Posts about customerism

In defense of Facebook

It’s not as if Facebook needs my defense; it has Microsoft’s millions. And I certainly can be accused of Facebook fervency in my writing. But I think some are too quick to jump on Facebook’s back precisely because it is so big and successful.

But I see something bigger happening here: I think Facebook is redefining how to make a mistake.

When they announced the newsfeed, they took their users by surprise and pissed them off. But after pulling back and explaining, it went ahead and, as it turns out, they were right: The newsfeed is the heart of Facebook and is, I’ve been arguing, a new interface for news elsewhere.

When they announced the ad program, they again took their users by surprise and didn’t include enough privacy controls for the users. But after pulling back and adding those controls, I’ll say again that I think they’re onto something. See what Matt McAlister says responding to my musings about airlines capturing the wisdom of their crowds the last few days:

Carrying the theme to retail markets, you can imagine that you will walk into H&M and discover that one of your first-degree contacts recently bought the same shirt you were about to purchase. You buy a different one instead. Or people who usually buy the same hair conditioner as you at the Walgreen’s you’re in now are switching to a different hair conditioner this month. Though this wouldn’t help someone like me who has no hair to condition.

That’s what Facebook’s ad strategy will work to deliver: social shopping. And I want that. Just as I’m interested in what apps friends install I’m interested in what products they buy, so long as they are willing to tell me, and also what they think of them.

Now comes the Scoble Plaxo kerfuffle. Facebook did right: It protected my email from going to the dreaded Plaxo. It cut off Scoble for violating the TOS. But it then reinstated Scoble before he could make a video whining about them. Plenty of folks say they did right.

But now to the bigger point: how Facebook makes mistakes. See Rick Segal defending Zuckerberg on this point:

The larger issue and concern for me is the piling on from Bloggers and questionable Political Action Groups when it comes to pounding on Mark Zukerberg. I turn fifty in 22 days so I can clearly say Mark is a kid. He is going to make lots of mistakes and he will continue to learn and grow. Focusing in on him and how he personally handed it, dissecting his blog posts, etc, is just silly. Many of the blog posts, especially from the “A” list types, have that twinge of arrogance and smugness which is normally seen when the business of business turns into the blood sport of watching somebody fail.

We need to use care in beating up Zuckerberg and Facebook in general because we want these folks to push the limits of finding new ideas and trying to make sense out of all the data flowing everywhere. Try it and get some reactions, adjust, find the happy center, rinse and repeat. That’s what Facebook should be doing and all the users and give feedback about the business. If they go off sides, it will get corrected, it always does. If they do really bad things, people vote with the mouse clicks. Just ask MySpace or AOL’s GeoCities. People vote and have no problem moving.

Right. We can’t expect to see new companies innovating and taking chances without the chance that they make mistakes. Of course, they’ll make mistakes. The question is what they do about them. Zuckerberg and Facebook have done a good job listening to their public and correcting their mistakes and keeping the nerve to innovate and experiment. And they do it in the open.

Too often, companies and brands — especially media brands, I’ll add — try to act as if they’re perfect and they don’t make mistakes and they don’t want to risk their reputations by making any. This makes them timid and that kills innovation.

I’d rather have a company that tries to innovate and makes mistakes, so long as they listen and correct them. That, I believe, is the new way for companies to act. It works only if you are in a conversation with your customers and listen to them. And so far, Facebook has done that. So I agree with Segal. And I say, don’t be so quick to jump on or write off Zuckerberg and company. They’ve done a lot right so far. Could they make the Big Mistake that messes it all up? Sure. That’s what Plaxo did with me, spamming me to the point that I will never trust that brand or company again.

But so far, Facebook has learned from its mistakes. That’s the most I can ask from them.

If airlines became publishers

Furthering my ruminations on the social airline….

Today’s NY Times writes about travel publishers still trying to figure out the web (they’ve been trying and failing to figure it out since the web’s start; I worked, frustratingly, with Fodor’s back in the ’90s as it tried to find a strategy). It says that among their tactics is licensing book content to airlines to display on their seat-back entertainment systems.

But that should be a two-way exchange. Airlines should capture the knowledge of their wise-about-traveling crowds. Imagine if, on return trips, the airlines asked us the hotels where we just stayed and ate and invited us to rate and review them. Imagine if they asked natives to share some inside tips on eating and shopping in their towns. They have a currency to pay for the information: They could reward us with frequent-flier bonus miles. Because they know who we are, they could even start to anonymously aggregate other data around this: ‘American Express Platinum customers recommend….’

The airlines would gather an incredible data base of live knowledge of real travelers with fresh knowledge. They’d outdo TripAdvisor over time. Or they could license their content to TripAdvisor or some of those travel publishers. The airlines could themselves become publishers by listening to and capturing and sharing the knowledge of their customers. But first, the an airline needs to think of itself as a platform for travel and of its customers as networks.

This should be a basic question of any company or industry in the internet era: ‘What do my customers know and how do I help them share that?’

: LATER: TravelWeekly is interested. So is book publisher Joe Wikert.

The social flight

What if a plane flight were networked and became a social experience with its own economy?

For part of a book I’m finally starting to work on, I’ve been thinking about how companies and industries can be remade with Googlethink and social smarts (note how I’m not saying Web 2.0). It’s harder to reimagine some than others. The benefits of tearing apart and rebuilding cable companies are obvious. But I just about gave up on airlines, dooming them to their status as the new buses. What can one do with such a commodity service, and one that has deteriorated so badly?

Then I was inspired by Steve Baker at Business Week, who asked, “Why hasn’t aviation benefited more from Moore’s Law?” Maybe it’s not Moore’s law that can reform airlines but Jarvis’ First Law — give the people control and we will use it; don’t and you will lose us — and Zuckerberg’s commandment — give your people elegant organization — plus a bit of Googlethink about networks, platforms, and wise crowds. For Burda’s upcoming DLD event, one airline, Lufthansa, is asking what they should be in 15 years. Here’s one scenario of how they can change in far less time….

Start here: Most passengers on airlines today are connected to the internet on the ground and soon we will be in the air as airlines return to the idea of adding wireless internet to jets (see an AP roundup from yesterday here — I can’t wait). Getting us connected will be good for the airlines, not only because they have something new to sell — if they don’t try to gouge us — but also because we’ll be busy — engaged, entertained, connected — and less likely to grumble and revolt at delays. Busy passengers are happier passengers.

Once airplanes’ passengers are connected with the ground, that enables them to get connected with each other. It would be easy for the airlines — or, failing that, the passengers themselves — to set up social networks around flights and destinations. The possibilities are endless:

* At the simplest level, we could connect while in the air to set up shared cab rides once we land, saving passengers a fortune.

* We can ask our fellow passengers who live in or frequently visit a destination for their recommendations for restaurants, things to do, ways to get around.

* We can play games.

Note that this requires not only wifi internet access at a reasonable price but also electric plugs at every seat. The first airline to do this will gain the loyalty and appreciation of a huge number of wired road warriors.

Continental 747 lounge

* Now think back to the earliest 747s with their lounges where you could socialize with fellow passengers, something that still goes on even in the cramped quarters of today’s jets, though every inch is filled with a seat and though the cabin crew is less often the object of the flirting. The idea is coming back on Virgin and in the 787 Dreamliner and A380. So now imagine if on this onboard social network, you could find people you want to meet — people in the same business going to the same conference, people of similar interests, future husbands and wives — and you can rendezvous in the lounge.

* This is the key to decommodifying the airline: What if you chose to fly on one airline vs. another because you knew and liked the people better? What if the airline’s brand became its passengers? What if the airline even found ways to encourage more interesting people to fly with them because they knew that would attract and retain passengers (they could offer discounts and benefits to people who are active and popular in the social network)? Right now, all you offer is seats and miles: commodities. How much richer this would be if you offered small societies. Yes, we could still get stuck next to a talkative bozo — but not if we could meet people and arrange our seats before the flight thanks to the social network. Next to the right person, I might even tolerate a middle seat.

So these social networks should be opened before the flight. And that enables not only these on-flight connections but also a new economy:

* The airline can set up an auction marketplace for at least some of the seats: What’s it worth for you to fly to Berlin next Wednesday? You could bid and buy a seat from a passenger who already holds one. This could solve some of the airlines’ overbooking problem and reduce the cost of bumping customers if late-booking passengers can buy seats from fellow passengers in an open marketplace. You can bet that once a social network around a flight exists, we’ll compare what we paid. So why not be open? Yes, speculators could arbitrage seats, but so long as they’re nonrefundable, what problem is that for the airline? They become market makers. Besides, this sets a new market value for seats that in some cases will be higher than the airlines’ existing fares.

* The airline could also use this to predict and maximize load. What if there’s a sudden surge in demand for a destination the airline can see because bids appear in an auction marketplace for a certain route around certain dates (because of a new conference or festival or good media coverage for a new getaway or bargain)? The airline can add capacity, which keeps the airlines in control over arbitrageurs; the airline is always in control of supply and now it would know more about demand. Similarly, what if a flight is light and the airline starts offering passengers alternatives at great discounts to enable the airline to cancel a flight and reroute the equipment long before departure? The airline increases efficiency and profitability; the passengers get a dividend; and the environment gets a break. These things can be done in an open and flexible marketplace.

* While you’re at it, why not turn frequent-flier miles into an open market? In miles, the airlines have created a virtual currency with far greater reach and value than those on Second Life or Facebook. But they’re essentially illiquid. The airlines make it impossible to get frequent-flier seats with them unless you’re flying to Krakow on Christmas Day a decade hence. And the other deals they offer us — use your miles to buy a TV — are bad deals. This, in turn, devalues the virtual currency to the point that it offers an ever-decreasing incentive to choose one airline over another; it no longer acts as the decommodifier the airlines intended. So open it up: Let us bid on frequent flier seats with our miles. Let us trade and barter our miles with each other — I’ll sell you this iPod for miles I want to use to get my vacation. This will again add value to the currency.

* The main reason we go for miles today is to get silver or greater status so we can jump lines and board first. But I’m not in control of how much I travel; my employers are. So what you really want is my loyalty; you want a large marketshare of me. So let me earn privileges in other ways. Open this up, too. Let me bid miles or money for these benefits: create a market value for boarding first.

* The airline should find ways to involve employees in the network. They can also offer tips. They are the airline’s representatives to the community. And the airline should want to learn more about its employees through the network. Those who make the flight more pleasant and more social are an asset and should be rewarded. Besides, it’s hard to get nasty with cabin crews when you feel as if you know them.

* The airlines can also learn a great deal about their service from the network of passengers. We’ll tell you about the food and what’s worth paying for. I’ll start a movement to save my knees from the bozos who slam their seats into them. You’ll see which employees are your best marketers.

There are many subtleties to this. For example, in some cases, I won’t want to reveal my true identity (telling people I’m out of town), for others I will (doing business). If seats are being traded, real identities and credit cards must be in the system for security. And so on. But this would be easy to pull off with existing social software (Ning, Drupal) and links to existing social networks (Facebook, Linkedin) and existing auction markets (a walled-in eBay). The beauty is that no marketing is required; you’re simply serving, connecting, and organizing the customers you already have. Yet this act alone rebrands you as the social airline. (Better get there quick, before Virgin does.)

So brainstorm with employees and passengers. Imagine what it takes to be the open, social airline — a platform for travel — and then imagine the good that comes of it. Your customers will give you value if you trust them and let them.

: LATER: Ross twitters: “the social airline already exists, try the last flight to Vegas on a Friday night.”

It’s not the blog

A dozen huge companies — including Dell, Microsoft, General Motors, Cisco, Coca-Cola, Nokia, Wells Fargo — have just started a corporate Blog Council.

I’m glad that these big guys have embraced blogging. But I have one bit of advice for them:

Change the name now.

It’s not about blogging. I hate to call on the obvious platitude, but I will: It’s a conversation.

When I was in London, I sat with folks from the BBC in an afternoon devoted to blogging, and the woman next to me was troubled, bearing weight on her shoulders from having to fill her blog and manage her blog. To her, the blog was a thing, a beast that needed to be fed, a never-ending sheet of blank paper. I turned to her and said she should see past the blog. It’s not a show with a rundown that, without feeding, turns into dead air. Indeed, if you look at it that way, you’ll probably write crappy blog posts. I’ve said before that if I think I need to write a post just because I haven’t written one, I inevitably come out with something forced and bad. Instead, I blog when I find something interesting that I’ve seen and I think, ‘I have to tell my friends about that.’ You’re the friends. So yes, I said, it’s just a conversation. And reading — hearing what others are saying — is every bit as important as writing. It was as if scales were lifted from her eyes and weight from her back: She’s just talking with people.

And that is how I think the Blog Council should look at this: It’s not about them writing blog posts. It as much about them reading everybody else’s blog posts. And, besides, there are all kinds of new tools for the conversation: Twitter, Pownce, YouTube, Facebook, Dell’s IdeaStorm, and more being invented in dorm rooms coast-to-coast.

The other problem is that the language on the Council site is much about marketing — marketing to us. That’s understandable because these are marketing guys and it’s also likely true because this is being run by a leader in the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a group whose existence and name has given me the willies. It implies that they can manage our mouths when, indeed, that’s the one thing that we, the customers, are fully in charge of. If they truly realize that we, the customers, are in charge, then that changes the way you comport yourself in this conversation. Again, you listen more than you speak.

So have the Council. Not a bad idea. But I suggest you call it the Conversation Council. Or better yet, the Listening Council. That alone would say as much as the best blog post.

: Guardian Unlimited’s Jemima Kiss is also cautious but open:

I remain a little sceptical, not least because I haven’t seen a corporate blog I’m really “wowed” with yet. But with a bit of luck, that’s what the Blog Council will serve up.

Alec Saunders is a big cynical about it, speculating that this is really about Googlejuice. There are other benefits. He concludes:

Good heavens, people! Get a grip! You don’t need a cozy little exclusive club to figure out what to do with blogs. Just get on the net, start talking to your customers and advocates, and start interacting with people outside the strictures of twentieth century command and control marketing. Council, Shmouncil!

Similar advice here from Scoble.

Dell blogger Lionel Menchaca says:

It’s also not about control. For me at least, that has been decided–companies don’t control the message, customers do. I hope that Dell (and other companies in the council that have made the leap into digital media) can work together to move companies past the false notion that we are still in control. I’ve talked to folks from other large companies and that reality scares the heck out of them. I think that’s the primary reason why less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies have a blog. That fear makes it a non-starter for many companies. . . .

Good corporate blogs force companies to look at things from a customer’s point of view. That’s why I want more large corporations to blog, and I want them to do it the right way. That means letting real people have real conversations just like individual blogs do. But it’s a bit different from a corporate perspective. Transparency is still key, but the reality for large corporations is that there are some things we can’t discuss. It’s a balancing act, and sometimes it’s a difficult one. But worth the risk? You bet it is.

: Disclosures: Last week, I spoke at GM (for pay) and I now know the blog team at Dell (where, of course, I have no commercial relationship).

Screwing customers is a business model

Bob Garfield continues his jihad against Comcast with a live podcast (oxymoron?) on December 11 featuring me on the same bill with Ralph Nader and Harry Shearer. Bob’s not letting up.

Yesterday, I sent Bob what I thought was astounding statistics from the oft-quoted University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index on Comcast and cable and satellite TV, which reported that the industry suffers “the lowest level of customer satisfaction among all industries covered by ACSI.” Yes, even worse than airlines, hospitals, and Microsoft. Yet, of course, they still make money money because they enjoy monopolies … for now. Says ACSI:

There seems to be an element of monopoly-like pricing in the cable industry: basic cable services rose 5 percent in 2006 and 93 percent over the past decade, nearly four times the rate of overall consumer prices during the period. Such pricing power usually comes with some level of monopoly protection and most cable companies have little competition at the local level. This also means that a cable company can do well financially even though its customers are not particularly satisfied. Comcast is one of the lowest scoring companies in ACSI. As its customer satisfaction eroded by 7% over the past year, revenue increased by 12%. Net income went up by 175% and Comcast’s stock price climbed nearly 50%. In the first quarter this year, Comcast added 75,000 new cable TV subscribers, a 49% increase, and posted an 80% rise in earnings over the previous first quarter.

In short: They can still make money screwing their customers.

But be warned, cable oligarchs: Your monopoly will end, as newspapers’ did. You will fall. But for you, no one will cry.

I wish Google would win wireless spectrum and use it to create an open network that will finally bring cable and phone companies the competition they, and we, so richly deserve. Cable’s business is built on telling its customers what they cannot do. Google is built on letting us do what we want to do. Cable needs an attitudectomy.

Dell Hell: The end?

My column reporting on my visit to Dell headquarters and my interview with Michael Dell just went up on Business Week. It’ll be in this week’s issue. Hell, it’s even the lead online.

businessweekdell21.jpg

After giving Dell hell two years ago, I may well be accused of throwing them a wet kiss now. It’s a positive piece. But it’s hard not to praise them when they ended up doing everything I was pushing in my open letter to Michael Dell. I’m not saying that I caused that, just that we ended up agreeing and they ended up seeing the value in listening to and ceding control to customers. They reached out to bloggers; they blogged; they found ways to listen to and follow the advice of their customers. They joined the conversation. That’s all we asked.

The column — and Dell’s executives — acknowledge the company’s ongoing problems — the complaints I still hear in comments and emails to this day. But still, I come away concluding that it’s a big deal that a company that was vilified as the worst at blogs, social media, and customer relations in the broad sense is now, one could argue, the best at this. The company’s executives wouldn’t acknowledge this, but I wonder whether falling so far is just what set them up to be so bold in the blogosphere.

In my first draft of the piece, I wondered whether Dell had even become a Cluetrain company. I had to abbreviate that to being “bloggish” because it just took up too much space to explain the Cluetrain. But as you read the column, note Dell’s compliance with the manifesto’s first three theses:

1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

I don’t know whether this is the end of my saga of Dell Hell: the story come full circle. As I say in the column, I thought that end came three months after this began, when I returned my Dell. But it turns out that was the start of the real story.

* * *

I found another story here, a media story, which I come to at the end of the column:

Dell and its customers are collaborating on new forms of content and marketing, but note that they are doing this without the help of media and marketing companies.

Dell realized that engaging in the conversation wasn’t just a way to stop blogging customers like me from harming the brand. We, the customers, bring them great value besides our money: We alert them to problem. We will tell them what products we want. We share our knowledge about their products. We help fellow customers solve problems. We will sell their products. But this happens only if you have a decent product and service and only if you listen to us.

Once that relationship is established, it replaces the less-efficient, the shallower relationship bought through media. Bob Garfield wrote about this in his second chaos scenario piece: Marketers’ overall spending on advertising and media may actually decrease. So I believe this is a cautionary tale for the media industry.

* * *

Here’s video of my interview with Michael Dell. I’ll warn you: It’s not exactly scintillating. Dell is cautious — not surprising because he’s a CEO and also not surprising, I assume, because he was talking to me. I’ll say that I didn’t do a great job in the interview; I couldn’t figure out how to engage him on blogs.

* * *

Something else that didn’t make the story — because it’s of more interest to us bloggers than to a Business Week audience, I decided — was the question of Michael Dell’s relationship with blogs. Does he read them? Every one of his executives insist that he not only reads them but that he will send them links to posts at all hours of the day and night. Their insistence was so consistent that I wondered whether this wasn’t on the Jarvis interview briefing sheet I saw on one employee’s Dell screen.

So will Dell blog? Not likely. He has been known to submit a comment in response to an idea on IdeaStorm, where customers tell him what to do. But blog? The execs fairly shuddered at the idea. I’m not sure why. I guess Dell just isn’t a bloggy kind of guy.

* * *

I spent a very full day at Dell’s headquarters near Austin and also got a tour of their factory. I got lots of fascinating business intelligence and crammed as much of that into the column as I possibly could. I’ll probably blog more of it later. The execs I met at the company — heads of customer service, marketing, ecommerce, PR, and blogging outreach — were gracious and generous sharing their experiences and views with me. In other words: They didn’t seem to hold a grudge.

: LATER: This report about me collaborating on a Dell book is utterly untrue. I have no idea where it came from and have asked that it be corrected. I find it particularly damaging that this should be ‘reported’ on the eve of my column’s publication. I may well write about Dell in a book but not in collaboration with Dell.

: LATER STILL: Steve Baker of Business Week suggested I post the original draft. Here it is. The story was submitted at 1,600 words. It ran at about 1,100 words. Some trims always help. A few hurt. It’s still not what Jay Rosen asks for but I have more in my notebook and will be using that later.

Comcast must listen

I want you to invent the ideal cable company. That may sound oxymoronic or just moronic, but I want you to try. Here’s why:

Bob Garfield continues his jihad against his cable company (and, by extension, all of them) at Comcast Must Die. He is inviting fellow cable-sufferers to come in and tell their tales of the foe. Garfield charges his congregation: “Congratulations. You are no longer just an angry, mistreated customer. Nor, I hope, are you just part of an e-mob. But you are a revolutionary, wresting control from the oligarchs, and claiming it for the consumer. Your power is enormous. Use it wisely.”

Of course, parallels have been drawn to Dell Hell, of which Garfield confesses a tad of jealousy.

If Dell can reform — and that’s what I’ll be asking in the magazine piece I’m writing on them, which has now been delayed a week — then can Comcast? Of course, it can. Any company can. Or it can die.

But it’s worth asking the definition of reform. What would a good cable company look like? How would it act? I’ve just reread the open letter to Michael Dell that I blogged in August 2005. I’m not saying they followed my advice but they did end up doing what I suggested and I think they and their customers are better off for it.

So what should Comcast do? Under my post about airlines as prison wardens, Brett Rogers suggested that we should imagine what a good company would look like in various industries (and then hold them up to that standard). He wrote: “I haven’t looked for one, but why not create a venue where people can describe their dream ____________? Could be airline, could be mortgage company, could be dentist. Let people collectively brainstorm what could be, instead of just collectively complaining about what isn’t. Business plans by customers, rather than by an executive or two. If such a venue already exists, what is it?”

I love the idea, Brett. So let’s make this that place. And let’s start with the cable company.

What should a cable company be? What would make us love our cable company? Sounds like a stretch to even imagine, but why should any company hold itself to any standard lower than that. Now that we, the customers, are empowered, companies must recognize that we are in control and that they can no longer build business models on telling us what we cannot do.

It’s not our job as customers to worry about the business models of the companies that serve us, if they want to serve us. We do need to be realistic. But we should not assume that we know the definition of business realism. In the midst of Dell Hell, commenters to this blog said I was nutty to think that Dell could or should reach out to customers who blogged about their problems. But, in fact, that was the first reform Dell made and they’ll tell you that it was a great move that helped them solve problems efficiently and learn more about their products and customers and get good PR, to boot. So don’t get crazy with your wishes, but also don’t restrain a great idea.

Here’s my shot. Please add yours. Here’s my ideal cable company:

* I want my cable company to treat me with the respect it would give a business and issue me an SLA (service-level agreement) that guarantees me uptime, speed, and response time to problems on the internet, TV, and phones — with penalties if they fail. If a gas station can’t pump gas, I don’t pay them anyway. If a cable company can’t pump bandwidth, then I want my money back — plus. And if it’s mission-critical for me, it needs to be mission-critical for them.

* I want my cable company to guarantee that they will not restrict any content on the pipe I pay for. Let network neutrality start at home.

* I want my cable company to offer wi-fi all over my town and to come to roaming agreements that let me get wi-fi anywhere I travel. I’m willing to pay more for that. But I want it.

* Let me choose what channels I get. (Yes, I know that cable companies make money off of bundling but they need to shout back up the stream and change their relationship with the channels to make this happen or we’ll all revolt against both.)

* Give me the ability to watch the programming I’ve bought whenever and wherever I want, without having to pay extra on-demand fees or program my TiVoesque thing or buy a Slingbox. If I bought it, I want to watch it on my terms, damnit. Kill the schedule. For that matter, kill the channel. Serve me anywhere, not just at home. (And, yes, I know there are copyright challenges but the industry better figure this out or their stuff will be left behind.)

* The wise cable company will seamlessly merge programming from broadcast, cable, and the internet. I shouldn’t care where it comes from if I want to watch it.

* The wise cable company would enable the people formerly known as the audience to become critics, recommending programming to each other as part of their system. If cable companies had a business model built on desire — I want to watch that — rather than on mere monopoly, it would serve them and us so much better.

* And the wise cable company would realize that peer-to-peer would save them money, used well.

* The strategic cable company will start to think two-way and realize that many of its customers are creating, not just consuming. So give us the means to host our stuff.

* I want a means to report bad employees and know that action has been taken to fix the personnel problems that give these companies such a terrible reputation with their customers.

* When they have to come out for a service call, I want a guaranteed time. If something beyond their control happens, then I want to be notified. If they don’t do this, I want to be paid for my time.

What does your ideal cable company look like?

One more thing: If Comcast is smart, it will enter into a real dialogue — not just unconvincing apologies — about what it should be on these sites and with other blogging customers. Watch Dell.

Airlines: Imprisonment as a business model

Air travel may be the first industry based on a business model of kidnapping and imprisonment. It is the least open industry possible. You are trapped with the airline that controls your home airport or destination. And now, far worse, you are trapped in their planes for three to five hours. And why? Well, yes, we can blame weather and bad air-traffic control for some of this. But the essential reason is that that don’t want to let you loose and lose your fare. So they hold you captive. Amazingly, they are allowed it. And, of course, this yields just the amount of resentment and seething hatred it deserves. So no one thinks positively of the industry or the brands in it. It’s so bad that it’s making clearly inferior competitors — driving for hours, Amtrak, ferchrissakes, and maybe even soon the bus — look better. That’s bad. The entire industry and its relationship with its entire customer base is broken.

The attempted solutions so far are all nonsolutions: Attempts to regulate and limit our imprisonment — to still obviously unacceptable levels — have failed. Attempts to sue airlines into civility have not worked. Even the White House finally recognizes the problem but its solutions are aimed at reducing the flights that are already over subscribed; gee, that helps.

It’s time to turn the thinking around. If, for once, anyone in the industry or the government would think like a customer, the solution would be the reverse of imprisoning us in airplanes until they can take off:

Jets should not be boarded until they have a take-off — and landing — slot.

That leaves us, the passengers, free to walk around in the terminal — and, yes, free to seek competitive means of transport (other airlines, cars, trains) or to go home. In no sane world should we be held in captivity and prevented from that free choice. We would have the services of airports at hand — which, in the long run, would improve because there’d be business to be made there; demand for beers yields supply of beers (the mixed-nut marketplace shifts from the jet to the terminal). The airlines would compete to make us comfortable to keep us at their gates. The jets would not be sitting on runways burning incredible amounts of fuel and producing incredible amounts of carbon for hours on end. Onboard crews would not be stressed dealing with righteously angry customers. People might actually decide to fly more often. Oh, yes, this shifts some of the logistical burden of air travel from taxi and air traffic control to the terminals — fine. It also shifts the pain in this relationship from the powerless customer to the people who are in a position to fix the situation. If the airlines want to imprison us, they still have the tool of the nonrefundable ticket, though the market will in the long-run dictate whether we choose to pay for this discount with the risk of captivity.

It’s hard to imagine an industry — other than prisons themselves — that is less open to openness. It’s much easier to imagine how media, retail, consumer products, and entertainment can spawn Cluetrain companies. But if you simply turn around and ask how customers would run these companies, you will get an answer like mine, not like the industry’s or the government’s. The problem is that, deregulation aside, it’s not a competitive marketplace. It’s worse today than telecom. So it’s not as if one company can break away from the pack and think like its customers; it’s not in control of its relationship with us, end-to-end. How do we get from here to there?

The only thing that is new is our empowerment as customers on the internet. We can coalesce and gang up on the airlines. There is also market pressure. The horrid shoddiness of the mainstream airlines is just what has opened up the market for Eos, Silverjet, et al to offer independent, quality competition and take away the big airlines’ most profitable customers, who are all turning their backs and saying nya-nya-nya to their former wardens as they leave the prison gates. But, of course, that marketplace is limited. It’s a much bigger mess than that. And it won’t be cured until the industry starts thinking like its customers, which will only happen when the customers shout so loudly, now that we can, that the industry can’t help but hear.

In the end, the ability of companies to make a business by telling customers what they cannot do is over. It’s only a question of when and how it is replaced.

: I should add that when I flew to Austin this week to see Dell, my Continental flights were ontime both ways — though I saw a chart yesterday (can’t find it now) showing Continental as the current leader in passenger imprisonment. I was lucky to get a first-class upgrade both ways, which improves one’s outlook.