millions of web sites, and then as they built out more traditional sales and marketing organization for relating to the largest websites.  Possibly they did that consciously, but it’s just as likely the environment they found themselves in forced that.  Presumably the same scenario happened to eBay.

The way you execute on these different kinds of relationship is obviously very different.  For the high value relationships you can afford to assign labor, travel budget, etc.  For the vast number that make up the rest you expend money making self service web sites, doing targeted advertising, and engineering effective, but cost effective, customer support systems.

This problem, how to manage the resource allocation across a highly skewed set of relationships, is scale free.  Individuals have this problem just as do huge firms.  The address book, the rolodex, and social networking sites are all schemes to give individuals tools to manage the rest of their relationships.

Any group has this problem.  For example open source projects tend to many tiers of contributors.  Ben Laurie recently was reacting to a common accusation we encounter from outside observers about open source that we “don’t care about users.”  That word “care” is about relationships.  The accusation is that the open source project fails, somehow, to do it’s part in the relationship with users.  I’ve often heard this complaint from product managers in traditional consumer software companies.

The product manager in a traditional consumer software firm exists because the firm needs and funds labor to manage the relationship between the firm and the vast diffuse pool of users.  I.e. the product manager is labor of the second kind – the long tail kind.

Ben who embraces the accusation by highlighting the deep relationship that open source projects have with their developers.  That’s right, but at the same time some open source projects develop a second kind of relationship management that is modern substitute for product management.  For example the editors at Wikipedia are that. Most open source projects learn, after a while, that they should devote significant resources in support of the vast number of very low value relationships.  But they tend to devote those resources to making it easier to download and install the software (easy on ramps) rather than to better customer support systems.
But in most cases the question reflects a category error about what kind of institution an open source project is.  For most open source projects there is a long tail only to the extent that the easy access to the resulting code acts as a shout out that may attract addition developers, i.e. high value contributors.  Rather than a well funded call center broadcasting that “Your call is very important to us.” your  more likely to encounter a “Eh what?  Oh, sorry, gotta run.”

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