by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume IV, No. VII
For the Week of February 14, 2000

This Week's Clue: A Sterne Lecture

This Week's Clue: A Sterne Lecture

SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)

Dilbert on Intellectual Property

AOL's Outer Limits

A Pleasant Surprise

Clued-in, Clueless

Let me start this one by quoting the great Molly Ivins in a recent column. Get. The. Damned. Mammogram. Now. (She wrote this after finding she has "an outstanding case of breast cancer from which I fully intend to recover.") Jim Sterne  offered similar wisdom in his Abraham Summit lecture (and I mention Ivins because he was quite as funny as she can be). Here's Sterne's lecture, boiled down. 

Answer. The. Damned. E-Mail. Now.

How big an advantage can this be? Consider that Gartner Group  has written that 25% of all customer inquiries will be e-mails by next year. Now consider that a recent Brightmail survey found that one-third of Fortune 100 companies don't answer their e-mails.

Brightmail can help you filter and route your e-mail flood to the right parties. You can personalize the address people send to (how about suzie@whateverthehellyournameis.com instead of sales@whateverthehellyournameis.com) and you should personalize the responses you send. You should also analyze server logs and redesign your site with an eye toward answering more questions, Sterne said. 

It's amazing but true, Sterne said. People will spend a half-hour poking around your site and if they find the answers they want they'll go away happy, while if you leave them on-hold by their phones for 15 minutes they'll get mad. 

You can limit the e-mail flood with a good FAQ, and systems like Brightmail can handle 70% of the queries, but the others are a huge opportunity to build goodwill, Sterne said. You can also limit the flood with a well-run forum - customers themselves will answer most of the questions but you want someone there to monitor, to tamp down flame wars, and to escalate real problems to upper management. 

The basic rule is simple. "Treat people like individuals," Sterne said. "It's not about you. It's about the customer." Why companies should have to spend $10,000/day to learn this (that's the going rate for top consultants) is beyond me, but maybe they won't listen until they first write a big check. If that's true, it's still a check well worth writing. 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

I'm interrupt-driven, an inherited condition known as ADD. If you or a loved one may have this problem, and you need to know more (in English), buy this book or get it on tape .

I write daily for ClickZ, and weekly at Andover.News. I write monthly for  NetMarketing, Boardwatch, and  Intellectual Capital. Once every other month I'm in CLEC Magazine. You can always buy my book . Subscription instructions are at the bottom of each issue.

Remember that it's still journalism that keeps the Clues coming. Give me a shout at 404-373-7634.

Takes on the News

Dilbert on Intellectual Property

One of the hardest won ideas in my arsenal is that ideas by themselves are worthless. It's the ability to execute on an idea, or the ability to come up with ideas, which create value.

It's unfortunate how many Clueless companies aggressively ignore that Clue, and it's worse that many of these people have friends in Washington, especially on the bench. Larry Lessig is right-on in his recent Industry Standard column (not just because he agrees with something I'd written weeks earlier in ClickZ). "Business method patents" like Amazon.Com's one-click ordering or Priceline's reverse auctions should never have been granted. Business method patents were the creation of a single federal judge, writing in a single 1998 legal case.

Congress or a higher court could easily overturn this nonsense, and here's why they should, in language even Charlton Heston can understand. (Can you believe he and I are both alumni of Northwestern?) A patent on a gun doesn't protect all guns, just a single design. It not only protects innovation it spurs further innovation by rivals to go it one-better. But when you patent a business method, like a reverse auction, there's no way to one-up the patent. It's like patenting all guns. No one else can kill people using bullets without first paying the patent holder (unless they want to throw the things at someone).

Another example of this nonsense, "pay me for ideas," can be found in the domain name gold rush. I'd been wracking my brain to figure out what bothered me about this, but Lessig's column set me right. The otherwise-estimable David Fiedler  told the Abraham Summit they should get into this gold rush silliness, and offered (free) a software program that lets you automatically query the Whois database for "valuable" names. It's like people are trying to trademark the English language!

Yes, I know - the real problem here is that domain names are too cheap, and the market's finding a way around that. But the normal solution is to raise the initial price for domain names. The only problem is where the money should go. Why should it go to mere speculators? When we give the excess to speculators we not only raise the price, we make names harder to buy, because there's no longer a single general location for them. As a first step I'm willing to throw "politicalbusiness.com," which I registered as a Christmas present, back into the hopper.

Sports teams and movie companies play this game all the time, and it's silly. The new Houston NFL team, by all rights, should be the Oilers, but that name is held by Edmonton's NHL team so it won't happen. Lucasfilm figures it should own not just the domain name Starwars.com, but all names relating to characters or places in the film Sometimes the greed goes too far, as in the eToy-eToys mess, and the party in the "right" has to give back his ill-gotten booty . But guess what? There are idiots in Atlanta still playing the game!

When big companies go hard on fans for "threatening" their intellectual property, they first lose the goodwill that made that property valuable in the first place. I'm hyperventilating here, so let me conclude today's lecture by urging you all to take a lesson from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert . Don't frustrate your fans - indulge them.

AOL's Outer Limits

In an "Engulf and Devour" move that reminded me of Microsoft before the Justice Department swooped in, AOL shipped a 5.0 upgrade that takes over users' ISP, mail and browsing defaults on a single click. An $8 billion lawsuit brought by angry users may be bogus but that's beside the point.

The point is that thousands of experienced net users, who use AOL as a secondary source of e-mail, ISP service and Web service, got hosed into changing their accustomed usage patterns and spent hours changing things back. Every breath they took during that time came with a curse underneath it, aimed at AOL. Will those people now recommend AOL to friends, and how many people will they tell their troubles to? The normal ratio is you tell one person when you're happy, 10 when you're not. You do the math.

A Pleasant Surprise

Maybe I shouldn't mention this, but I was given stock options by one of my journalism clients recently. They weren't worth a fortune, and they don't vest for four years, but this had been a minor client and now (in my mind) they're a major one.

I have mentioned this idea to bigger clients for months, and none has yet taken the Clue. This is why newspapers and other journalism companies have such a brain drain. Creative professionals are waking up to the power of ownership. Give us equity in what we do and we'll love you for it (even if it's just a taste), we'll be impassioned on your behalf, and we'll make you rich. Try to keep it all to yourself and, when someone else does offer us a stake (even a little one, even a worthless one) we're outta here. Yes, Virginia, this is even true for journalists.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is the California Health Care Foundation , for raising the alarm on the pitiful state of medical privacy on Web sites . They followed up with a survey by Cyber Dialogue showing how this is hurting the sites' ability to grow .

Clueless is Sun chairman Scott McNealy   for this little gem - "no one has privacy anymore, so get over it." This could be the 1999 version of Charlie Wilson's famous "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA." At the time that was true, too, but it isn't anymore because people came to hate GM for its arrogance.

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