It is not a cheap trick to get the customer to do what employees used to do. It's a way to make a better world! I believe that everyone would make their own automobile if it was easy and painless. It's not. But customers at least want to be involved at some level in the creation of what they use--particularly complex things they use often. They can superficially be involved by visiting a factory and watching their car being made. Or they can conveniently order a customized list of options. Or, through network technology, they can be brought into the process at various points. Perhaps they send the car through the line, much as one follows a package through FedEx. Smart companies have finally figured out that the most accurate way to get customer information, such as a simple address, without error, is to have the customer type it themselves right from the first. The trick will be finding where the limits of involvement are. Customers are a lot harder to get rid of than employees! Managing intimate customers requires more grace and skill than managing staff. But these extended relationships are more powerful as well.
The final destiny for the future of the company often seems to be the "virtual corporation"--the corporation as a small nexus with essential functions outsourced to subcontractors. But there is an alternative vision of an ultimate destination--the company that is only staffed by customers. No firm will ever reach that extreme, but the trajectory that leads in that direction is the right one, and any step taken to shift the balance toward relying on the relationships with customers will prove to be an advantage.