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Monday, March 25, 2013

Today’s Contribution

Television news was showing how police were cracking down on DC cabbies who mischarged their riders, sirens screaming, tires squealing, “...gonna make an example!...” 

I laughed. I ride DC cabs and improvement by threat was only affecting the cameramen and the officials puffing up in front of them...and maybe the poor sap they were trying to hurt. They forget that cabbie is their customer. 

Peter Corbett had introduced the DC Tech community to Travis Kalanick, ceo of Uber, an app that enforced taxi compliance by giving cabbies an opportunity to earn more in return for being able to show within five minutes, keeping clean cars, taking credit cards, and maintaining their privilege by being publicly evaluated by their riders on social media. Travis told us how in city after city he had to vanquish the rentseekers, people who had fashioned niches, guarding broken systems, so they get paid for other people’s labor.

In Cambridge you have to call for a limo 8 hours before you want it. In NYC, taxi medallions are going for over a million dollars a copy. One entrayprenoor was selling medallions with duplicate numbers. Nobody cared.

In DC cabbies need to buy stickie signs for their cabs to show they’ve greased the city.

None of that has anything to do with moving me from point A to point B.

It’s just a collection of people who are carving their living out of a long ago contribution and/or bad regulation.

Over on Lifehacker, I was reading Why I Stopped Pirating And Started Paying For Media. The bottom line is once it became safe and convenient (made sense) people started to pay. All the noise about downloading is theft was an alternative to providing an acceptable way to pay. Those guys making their contribution by abusing their customers were avoiding solving the problem, and threatening force to cover their lack of mastery.

Last day of 2012, I was mailing a letter for a friend, had to get mailed that day. Walked up to a post office truck and asked the driver if he would take the letter from me. No, he was a postal professional, he didn’t take mail, but he was happy to give me erroneous directions to a post office five blocks away. Got there and that post office had closed early.

This is not directed at government, although government is all over DC and government has done the best job of holding back change. Consequently, their fixes will be the most wrenching.

This Sunday, I went into the Five Guys in DuPont Circle. Midday, the place was empty. The “manager” was sitting at a table, back to the door, nodding out. The guy at the cash register couldn’t hear my order because he had cranked the stereo so loud. I saw several groups walk in, turn around, and walk out to go somewhere less painful.

I do some Five Guys. This trip had the best fries ever from the cook, after I yelled at the financial professional to turn down the noise. The noise was so loud, it took three tries.

One time I was in a CVS. They had locked one of the exits during business hours, and the staff of three were exasperatedly yelling at the customers to use the automated checkout kiosks, which were down. There were fifteen people trying to get out of the store, and nobody bothering to operate the cash registers.

The lady behind me said, “They’re just not retail oriented.” Good line.

Many have changed business processes to take advantage of the economies of automation. Which is true...when they work. When the users are not able to make the systems work as imagined, often there is no understanding of the underlying mission of the business. The mission has changed from satisfying the customer to enabling automated processes.

The classic example is having to start over because you filled out a form incorrectly. I’m embarrassed filling out poorly designed forms that encourage errors. And you know, I’ve never had happen on Amazon. They always get their money.

Making an example of the “bad customer,” using force or coercion, is usually bad tactics for two reasons. First, paybacks are hell, and second, they highlight flawed operations.

Rentseeking, taking compensation to allow others’ efforts, is always ugly and with internet disintermediation there are fewer ways to hide it. What if the rule of thumb was to supply value commensurate with the value you take? “Well, we also have all these other things nobody in their right mind would pay for...” Rentseeking.

As for what to do about it, I think we might realize that this is a time of rapid change, and old problems may have new and different solutions. When you find yourself providing a solution that doesn’t help the guy with the problem, you probably need to try something else. 

Focus on figuring out Today’s Contribution every day. 

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