Teresa Cottam recounts her own poor telecoms experiences and what we can learn from them. In this post, Teresa explains why her recent experience of changing broadband providers demonstrates failures in the UK market.
One of the fundamental requirements for consumer choice and true competition is that the consumer is able to switch service providers in order to choose the product that best meets their needs. In the telecoms market the ability to switch provider has been mandated and facilitated by regulators. In the UK Broadband Market one of the ways in which Ofcom has sought to facilitate this is the use of a MAC code.
The Migration Authorization Code (MAC) is a 17- to 19-character unique identifier code that is generated by the actual telecommunication provider (in the UK this is usually BT), which identifies the local loop (telephone line) to be switched, and authorises the provider to switch the customer to the new ISP.
The MAC code reduces the time taken to migrate service provider from 17 days to cease an asset and 7–10 days to provide a new order without a code, to 3–10 days with a code.
This is the second time that I have personally changed ISP. The previous time our household moved from BT to Sky in a completely uneventful manner. In contrast, this migration was from Sky back to BT (in the form of Plusnet, a wholly-owned BT business). The migration was little short of a nightmare and highlighted key lessons for all ISPs and CSPs.
Why did we move broadband service provider?
Firstly our decision to churn should be a lesson to all service providers. It was not based on cost at all, but on the quality of service being provided by Sky. Originally Sky had offered us completely free broadband as part of our TV service, but after a couple of years Sky asked us to move to a paid package on the basis that in one month we had gone over their arbitrary limit. Note that our average usage wasn’t over the limit, but the agenda was to move customers to a paid-for subscription. I didn’t have a problem with this, since I expect to pay for what I use. What I had a problem with was that as a paying customer my quality of service was worse than it had been before I started paying.
My guess was that Sky were attracting more and more customers to their free offer, which in turn reduced the speeds for all. Whatever Sky claims, all I can say is that from my own experience, speeds most definitely ceased to be satisfactory. In fact they were so unsatisfactory they caused us to test our broadband speed at various intevals and we discovered they were slow compared to what other ISPs could offer us. This experience was recently backed up by a survey conducted by The Guardian newspaper, which found a 60% gap between the speed promised by Sky and that acutally delivered.
Since we were already paying for the service and we were out of contract, there was no barrier to us churning. At no time in the previous several years had Sky made any attempt to build loyalty with us, nor when we rang them to ask for a MAC code did they try and convince us to stay. As one of their paying customers it was logical to assume they would want to retain us, but once we informed them we intended to move to Plusnet they did not even try and retain us.
The hell of moving broadband provider
Notably, when we asked for a MAC code, Sky told us we “didn’t need one”. This concerned us, since we knew that since 2007 they should provide one when requested. What we didn’t know – and no one at any point informed us – was that where the line is unbundled (a term which the average customer has little hope of understanding) there are potentially serious problems with the process. We have subsequently discovered that some ISPs who are LLU providers say they cannot issue MAC codes to go back to the BT Wholesale network. This is not true, BT can accept MAC codes from LLU providers for customers switching back to BT. The advice, we now realise, is to persist but again this is something that the average customer cannot and shouldn’t have to deal with.
The next thing that happened was that our new ISP (Plusnet) rang us to inform us that Sky had issued a cease order on our line which was prior to the date at which they could provide service. This arbitrary date had been decided by the Sky CSR on the basis of their billing period – ie what suited them. Plusnet advised us to ring Sky and get the cease order lifted because “reconnection” by BT would cost us £50. This we did. (We note, however, that the cost of reconnection is frankly outrageous in this day and age.)
On the day we were due to move over our entire line went dead. We had no homephone, no dialtone and no broadband. Having dealt with a less than co-operative Sky we now had to deal with Plusnet, but we were confident this would be okay – after all they had won customer service awards galore.
The first issue I had with them was that this situation was a crisis for us, yet they didn’t know or seem to care. After nine hours without service we had to ring them and wait in a queue for 20 minutes to talk to a CSR. When I explained patiently what the problem was, the CSR replied he simply didn’t know what was wrong. At this point I explained that I needed the broadband service back up and running for my business. Rather than see this as an urgent requirement to get the problem fixed (and maybe even upsell me to a higher level of SLA), he proceeded to tell me – a brand new customer who had not spoken to the company before – that I was in the wrong. I had broken their terms and conditions, he said, by having a consumer account rather than a business account and working from home. I pointed out that I had spoken to one of their salespeople, had explained my needs (including enquiring about their home worker plans) and she had suggested the plan we were now on, with an option to upgrade if necessary later on.
As a customer what irritated me the most was how Plusnet believed that the way to start a relationship with a customer and build value for themselves was to offend a customer in a crisis. Rather than an accusation, a suggestion to move to a more suitable package once they had actually provided a service would have been welcome, and a more effective way of building a relationship.
At this point we were told that we had to wait – in total we suffered seven days without broadband, a horrendous experience for an always-connected family. The only bright spot was that Three UK had kindly sent us a MiFi – a wireless broadband router – to evaluate for a story I intended to write on mobile broadband. Taking the opportunity to try it in earnest I can honestly say we were all impressed. Apart from some signal variance within the building, the speed the MiFi provided actually seemed faster than that we had received from Sky. The only real negative thing I have to say about MiFi is that the pricing plans are limited and none of them was appealing to me. Unless I had been in crisis I would have been loath to cut the cord; having tried it in earnest I honestly believe it is a viable alternative to fixed broadband for some customers and, importantly, something all homeworkers and SMEs should have in their bottom drawer.
Learning points for CSPs
I believe that moving broadband provider should never, ever be as unpleasant as I experienced. When I move mobile provider, it is not. In fact, my experience of moving away from T-Mobile was so pleasant that I have continued to think fondly of them and would seriously consider reconnecting at a future date. In contrast, I will never, ever use Sky broadband again, and will move from Plusnet as soon as the contract period is up.
- Learning point number 1: how you deal with customers at the end of their lifecycle is critical for your brand, and for any hope of a future relationship with the departing customer. Just because they choose to move to another CSP now, does not mean they would not spend money with you in future – unless of course you muck up this opportunity by the way you handle them at this critical last touchpoint.
- Learning point number 2: CSPs should never ever blame a customer for being on the wrong package. If they are on the “wrong” package or tariff then why is this? How much revenue are you making out of them? Are they profitable? If they’d actually be better off on a different package then you should be upselling them, not blaming them. This is all basic sales 101, but something we’re still getting wrong too often if the experience of me, my friends, relatives and business network is anything to go by.
- Learning point number 3: there are few useful SME and home-working tariffs available in the UK, and I suspect in many other markets. I was accused of using a lighter weight consumer tariff when I should be on a business tariff. However, to me as a customer these distinctions were not meaningful. In terms of actual usage I am a pretty average consumer. I would argue that many consumers use far more data than I do even if you combine my business usage and my home usage. This is simply because I use little video or other high-bandwidth services. It is no good arbitrarily dividing customers according to some internally-defined categorisation, if the offers you have for them don’t meet their actual needs.
- Learning point number 4: an apology and some small form of compensation would have meant a lot to me – neither were forthcoming.
Learning points for customers
Broadband is now such an important part of our lives that you seriously need to consider what would happen if you were without it. I would heartily recommend you investigate mobile solutions like MiFi, at the very least as a back up. But, more importantly, you need to develop a contingency plan, because broadband can and does go down.