Posts about beta

How to handle an ass (like me)

I want to love my cable company – honestly, I do. They bring me things I love and depend upon. I love TV. I really, really love the internet. (The phone? Well, I love that, too – but unfortunately for the cable company, it’s my iPhone I adore.)

So why don’t I love my cable company? We all know why: because it’s a marriage as ruined as the one in War of the Roses. It’s a relationship built entirely on aggression and passive aggression, on each party trying not to give the other one what it wants, on stonewalling or fighting. So how do you change that? I speculated in What Would Google Do? about what a cable or phone company run by Google (GT&T) would be like, but that’s only wishful thinking.

After my contretemps with Cablevision this week – and the ensuing lively discussion about it in the comments here, on other blogs, and in Twitter – I’ve been trying to think about it how this relationship can be rebuilt. Because I don’t like the relationship and I don’t like the way I am in it.

When my internet didn’t work. I called the company and its employee read off a script: ‘Sorry to hear that sir, let’s try this. Oh, that doesn’t work. We’ll see you in three days.’ I then operate off my script: ‘That’s unacceptable. I pay for the service. I want it fixed ASAP.’ Them: ‘No.’ Me: Get me a supervisor.’ Them, after much argument – because it always takes argument: ‘OK, tomorrow, but you have to wait home all day.’ Me: ‘That’s unacceptable. I have a life.’

I pay for the service to work and want it to work. They want to maximize customer service efficiency (is that a sufficiently nice way to say it?). We end up in a standoff that, in my experience, can be broken only by outlasting them and being angry. It’s still a script. But I don’t like the role I play. I don’t like myself. I’m an ass. Because it works. I end up victorious – the internet I paid for is working again – but sullied and embarrassed by what I had to say to get the service I need. How to break that cycle?

There are a few new factors in the cable business in recent times.

First, cable companies have competitors (yay!) – well, at least one competitor: the phone company. In Twitter, it took no time at all – less time, indeed, than it took Cablevision to respond – for Verizon people to smell the carrion of a dead marriage and to seduce me.

Second, we have Twitter (and blogs and YouTube). As I said in the comments on the post below, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have because your message can spread and so the smart company has to respond. The people formerly known as consumers are now media.

But the company also has Twitter. Witness what Frank Eliason (aka @comcastcares) has done to respond to customers and to humanize his company. Oh, Comcast still has problems – Eliason will confess that – but the fact that I got better service on my Cablevision account from a Comcast employee speaks volumes. It says there’s a lesson to be learned there.

At the end of my Dell contretemps, I wrote an open letter to Michael Dell with what I sincerely hoped would be helpful advice. They didn’t change their ways because of what I said. But what they did end up doing what I suggested and I’ve since written about that in BusinessWeek and in my book.

So I’ve been trying to think of advice for Cablevision.

First, throw out the script. Give employees the ability to take responsibility, to deal with us honestly, and to get things fixed. That’s one of the things Dell did and it made a huge difference.

Second, become human. Comcast’s Frank Eliason is a person. He’s not a bot with standard answers. We wouldn’t stand for that; as the Cluetrain Manifesto teaches, markets are conversations and we recognize when they are being held by man vs. machine. Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people. Not every employee will be capable of that; it’s the ones who are you want working and speaking for you.

Third, I’d invest in customer service as the best form of advertising possible. Zappos learned that lesson and it just earned them $900 million.

Fourth, create a service level agreement (SLA) so customers know what to expect when they call and so they can hold the company to it. That’s the real problem. We come loaded for bear because we know what’s going to happen, we know the script: the cable company is going to push us off as far as possible and we’re going to demand as soon as possible. The agreement becomes an assurance (natural disasters aside) we can count on and we know the consequences.

Fifth, you’re not going to believe that I’m saying this, but charge for better service. Yes, I would complain about that. But here’s the way I think it would play out: The cable company charges for a good SLA; its competitor, the phone company, sees the competitive advantage of advertising that you get that included with them; the cable company is then forced to meet the challenge. And we end up with the SLA. If we don’t, I predict that local governments and the FCC and FTC may impose them. So I suggest you figure out the way to get there on your own.

Sixth, make it a goal to have delighted customers. Yes, I know, that sound silly: fodder for needlepoint. But go back to the beginning: I want to love my cable company. If – surprise, surprise, surprise – I do, I’m going to talk about that. In the age of Twitter, that’s the best advertising you can get. This is how the investment in customer service will pay off: with advertising that’s better than anything you put in TV or newspapers … and it’s free. And it keeps customers from leaving for Verizon. That’s how a company takes advantage of the free economy.

This attitude also might motivate cable companies to change other policies that irk, like bundling in dozens of channels I have to pay that I never watch. But the issue that bothers most people about their cable companies is dealing with them for installation and service. That’s what I’d concentrate on first. Service isn’t a favor you do for customers, as various employees implied with me. It’s how you live up to your deal and delight customers.

You see, I’m not an ass. I only play one on the phone to get what I think I deserve in a business deal in which I have no power other than that. And, cable guys, I know you’re not lazy slugs trying to rip me off; that’s just the script they make you read from the policies they set in the front office. Can’t we all get along?

Share your great mistakes

In the comments on the post below, John Caddell says he started MistakeBank so people could share their valuable booboos. Fascinating idea.

So what are the great mistakes you’ve made that opened up a new idea or opportunity? What are great mistakes others have made?

The failure system

Brian Frank riffs on yesterday’s post on the license to fail and argues that our standard for success should not be perfection but instead “generativity”:

. . . instead of evaluating things on how well they accord with preconceived models and assumptions, let’s evaluate things by looking at how many unexpected new opportunities they generate.

Failure breaks things open and allows us to remix the pieces in different ways. If we don’t do this from time-to-time — if we just keep accumulating more mass onto the same framework — eventually it gets too bulky and falls on our heads.

There are lots of interesting nuggets of ideas in his rambling on the idea. Frank illustrates his point talking about the progression of scientific theory from Newton to quantum and Einstein: “But now it’s becoming more difficult to stand on Newton’s shoulders. His ideas aren’t as generative anymore; they perpetuate more than they generate.” I don’t know enough there to agree or disagree; I see Frank searching for a metaphor for what I’ve been calling beta-think or what I’ve been arguing with newspaper people about finding opportunities wherever they see problems:

Much of the new science — like the new economy — is not about layering subsequent successes on top of each other, but they are generative in the sense that they open up new fields to explore. They are adventures that could very likely fail to prove their original hypotheses but can’t fail to generate new ideas and insights.

Next Frank tries his worldview on human psychology as he also challenges perfection as the goal:

Even looking at the people who hold perfection in high esteem, it isn’t perfection itself that motivates them, it’s the challenge of pursuing it — and the sneaking uncertainty that they can’t attain it: it’s a dare….

If you take the uncertainty and randomness and genuine risk out of life (as in, risking oneself, not just other people’s money) you take the life out of life…

So why would we perpetuate organizations, rules, and systems that are based on the fundamental assumption that randomness and uncertainty can be mechanized and ordered into a irrelevance?

He and I agree that this effort at order comes out of the industrial age: the need and drive to mechanize and systematize everything to do because that’s what the means of mass production and distribution demanded. In WWGD?, I argue that we are leaving that age and entering an economy and society built on abundance and knowledge (which, to return to Frank’s point, comes when you expand past old assumptions: when you generate new ideas). He concludes:

The society that embraces uncertainty, nurtures a love for it (i.e. a love of learning) and develops institutions that thrive because of randomness rather than despite it, will eventually have the most success, generation-by-generation.

: Howard Weaver also responds to my post, riffing on failure and perfection in cultures, industries, and economies:

In private life – business and commerce, the academy, creative endeavors – Jeff’s point is fundamentally applicable. I was lucky enough to be taught as a young editor periodically to ask the folks I worked with, “When was the last time you made a good mistake?”

I’d stress, of course, that a “good mistake” didn’t involve coming in drunk and misspelling all the names. A good mistake was one where we learned something we couldn’t have learned otherwise, where we were better off afterward for what we learned, where we had a clearer vision of what to try next.

Weaver agrees with Craig Newmark on British failurephobia and that makes me finally come up with a theory for what I’ve observed from my Guardian colleagues in political and media news in the U.K.: I call it the off-with-their-heads reflex that comes whenever a TV exec or a government minister or someone under them messes up. We see moments of that in America, of course. But we need to focus less on the mistake – the fall from perfection – and more on the question of whether the mistake is fixed and the lesson learned; if so, then the experience and the person may be valuable; if not, fine, behead them.

: LATER: There’s an interesting discussion about the beta life at the Business Innovation Factory.

Training the crowd as journalists

In the Philippines, the ABS-CBN TV network has been training citizens – 1,000 in the first recent class, 700 in the next – to report on the upcoming election there. They call it the Boto Mo iPatrol and count 15,000 members. Their curriculum:

They will orient the “patrollers” on the fundamentals of citizen journalism—from shooting pictures or videos using cell phones or cameras, to writing captions and telling a story, to uploading their reports to the Internet. They will also be briefed on the electoral process and the ethics of journalism.

I’ve argued that training is going to be a key role for the professional journalists and news organizations as they learn to collaborate with and empower communities to report on themselves. ABS-CBN News is doing that, gaining thousands of new witness-reporters in a story too large for any news staff to cover alone and adding value to their coverage, including verification.

The need for – and risks of – government transparency

At yesterday’s Personal Democracy Forum – where I was in the unfortunate position of speaking inbetween two of my favorite geniuses, danah boyd and David Weinberger – I sang the obvious hymn to the choir, arguing that government in a Google age means transparency. All governments’ actions and information must be searchable and linkable; we need an API to government to enable us to build atop it.

I also argue that as newspapers die – and they will – government transparency is a critical element in the new news ecosystem that will fill the void. When government information is openly available, a dwindling handful of journalistic watchdogs in a state capital can be augmented by thousands, even millions of watchdogs: citizens empowered. I’ll write more about this as part of the New Business Models for News Project.

But at PDF, I also listed four cautions regarding transparency – charges to us as citizens:

* We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

In other words, we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate. That was the lesson I learned from Google about releasing a beta: it is a statement of humility and openness and an invitation to join in. We need that in government.

* Transparency must not always mean gotcha. Oh, there are plenty of people to catch red-handed. But if transparency is about nothing more than catching bureacrats and politicians buying lunches, then we will not have the openness we need to make government collaborative.

* We have to figure out how to make government and its work collaborative. What if we were able to help government do its job? What if it acted like a network? What if it acted like Wikipedia, where a small percentage – less than 2 percent, says Clay Shirky – create it; it would not take many citizens to help make government work in new ways.

* We have to turn the discussion to the positive, the constructive. Again, there are plenty of bastards to catch. But we must move past that – especially once we have more watchdogs watching – so we can build.

I ran around the auditorium like a fool – a role I enjoy – playing Oprah and asking everyone in the audience to say what they thought government for the Google age looked like. Since I was running, I couldn’t take notes, but the #pdf09 Twitter hashtag captured some and PDF will put up a video later. Lots of great thoughts.