Managing service relationships

When Verizon recently and erroneously canceled the online bill presentment service that I’d signed up for, I told them to just start sending paper bills again. I just couldn’t face the hassle of repeating their signup process.

For me, paper and electronic bills converge on the payment screen of my bank’s online service. So while the e-bills save me typing in amounts, versus clicking on a payment option, there aren’t many amounts to type and it’s really not a big deal.

I chose this method because, again, I couldn’t face the hassle of signing up individually for a bunch of per-biller payment systems. One obvious conclusion is that the long-awaited user-centric identity technologies now emerging — OpenID, CardSpace, and more broadly the identity metasystem — will grease the wheels, eliminate a huge amount of friction, and hugely accelerate e-commerce. If we think it’s big now, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

But beyond the convenience of single sign-on, and of common registration profiles that we can transmit with a click, a deeper issue looms on the horizon. It’s not just the psychic burden of signing up for services that weighs on our minds. Increasingly it’s the psychic burden of being in many service relationships, each of which needs to be managed and monitored individually.

Consider, for example, the problem of renewing those relationships. Just yesterday, I was confronted with three different renewal scenarios involving WordPress, EZPass, and GoDaddy. In each case I had to locate and jump through a differently-shaped hoop. That kind of thing wears you down. It’s never easy enough, your past experience is always too remote to guide you in the present, and if you fail or just forget, the consequences can range from annoying to severe.

What you really want, of course, is a renewal policy. When you set up a new service relationship, you define the policy: Renew automatically, on request, or never. In my case, I’d make all three of those relationships renew automatically. That would mean that WordPress gets to take ten bucks from my PayPal account every year for domain mapping, EZPass gets to refresh the expiration date on my credit card, and GoDaddy gets to charge my credit card for domain renewals.

What would it take to be able to review and manage all of your service policies in one place? Enterprises, for whom the need to do that is much more acute than it currently is for individuals, have concluded that service-oriented architecture is the answer. The much-maligned WS-* bells and whistles, which seem so overblown for simple point-to-point interaction on the web, come into their own in a fabric of cooperating services governed by policy-based intermediaries.

I predict that as individuals find themselves embedded in more and more service relationships, and begin to feel the need to manage those relationships more sanely, one of the current distinctions between the enterprise and the “consumer web” will start to erode. We’ll find that we are all embedded in many service relationships. And we will all benefit from technologies that enable us to flow those relationships through management consoles.

11 Comments

  1. Jon,

    I hear you! I spent quite a bit of time at home during the holiday to check all my online accounts. For each one, I had to log in using a username (which I try to keep the same for all accounts for convenience) and a unique password, which I keep written down because I can’t remember all of them.

    Some of the accounts have changed their log-in process. A few have changed their whole domain due to company merger. Several now ask me to pick a question, (or two, or three) like “What is the name of my favorite pet?”. Now I not only have to keep track of all the passwords, I have to keep track of answers to questions. Granted, I might be able to remember the name of the pet I considered my favorite pet when I answered the question, but if I get bitten, my answer may change. Besides, if I’m incompacitated, I would like my wife to be able to access the account.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. In fact, it’s probably a good idea for me to keep a personal eye on the accounts. Errors have been known to occur. If everything were automated and I never visited the account site, I might miss something important. Some sites have better security than others. A few still use short PIN numbers instead of passwords.

    As a compromise, I would like to manage the financial accounts (e.g., utility bills) through my bank or credit card company. Since I’ve already authorized the bank/cc company to make automatic payments, it would be nice to see a summary there and define the rules you mentioned. For example, I would visit the MasterCard site to indicate which accounts can automatically renew the expiration date. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to specify the range and frequency that payments could be automatically paid? For instance, my electric bill could be paid once a month in a range of $20-$300? If no bill comes–that’s a problem, tell me! If the bill is over $300–that’s a problem, tell me! (May be the cc company already does this!?) This way, my bank/cc company is protecting and warning me of unusual billing.

    PayPal is a little different because it acts as a second tier. PayPal shows up on your credit card, but other entities are linked to PayPal. This means you would have service policies on PayPal for some accounts and a service policy on the credit card company for PayPal.

    This approach wouldn’t result in a single place to manage service policies, but would reduce it significantly.

  2. Jon,

    Interesting indeed. For me, the key was toward the end. For a geek like me, you nicely outline the use case for “a fabric of cooperating services governed by policy-based intermediaries”. I hadn’t see SOA described that way, but it’s certainly true.

    KC

  3. Identity management should be a job for your bank(s). You trust them with your money, and you should be able to trust them to manage your purchases.

    Banks should provide the service of interfacing with vendors on your behalf, and handling these renewal issues.

    The vendors you buy from through a bank should never know about you personally, just that your bank certifies that payment has been authorized and the bank will take responsibility for paying the vendor. You should be able to review your purchase history through your bank’s system, and pass the information to others on your terms.

    Someday soon, when you pay in person, your smart phone will get a receipt via a wireless link to the register, and call your bank to authorize the payment. The bank will notify the store in real time that payment has been authorized (or that an identity theft has been discovered). No one at the store ever needs to get personally identifying information about you or have access to your credit card.

    It’s up to the banking institutions to recognize this opportunity and capitalize on it.

  4. Hey Jon, Ever heard of Checkfree? It is far better than bank systems even though it is used by many banks and others on their independent sites. It is a trusted site that maintains your central relationship with all the payees. It used to be great until the banks discovered that they could use the software and do other things also. The problem is that the payees all want you on their site not Checkfree’s. So as a result credit cards and other banks have used the Checkfree system but on their own site. It used to be better than it is today.
    The real laugher is that the Banks appear to be automating your billing but they really cut a paper check and put it in the USPS for the most part. Saves you and the biller a little money but, guess what, all those bank fees that are sky high are paying for it. The good news is that they usually guarantee payment on time anyway. Be sure an print out a copy of the confirm number. A glitch is that you can schedule everything but your payment to your home equity with the same bank in advance. Go figure. Eventually they will get it right I guess.
    Ideally Checkfree can do what you ask if they get cooperation. Unfortunately the incentives seem to be working against you. A lot of the people you pay simply do not want to do the coordination software to allow it to happen even those that it would save serious money like water and sewer companies that spend lots of postage and have lots of accounts.
    Also Godaddy.com has an automatic renewal option. And the only way to drop a domain is to change from Automatic to manual and then do nothing.
    PayPal is another animal and a mess to keep track of. It would be nice if they provided a statement like a credit card so you could reconcile your bank account easier and apply the revenue and expense to the proper catagory with more ease.
    I think this is much more complex a circumstance than just something that can be solved by SOA. Jim

  5. “GoDaddy will auto renew your domain”

    Yeah. But .. it’s hideous finding your way around in their system. Every time I go there I have to relearn it. I’d like to flow their service through a console that just presents me with my standard autorenew checkbox.”

    “Banks should provide the service of interfacing with vendors on your behalf, and handling these renewal issues.”

    That’d certainly be helpful. Thinking more broadly though there are all kinds of service relationships that will, increasingly, be electronically mediated. Healthcare for example. We’re heading for a situation where we’ll have to use a variety of different interfaces to specify our policies on who can access our healthcare data. And then a whole different set of interfaces to specify who can access our financial data, or our kids’ school data, or…

    This isn’t a domain-specific problem. It’s a general problem that wants a general solution.

    “Unfortunately the incentives seem to be working against you. A lot of the people you pay simply do not want to do the coordination software to allow it to happen”

    And since there’s no such management console as I envision, the benefit of doing so is as yet only imaginary.

    “I think this is much more complex a circumstance than just something that can be solved by SOA”

    Undoubtedly. But the concept of flowing service relationships through intermediaries that can aggregate and normalize the assertion of policy is quite sound. Whether we ever get there or not depends on the usual chicken-and-egg dynamics I guess, but it’s at least conceivable.

  6. “…service relationships through intermediaries that can aggregate and normalize the assertion of policy is quite sound. …”
    I agree. I take normalize to mean standards and standardization. This is what Checkfree was doing until the banks hijacked the concept. And others just chose not to participate. Think hard about how to get the incentives properly aligned and I think you will get what you want pdq.
    “…“GoDaddy will auto renew your domain”

    Yeah. But .. it’s hideous finding your way around in their system….”
    I second that with fireworks and dancing girls. It is the textbook example of clutter and chaos. It is an example of non direct activity to try to get you to miss an automatic renewal. Not a pleasant attitude. They do flood you with emails at expiration though. ;-) The solution is to pay a lot for a long term commitment. I know that you are good at predicting the future. Happy New Year
    Jim

  7. “Enterprises, for whom the need to do that is much more acute than it currently is for individuals, have concluded that service-oriented architecture is the answer. The much-maligned WS-* bells and whistles, which seem so overblown for simple point-to-point interaction on the web, come into their own in a fabric of cooperating services governed by policy-based intermediaries.”

    I think I get your point, but would appreciate it if you could expand on what you think the problem enterprises want to solve here is. What do you think “review and manage” really means in the enterprise world?

  8. “What do you think “review and manage” really means in the enterprise world?”

    Dashboard, management console, single point of monitoring and control, that sort of thing.

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