There's a scary and fascinating new service launching Monday: SalesGenius, from the modestly named Genius. It's a system that allows companies to track, with excruciating detail, what individuals are doing on their Web site. It literally watches users surf.
Here's how it's supposed to work: Say a salesperson who has your contact information wants to sell you something. Via e-mail, he invites you to visit his company's Web site to learn more about the product. You click the link in the e-mail, and from that point on, everything you click in the company's site (but not in other sites) is recorded. The salesperson who sent you the invitation knows when you open the e-mail (compare to didtheyreadit.com), when you visit the site, exactly what you are looking at on his site, and for how long. He can literally replay your visit on his own computer.
Then he swoops in for the close: he contacts you and tailors his sales pitch to your observed behavior. As Genius's CEO David Thompson says, it's just like Nordstrom's "observe and serve" methodology: The salesperson doesn't try to pitch something until he watches your behavior to see what you are interested in.
A big selling advantage of SalesGenius is that it's delivered as a service. There's no software for Webmasters to install. How it works is a little tricky: When the SalesGenius system creates invitation e-mail, the links included may look normal, for example, www.store.com. But, like phishing e-mail, the actual hyperlink behind the text will be redirected, in this case to a Genius proxy server. The actual link will be www.store.rsvp1.com, and to Genius's credit, this is not hidden; you can read all about it on www.rsvp1.com. It's this server that then reports back to Genius's customers what an individual's behavior is.
It's simple to thwart the monitoring. If you want to visit a Web site mentioned in e-mail, don't click the link in the e-mail, type it into your browser yourself. If you do click over via e-mail, and you see you're working on the rsvp1 server, just strip that out of the URL.
I have no doubt that this technology will make for more effective sales calls. But it's disturbing, since most people, when they visit a Web site, do not expect to be watched, at least not so intently and personally. Moreover, the smart salesperson will not reveal that he's employing SalesGenius, so the follow-up call won't be overt. Instead of saying, "I can tell by watching your online activity that you're clicking on a lot of BMW 750i links," he'll say, "I hope you got that link I sent you. I thought you might want to know that we're organizing a comparison drive next week with the 7-series and other exclusive European cars. I'd like to invite you, if you're interested." This is what Thompson calls the "genius call."
SalesGenius will make salespeople better. But they'll be better because they're spying on their customers. Clearly, in the wrong hands, and without Genius's single-site constraint, this could be used for purposes other than just sales. It could be a frightening tool if used to discern individuals' political views or financial positions, for example.
I met Genius CEO David Thompson, and I am convinced he is earnestly trying to make a useful service for salespeople, not to introduce a stalking tool that might fall into the hands of psychopaths. Still, SalesGenius is breaking a social contract. If the e-mail messages the service sent out disclosed that clicks from those messages were being recorded, I would not have as much of an objection to it. Although disclosure would reduce the effectiveness of the system, if salespeople were to complain about it, I would not do business with them at all.