Personal Relationship Manager

I am a tad obsessive about my address book. While there are several thousand people in it, I tend to believe that I need to make sure that they stay current and I look to my address book as the center of my social network. but it ought to work more like a personal relationship manager.

I was recently describing my update process to David Strom, after he had posted an entry on his blog about how poor the contact management system in Gmail was, and I hit upon a realization: A lot of the work that goes into keeping all that information up to date seems to be something that ought to be more suited to some level of automation. Why is it that there is no real linkage between my address book, different email systems, social networks, IM systems, Skype (and other voice over IP solutions) and my mobile phone? Each of those appears to live in a silo, unable to offer me a full view of the people I know.

While Plaxo does a good job of synchronizing metadata about people (What I would consider as rank, name, and serial number ie. the basics like physical address, IM address, phone, and email), it has yet to evolve into a solution that would give me a full view of the relationships I have.

I also played with a number of CRM packages like SugarCRM but ultimately, they fail because their view is completely sales-centric, with the idea of people being largely seen as members of a company and sales prospects to be closed. I am not much of a salesperson (unless you consider pushing new ideas on people a type of sale, which arguably it is) but my view of the world is much richer than that. I don’t want to think of people as buyers.

However, the concepts of grouping information in CRMs is somewhat attractive. What I want is a view of my relationship with people that would group:

  • The basic type of address book information available in my address book and/or on my PDA and/or phone.
  • The rich email discussions I have had with said people
  • The similarly rich IM discussions I have had.
  • SMS or MMS discussions synched from my phone.
  • Social Networks interactions
  • Feeds for the person (to things like their blog, their last.fm account, etc…)
  • Trackbacks and other blog related discussions.

The interesting thing is that each of this information is available in a digitized fashion but there is no centralized point that allows me to see said information about Joe Smith.

Why is that?

So I’d like to suggest the creation of a new class of software called the “Personal Relationship Manager” or PRM. The purpose of a PRM would be to help you manage your life instead of trying to manage sales.

Basic Personal Relationship Manager

Of course, people are going to say that this product or that product solves my existing problem. In order to get those people to think before they push their solution, let me describe in details what I want:

Contact Information

  • Integration of my address book across different email services: the contact part of this is largely completed by Plaxo as they have managed to integrate and aggregate the address book from a number of services. They need to provide an interface to integrate others but they seem closer than anyone else on this.
  • Integration of my address book across different IM services: top line, the following would be needed from day one: AIM, MSN IM, Yahoo IM, Google IM, ICQ, and Jabber. I should not have to reenter information for each.
  • Integration of my address book across different social networks: this is getting trickier as most of the popular social networks look to that type of data as owned by them. However, an ideal PRM would integrate and aggregate the information my friends give on a social network into a single view.
  • Integration of my address book and mobile and VOIP solutions: Caller ID on my VoIP solutions like Skype, Vonage, etc… and on my mobile phone should be integrated into a contact view. Today, my Treo asks me if I want to create a new contact or add a number to a contact if it’s not in my address book already. I want that type of feature across all voice communication solution.

Conversations and Status

  • Integration of Email conversations across all email services I use: At minimum, this should allow to bring IMAP and POP into my PRM.
  • Integration of IM conversations across all IM services I use: Most IM services now have an archival feature. That should be presented as part of a user view.
  • Integration of Social Network Status and related messages across all socially-aware applications: From social network status to Last.FM music, from WeSabe to Twitter, my friends are updating information in a variety of services. I should have a dedicated news feed for each individual view.
  • Integration of SMS/MMS history: SMS and MMS sent to my mobile phone should be integrated into the overview of people.
  • Possible Integration of Voicemail and audio messages: At a later time, integrating those into the package would be a nice to have.

Input

  • The PRM should manage relationships across social network: This ought not be aggressive but the system should check when people I know join a particular network I’m on. If it finds a match, it ought to tell me that it did and, based on my settings, either ask for a linkage automatically, or ask me to approve/deny asking for such linkage.
  • The PRM could (not should) become a single point of entry for broadcast messages. For example, if I change jobs (as I did recently), I would update that system with the job change status in a single location and it would update that information across all the touch points where I have entered that information.
  • The PRM could (not should) be a single entry point for status broadcast. At the very least, it should allow me to set which system ought to be integrated via simple rules similar to filtering (for example, I could say “If I update Service X, also update Service Y and Service Z.”

Programming Bits

  • Low change footprint: A new application should not force me to change everything I already use. Instead, it should work with the applications I already use. This is probably the hardest thing in developing the application I’m highlighting as it will have to integrate with other services/software via some kind of service oriented architecture but not take over their basic features.
  • Fully addressable via API: The PRM, if built successfully, would become central to managing relationships. As a result, it could become the source of data that applications could be built on. Because much of the data is personal, a strong set of security and access controls would need to be in place in order to ensure that only the data people in my PRM want to distribute is distributable. On the other hand, the data should be formatted in such a consistent way that developers could build applications that integrate with the PRM.
  • Online/Offline addressable: Knock me off the network and I should still be able to have access to some of the data. Put me back on the network and I should be able to resync it all with the most up to date information.
  • Decentralized: People tend to prefer having their contact info in the hands of more than one providers as they feel that type of information is largely personal. A PRM solution would thus have to be in a mode that can be federated so no single entity is in full control of the data.

So the purpose of the system, once built, would be to give me a view of my friends/contacts/etc… that is consolidated. It would probably provide me with a high level contact overview (listing all the ways to get in touch with someone), and then allow me to drill on the different conversations I’ve had with the person across a variety of systems (Email, IM, phone, social nets) as well as give me an overview of what they’ve been up to thanks to a status message and socially aware apps screen. And it would have to do all that without me changing any of the systems I’m currently using. It’s a tall order but it’s one that, if satisfied, could easily become the central way for people to manage their relationship.

If your product does indeed satisfy all those requirements, you may have made a sale. And if you have an interest in developing a PRM, I’ll be happy to be an alpha tester.

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About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://www.charleshudson.net Charles Hudson

    Very nice post on this topic. I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the ideal contact management systems, most of which use email as the seed. I had high hopes that Highrise would deliver on this promise, but it did not.

    If you want to check out some of my posts, you can see most of them here: http://www.charleshudson.net/?cat=7

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    feld.comfeld.comSeems there are some issues with my trackbacks but check out Brad Feld’s answer to this which highlights that I forgot to include blog comments into the overall view. It’s definitely something that would need to go in there too…

  • http://www.native-edge.blogspot.com Andrew

    If you find one let me know! I’ve been collecting addresses and contacts in various formats for years, but it is just beginning to get critical. As much as possible I try and keep things up to date in Outlook as that’s where I email from and sync the rest to that. I use the ‘Contacts’ field in tasks as much as possible and then use the ‘Activities’ tab in Contacts to see when and how I have contacted people. But it doesn’t cover all bases – if only Microsoft had thought far enough ahead to set the Journal function up properly.You can set Skype up to use the Journal function – but that doesn’t work with a Skype-out call.

  • http://www.crowdstorm.co.uk Philip Wilkinson

    Wasn’t this the concept being Plaxo when it first started out?

  • http://foliovision.com/ Alec

    I wouldn’t trust my own and my friends (even more so) data (conglomerated) to any online service. Especially one with a name like Plaxo (it sounds more like pharmaceuticals than anything else).

    I don’t think this solution exists – will exist – something like the perfect PDA (think Palm), this is just a chimera of our imagination.

    As soon as we think we can touch it, it will be gone. In a mist of spam and privacy violations.

  • http://howardgreenstein.com/blog/ Howard Greenstein

    Great Job capturing this. Would openSocial help? As I have most of this data between plaxo, Google apps, and open things like WordPress, it seems it should be accessible (FB is an obvious exception).
    To Alec’s point, no, I want to own this data conglomeration – but parts of the data itself will be in the network.

  • http://www.tnl.net/blog/ Tristan Louis

    By what I’ve seen of OpenSocial, it wouldn’t do the trick. It might cover some of the linkages but not the end of end…

  • Travis

    Great summary of an application that I have been looking for years. I am not a developer, but have been working on developing something in Oracle APEX for my own use. Until then, jibberjobber is a close second.