On good business (or why lock-in is bad practice)


Last night our office neighbors, the good guys of Your Neighbours, celebrated their first anniversary. At the party I had the chance to talk to a whole bunch of great folks. There was one conversation though that I found particularly memorable.

A student asked me what I do for a living, and I told him about our company and how I freelanced as a consultant until very recently. We started talking about consulting in general and how the field has a certain reputation: often consultants have the reputation of being rip-offs, of coming in for a lot of money without any real stakes in their clients’ organizations, and leaving behind a trail of destruction after they move on to the next project. Not all that rarely consultants also sell clients services they don’t really need just to make a few extra bucks, in other words: they milk their victims clients.

I told him I was aware of that reputation, and I’d do my best not to follow this poor business practice. In fact, almost all my clients ever hired me on the basis of a recommendation. When I’m asked for advise I often send potential clients away, straight to my competition or my peer network, or I send them some information if I think any of these sources might be more helpful than my services. I prefer capacity building over lock-in any time. I compared client lock-in to the two-year contracts that many phone carriers force you to take, and how much I disliked them. I had the impression this student didn’t believe me. He kept inquiring.

Yes, in the short run that means I might lose some quick sales. Yet, I think it’s much better business practice to give the best advise you possibly can, even if that means sending clients away. Trust is the best basis for long-term relationships, in business just as in private life. In other words: I’d rather send a potential client away and help them reach their goals then lock them in with a long-term contract and have them try to get out unhappily. It’s better for their business, it’s better for mine, and it most certainly is a lot more fulfilling than a quick buck.

I hope I could help this fellow re-assess some basic business philosophy in order for him to have a better life later on. Really, it isn’t more than a common sense approach to running your business.

That said, we’ll have a launch party for Third Wave Berlin soon. I’ll post the date as soon as we have it.

Deutsche Bahn don’t have their tech under control (Deutsche Bahn sucks *)


Today, I paid 52.50 Euros for a 25 Euro train ride because (and that’s the story here) Deutsche Bahn (DB) don’t have their booking systems under control.

I’ll try to not make this one of the many rants about the monopolist public transport system (even though it’s tempting). Instead, the facts in short:

While working on a client project in Strasbourg, France, I’m commuting there from Karlsruhe, Germany on a daily basis for a few weeks. With my Bahncard50 it’s a return trip on the (French) TGV that takes about 40 minutes (scheduled) each way and costs 12.50 Euros each way, or 25 Euros per return trip. I usually book the ticket online and print it out the night before. The train requires a reservation, so that’s part of the ticket, too. I tried a few times to book through the DB mobile site where you can get your tickets until 10 minutes before boarding the train, but the mobile site insisted the train didn’t exist.

Today, it went somewhat different. Trying to book online as usually, the DB website informed me that my train was fully booked, no reservation possible. (On which of the trains it didn’t tell me.) To retry you have to start over the whole process, including billing information, before knowing whether a reservation worked out or not. I booked the later trains so I wouldn’t go without a ticket, but was planning on getting on the same train as usual, just without the correct reservation. (French staff had told me once that’s not a problem as long as you have a ticket.)

The conductress (is that even a word?) billed me an extra 15 Euros for a single ride to change my reservation on the train (that was supposed to be fully booked, according to the DB website, even though half the seats were empty). She also told me I could change my reservation for the train back for free at the station in Strasbourg. I asked if I could change the reservation online, she said she didn’t know: “I so rarely use the internet!” I asked about the option of booking through my mobile device, she told me she hadn’t seen this ever. She was, in other words, in this situation completely useless, and that’s the worst kind of representative on the ground for any organization. (Even though it’s hardly her fault, but that of her management.)

In Strasbourg, I explained the situation and changing was impossible since the ticket had been booked through the German DB website, so I had to buy new ticket altogether (another 12.50 Euros). A reservation for the train I had been planning on getting on wasn’t a problem – even though, again, the DB website had told me it was impossible.

Now, there’s a lot of problems in this story. One of them of course was my own fault, and that’s booking tickets only a day or two before taking the train. (I usually know which train I’ll catch in the morning, but in the evening it depends on the day’s workload, meetings etc.)

But the main problems are at Deutsche Bahn. Even taking into account that this particular train requires a cross-border booking involving (supposedly) the French and the German train operators, it’s ridiculous that the different DB booking systems aren’t able to match up the information needed to make that kind of transaction. Last time I talked to some staff about this, she explained that there were three completely independent (and largely incompatible) booking systems in place depending if you booked at the counter, on the website or at one of the vending machines. (That was two or three years ago.)

Why should I, as the customer, really care if I booked through one system or another? If I pay for a ticket, I expect to get to my destination. If I want to check a schedule, I expect that to work on every of the platforms and communication channels offered – after all, why would the offer a channel that didn’t work?

The project manager in me wants to say: Yes, a booking system of this size is a complex project. It’s a lot of historically and organically grown legacy. It’s not easy to conduct the kind of training to answer all of these niche questions. I understand all that. But. And this is a big “but”: I really couldn’t care less. It’s not like DB is a small, underfunded startup. It’s a huge organization with a huge budget. They even just raised the prices again, just a few weeks ago. Out of the last ten trains I took home in the evening in the last ten days or so, only four were on time. So no, I won’t let any of these excuses count.

So because all of this, today I paid more than twice the price of my train ride because the online reservation system didn’t work.

It’s simple: An organization of this size needs to get their technology under control, and to train their staff to know it, too. Keeping in mind that Deutsche Bahn is still planning an IPO, this should be worrying to any potential investor.

As Karen Mardahl pointed out on Twitter as a response to a spontaneous rant of mine: “Companies must focus on teaching its online / social media offerings to staff.”

Full ACK.

* Referring to the good old tradition of public corporate blaming.

Update: Asked for comments by email, Deutsche Bahn service staff (unsurprisingly) blamed the French online booking system for the wrong reservation information. There was no comment on the insufficiently trained and unhelpful staff on board the train.

Freelancers, be picky about your agency clients!


Are you a freelancer, and do you work with agencies regularly? To get a feeling for some issues, I have a few questions for you. Discussion is strongly encouraged. Here’s the question: How do you choose which agencies you work with? How do you pick your clients?

Poison Apples by Flickr user 7-how-7 At first glance it can be hard to tell good from bad apples, to see which potential client rocks and which would suck.

To put this all in perspective: I work both directly with companies/non-profits/other organizations, and with agencies of all sorts (ad/PR/web/communication agencies etc). Mostly my experiences there have been good, I’ve been lucky with the choices I made, and I’d do most of that all over again any time. Sometimes I was approached by agencies that seemed very inexperienced, or just not fit for the social media world. In very few cases, the contacts seemed slightly sketchy. (Obviously I won’t tell any names. And I can promise you, all the clients listed in my client list are cool, otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with them.)

Just to give a few examples that I’ve encountered over the years: deadlines that changed constantly, both ways. Agencies approaching me, then never reacting to my replies. Bad payment morale. Agencies not getting social media and trying to buy their clients good comments and blogposts. Of course, where I encountered such issues I blew off any cooperation. And never regretted it.

Sometimes I’m told that freelancers can’t be picky about who they work for; that freelancers are service providers who need to do whatever is asked from them. I beg to differ. In my opinion, freelancers need to be particularly picky about their clients. Let me explain.

Every time you, as a freelancer, agree to work with a client, your name is on the line. That goes particularly for social media, where clients sometimes ask you to act in their clients’ stead under your real name. (Which in most cases is a bad idea in my opinion, but that’s also up for discussion.) So the choice of your clients is a pretty important one. After all, you don’t want to show up to the next meeting with colleagues and friends and be ashamed of what you did; or even worse, show up to a meeting with potential clients where they confront you with some embarrassing thing you did for another client and expect you to do the same thing or worse for them. (“Of course we expect you to use your private Facebook account and your blog to push our product, it’s the least you can do!”) Know what I mean?

What I’m interested in – and I guess some of you, too – is what’s a No Go? What’s ok and what isn’t; what makes you say no to a client? Is it certain demands, too little autonomy in how you do your part of the job, people not returning your calls, changing deadlines, unreliability? How do you pick your clients? How do you tell the bad apples from the rockstar clients you love to work with?

I’ll ask you to stick to one ground rule for your reply: Strictly no names. (I mean it: any agency name here as a negative example and I’ll delete the comment. ’cause that’s be bad style and you can do better.)

So let’s hear it!

Photo by 7-how-7 (Creative Commons)

Ameritocracy: Collaborative Fact-Checking


AmeritocracyIf there’s one thing the internet is pretty good at, then it must be crunching lots of info by having a lot of folks look at said info. Call it crowdsourcing or collaboration, if you need a great many eyes to look at stuff, and a lot of opinions, the web is the place to go. So here comes Ameritocracy, a community-based, collaborative fact-checking site.

How does it work? Users submit statements made by politicians, pundits and the like, other users (aka the community) puts in their two cents of background or opinion (hopefully facts, too) they have on those statements. A reputation system helps separate the wheat from the chaff.

As Ameritocracy describe it:

The core features of Ameritocracy are adding statements (made by a person or organization) and assessing statements. For example, if you hear Jane Doe say something on tv that you find questionable, you can submit that statement to the site to see what the community has to say about it, or you can add your own assessment. Members can then rate Jane Doe’s statement for credibility and relevancy, add their own assessments, or post a comment. From this, Jane Doe will develop a reputation based on the community ratings, and you and your sources will develop a positive reputation so long as no one identifies your submission as a misquote or deliberately inaccurate information. The goal is to get a few different perspectives for each statement, so anyone looking to know more about a statement can get a broader picture and make their own assessment.

Sounds like a solid plan to me. Any platform that helps bring more transparency into political processes can just be good. If it harnesses the intelligence of the network, all the better.

More info? IPDI‘s Julie Germany interviewed Ameritocracy co-founder Porter Bayne. The team behind Ameritocracy blogs and twitters, too.

(via Planblog)

Update: Want to check out Ameritocracy first hand? The Ameritrocracy team was so nice to provide my readers with a bunch of invites to the close beta. With the invite code “wavingcat” (one word, all lower case) you can sign up here.

Yahoo releases Reputation Design Patterns (Yay!)


Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library is a pretty awesome collection of design patterns – proven solutions for common or well-known problems. The idea is to provide answers to questions people (here: developers) encounter over and over again. Why reinvent the wheel?

Now there’s a whole set of design patterns for a reputation system, as well as some solid basics on online reputation and how it works. (You can find some thoughts about online reputation browsing this blog’s Identity 2.0 category.)

Yahoo Design Patterns for a Reputation System (Image: Screenshot of the collection Yahoo! Reputation Solution Patterns)

Reputation systems are important for online communities of all sizes: In a really small community, reputation might be implicit, but as the community grows, reputation needs to be managed in some way or another. Says the Online Journalism Blog:

In my experience, reputation systems are pretty important in encouraging users to keep coming back to your online community – you could argue, for instance, that the number of friends in Facebook or followers in Twitter is one simple example. Plurk more explicitly uses ‘karma’, as does (in a much better way) Slashdot

Yahoo says, this set of reputation-related design patterns is just one of “several collections of social-design related patterns that we’re working on. (…) They don’t tell you how to lay out a page or where to put an interactive widget. Instead, they address how to design a reputation system for your social software.”

This is excellent news: With something as tricky (and important) as your online reputation, you want some professional advice!

(via Online Journalism Blog, thanks Puja!)