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.

Why The Telcos Are Doomed


My apologies for the dramatic title. Please let me explain what I mean, and why (drama aside) I think it’s true if the telecommunication companies (telcos) keep operating the way they do.

Since this post is somewhat lengthy, here’s the summary upfront:

  • Telcos don’t act in their customers’ interest
  • Customers don’t trust their service providers (from bad experiences)
  • Lock-in will backfire on a massive scale and drive customers away
  • As soon as a new provider comes along and offers decent plans, fair & transparent conditions, and no lock-in, they’ll easily win the market

Epic Fail by Flickr user Ape Lad

Now that you roughly know what I’m going to say and are still reading, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re interested. So let’s dig in there, and please share your thoughts in the comments.

Nobody Likes Telcos It’s sad to say it like that, but let’s face it: There’s hardly a customer of a phone carrier with an emotional tie to their provider, at least not a positive one. Why is that? Telcos have a (seemingly global) history of ripping off their customers, maximizing their profits, and slowing down innovation. It doesn’t even matter which one we’re talking about: Deutsche Telekom, Arcor, O2, Vodafon, E-Plus, all of them have a track record of very unhappy customers. Just ask any person you know – anybody, really – and they’ll have a horror story to share about their phone carrier over-charging, about incredibly bad customer service, about not getting out of their contracts despite trying hard.

The Problems: Bad Service, Over-Charging, Lock-In If you’ve encountered an ad for one of the major telcos, you might have noticed how strongly emotionalized and moody these ads are. They probably have to be, after all most customers aren’t interested in the products on offer here, or maybe the products offered just aren’t really targeted well at the customers.

We, the customers, have all reason not to be happy with our providers.

Bad Service: The hotline staff is chronically under-trained and over-worked, and briefed to stuff marketing crap down our throats. (I had a series of conversations with the support staff for my E-Plus/Base contract where I got completely different and mutually exclusive, opposing answers depending on the person I talked to. Also, some of them were seriously trying to help, but it was clear in the context that they’d be violating some kind of internal set of rules.) You can’t get a simple, clear & open answer to your questions in any telco hotline I know about. That’s just the way the system is set up. (“We’d like to offer you this Easter Special that gives you 5 extra SMS this month for just $3, plus another 2-year contract, isn’t that great?” Sounds familar? There you go.)

Over-Charging: Phone companies charge too much for what they offer. I’m not even talking about roaming fees. (Which are ridiculous in digital networks anyway.) I’m talking about the prices for very clearly defined, and simple enough, services: 1 text message, 1 minute call time, 1 MB data transfer. All of these are set in a way not to cover the companies expenses (and of course some profit), but based on what the market used to be willing to pay. Remember the days when long-distance calls were so much more expensive than calling within your area code? That’s the model still underlying today’s pricing system. Not even flatrates go uncapped these days. A simple, transparent pricing system without the fine print is the way to go.

Lock-In: Bad idea. It is tempting for a company to go for total customer lock-in: If customers commit to a 2-year-contract it’s easier to calculate, and hey, once we have them we can milk them, right? Wrong. That’s yesterday’s thinking. Openness rules, like everywhere, in the communications arena. If I sign a two year contract with my phone carrier (which I’ve done, again, about 6 months ago), that’s not a sign that I vote for one company. It’s just a sign that there’s no competitor out there who’s significantly better.

If you’re a telco, you shouldn’t be happy about this race to the bottom. You think offering iPhones, the G1 or other mobile devices exclusively through your contracts will make people want to be your customers? Hell no. Maybe they’ll put up with you for their phone, but they sure would rather come and play with you if it was out of choice, not force. Design your contracts so that your customers can leave anytime they want, and you’ll see that if you offer better services they’ll want to stay with you.

Trust Issues Customers don’t trust their service providers. They just had too many bad experiences.

Just a little anecdote I heard the other day to illustrate my point: Vodafone called Michelle Thorne to offer her a new contract and a shiny new Blackberry Storm – she had been a Vodafone customer for 10 years. First, some inquiries brought out that she had an old contract that made her over-pay for her usage by far, so Vodafone offered a new contract, much cheaper. (Why didn’t they offer it without being prodded?) Then, some more oral inquiries about the nature of the data flatrate included in the new contract confirmed that it is indeed a flatrate. A few days later it turned out that the “flatrate” was indeed just “unlimited access” to Vodafone Live, some kind of AOL-style limited portal of Vodafone partner sites that are, frankly, very very useless. A joke, really. Another hotline call and the staffer did have the cojones to claim that yes, the flatrate also included “unlimited surfing” on the real web – “up to one megabyte”. Also, another contract was offered with a (seemingly) real data flatrate for a few bucks less then the original offer.

Notice the pattern here? At every single point of contact the provider tried to rip her off. Not a single time did they act in her interest, but only their own. Maybe that’s not the best way to treat your customers? That attitude, combined with the 2-year contract lock-in makes for a nasty combination.

The very moment a new provider pops up and offers a transparent pricing scheme, decent service (think MediaTemple as opposed to 1&1) and the chance to leave the contract anytime I want, I’ll switch. And yes, that’s even if their network coverage isn’t as good or they don’t subsidize my phone. Not just because they’re new player. But because if you can leave anytime, the company isn’t as likely to try and screw me as a customer.

Change? At Cebit, Johannes Kleske, Steffen Büffel and I had a brief conversation about telcos, where we were discussing most of the above. Johannes pointed out something that should be obvious, but can’t be overstated: Tiny, incremental changes from the status quo won’t help either side here. (“We now offer SMS for 18c instead of 19c! Customers will love us!” That’s not going to fly.)

Telcos, you need to get out of your own shoes and once and for all offer what your customers want, not what you think you can push at customers that they might sign up for if the marketing is done right.

So what is it that we want? Some fairly basic things, really:

  • 100% transparent contract and pricing (forget extra fees hidden in the small print).
  • No lock-in through contract or platform. Allow us (and our data) to leave if we’re unhappy, and we probably won’t. (Because you won’t disappoint us, right?)
  • Excellent service. I’m not talking about funky hotline music, but well-trained, well-paid staff who know what they’re talking about.
  • Act in our interest, not yours. (In fact, our interest should be your primary interest, since we’ll happily spend a lot of money on you if you don’t try to screw with us.)

All of this seems pretty obvious, is it really so hard?

All this is written with my experiences limited to the German market, the U.S. and Australia. Maybe in other countries there are better carriers, or independent ones? If you know any examples, please share in the comments. Thanks!

Full disclosure: I’m not involved in any way with any telco or similar service provider. I’ve worked with subsidiaries of Deutsche Telekom before (see my client list), but on completely different stuff. I’m a customer of E-Plus/Base for my cell phone and data services, and Hansenet/Alice for my DSL at home. I’m not overly happy with either of them, but I’ll live.

Image: Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #539 by Ape Lad, licensed under Creative Commons.

Widgets Are Your Friend


Tony Hirst, author of this neat RSS manifesto and edupunk extraordinaire, produced this little gem of a pro-remix, pro-sharing, pro-widget rant:

changes everything we don’t care where it came from if it’s good enough for government business salvation but can you be RSS’d let someone else make it PORTABLE WIDGETS are your friend

(via Brian Lamb)