Sunday, 1 March 2015

These go to 11

Bit of a general drunken rant - "my personal opinion" even more so...

I have had a few concerns over advertising over the last months - I am annoyed by most adverts, and even more so when they are about something I understand (broadband service), but of late there has been a spate of "race the the bottom" stuff.

We are seeing people selling "Free broadband for 6 months", which is disconcerting. For a start, it is far from "Free", this is always with a "with phone line at £XXX", and some times that is quite a lot for a landline! Bear in mind we do a landline for broadband only use for £10/month.

But the big issue I have been trying to work out is how we can be different, or more to the point explain how we are different. The problem is that we try to be very honest with what we say, and that sometimes puts us at a disadvantage. We'd love to make claims that we are "better" than many other ISPs, but if we cannot say so with a definite measurable metric then we won't say it. Honesty is pretty important to us.

We gather that we are the highest average per-line peak usage of BT wholesale broadband, at least at some point when that was measured, but we have no proof of that (BT don't say that officially). But what that does mean is that "trying not to be the bottleneck" is indeed what we are managing - we are investing a lot in backhaul bandwidth to ensure people get what they pay for.

One of the big issues is that any "shared" service cannot guarantee the peak usage to everyone all the time. We cannot. What we can do is try very hard to ensure everyone can use what they need or want to use when they want. We can try not to be the bottleneck.

So I am unsure how we market ourselves. How we make truthful statements and good marketing statements, at the same time, in this industry.

We have has some lovely reviews! Support: As Nigel Tufnel (Spinal Tap) said: "These go to 11"

A lot of what we can say relates to when things go wrong. We know we are tenacious at beating up BT and TalkTalk over backhaul congestion and line faults and ensuring there are no charges when an engineer has to fix a fault in the network. But selling the "we do well when things break" angle is hard as it is saying "things break"! Sadly they do.

We monitor loss and latency on every line every seconds, and to this day BT do not accept a packet loss or latency issue as a fault category (in spite of a lot of pressure from us).

Whenever I personally get involved in any fault handling on any line (at weekends!) I almost always get very annoyed. I dispare despair at what my staff have to face every day. Many times we have managed to get carriers to change systems and improve things. Sadly there is an ingrained policy of not fixing the underlying problem in the likes of BT, but instead making extra layers to add on top. The latest, with so many ISPs disputing SFI charges does not result in any fix to the issue but a whole new process for the management of the disputes ISPs raise. It is layer on layer of sticking plaster and no real progress. In the past we automated re-tests of a fault, so they changed the system to require an SFI appointment on any failed re-test! They fight us at each step instead of working with us to actually make things better.

Some how we need to find a way to explain to people that we are actually quite a good ISP and worth every penny, but to do so in honest statements that we can back with facts and tests and proof.

I wonder if I need a marketing strategy that is more than "If you build it, they will come" :-)

We'll have to have a meeting to figure it out (thanks xkcd)


29 comments:

  1. Disclaimer - also had a couple of glasses.

    The thing which you're up against is a culture of, "must be (or at least, appear to be) as cheap as possible". This is a peculiarly British complaint. The French have an expression where they will refer to someone's prices as being "correct", which means you get a decent service for a decent price. In this country, people only seem to be able to get their heads' around cheap, cheap, cheap. It doesn't even have to be cheap in reality - Tesco built a large business on a few loss leaders. PC World even more so - their stuff is phenomenally expensive, but they advertise a few cheap items which is enough to create an image of good VFM.

    I use A&A because you provide a good quality of service, with staff who can tell a gluteus maximus from a humerus. I can ask for, and get, advice on a good router (MikroTik incidentally) to use with my BT-supplied FTTC modem.

    My father on the other hand is driven entirely by price. He has a Talk Talk connection costing ostensibly nano-pence per month and it doesn't work. The line is slow, and it won't stay up long enough to download a whole CD image. I've tried talking to Talk Talk on his behalf, and in twenty five minutes of talking to someone who didn't really speak English we managed to get as far as turning their router off and back on again. Trying to explain to him that the ADSL connection was up, but there was no onward connection was like trying to explain quantum physics to a slug.

    The last time I had a serious problem with my A&A line (it was capped at 8 Mb/s) we did some basic tests involving me swapping the ADSL router, and looking at the signal strength and SNR. These established there definitely wasn't a problem with the physical line, so A&A reported it on to BT. BT ignored all the information they were given and said they'd have to get someone out to check the line, which would be chargeable if no fault was found. A&A immediately told them not to be silly arseholes and to fix things at the exchange, which they eventually did.

    That's what I pay for I'm afraid - someone else to deal with the pond life. I'm sorry if you get cross when dealing with BT, although I fully understand why you do, but you have my appreciation, and what's more you get some money from me every month.

    One just has to hope that there are enough people out there who are willing to pay "correct" prices, and who realise that TANSTAFL.

    Incidentally, thanks for your excellent service. A&A are one of the few suppliers I feel I can really rely on.

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    1. Price is an easy metric to compare, whereas performance isn't (especially with subjective stuff like quality of support), so it's understandable that people concentrate on the price. And to be honest, for the most part the cheap services do work, it's only when things start going wrong that "you get what you pay for" becomes very apparent. One thing I think is a problem though, is the churn at the shallow end of the pool - when someone has used $cheap_service and realised that it's crap, they switch to $other_cheap_service with some expectation that it'll be better, rather than concluding that those suppliers are *all* too cheap to provide a decent quality of service and switch up to a more expensive one.

      That said, price isn't everything - my company is cheaper than the competition, but we think we're better. We're using the price-point to encourage people to switch away from our big competitors, because there aren't very many other non-subjective metrics - if you're not cheaper and the current supplier isn't completely terrible, it's hard for people to justify the switch.

      I guess we're in a similar position to A&A at the moment with marketing - our main selling point (other than price) is that we provide excellent support (and as we've never lost a customer in the 10 years we've been going, I think we're probably getting this right), but this is something very hard to push through marketing since *everyone* claims they are great; none of our competitors are putting out marketing saying "we offer terrible support". How is the customer going to tell the difference between the vendors when they are all saying they're great and there are no hard metrics to back this up?

      So far we've been selling through word of mouth, but we're currently trying to expand faster so we're taking our first steps into advertising. And frankly, we're finding we don't have a clue - we want to be very honest, but at the same time the management types who we have to advertise to are often taken in by BS advertising - it's hard to use truth to compete with BS. :(

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  2. I recently commented on The Register that you are the only ISP I can trust not to shove your head up the government's arse. That's a fact. It got 3 up votes.

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  3. You like to get things right, so in the interests of that: "dispare" is not a word, it's "despair".

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  4. My dad is also with Talk Talk, fully unbundled line, for the only reason that it is the absolute cheapest he can get his broadband and phone line for. He isn't fooled by "first n months free" he looks at the ongoing cost, but that's as far as it goes. Most of the time his Talk Talk broadband works, it's a good line and he gets 12 megs down and 1 meg up roughly. But he uses POP3/SMTP for email (I set it up) and Talk Talk's email servers go down every few months for a couple of days. Whenever he phones them up about this they try to persuade him that they no longer support POP3/SMTP and that he should switch to webmail, and they will talk him through setting it up. At this point he's like a deer in headlights and fortunately does the right thing for the wrong reason and puts the phone down. The Talk Talk mail servers come back within a day or two, I'm trying to persuade him to not phone them and simply accept this as the result of the cheap price he's paying.

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  5. I'd like to move my landline to A&A so that my VoIP, DSL and landline connection are all on the one bill, but the no outgoing phonecalls via the landline puts me off I'm afraid. If that restriction was lifted I would be there like a shot. Is there a reason why you don't allow outgoing calls?

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    1. Partly because it is not something most of the customers want. Landline usage is on the decline as more people use VoIP and mobile. But also it is not a simple matter to bill - we have a system to just mark up what openreach charge us, but simply doing that makes it hard for people to know call prices and for us to comply with some ofcom rules. We also have risk of premium rate scams and the like. So not quite impossible but not something we are planning to do at present. Useful feedback though, thanks.

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    2. I wish we didn't have to even pay for a landline to get an DSL service. We don't use it, and even at £10 it's a "hidden" cost in the provision of DSL. God knows why we need to have a working line for DSL, most of europe can do Naked DSL.

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    3. I make most of my phone calls on my land line, ssme for my parents. On my very basic mobile phone I may text two or three times a week and make a call maybe once a month. I just don't find a mobile that useful, I carry it for emergencies.

      The thing I use for all my comms on the go is the iPad 3 I carry with me all the time for email and web over 3G. Smartphones are no good for this I find, the screens are too small. I even reject an iPad Mini on those grounds.

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    4. A follow on question: If the line is through A&A on a Market 1 20CN exchange, would I be able to use indirect carriers such as 18185? Are 0800/0808 numbers barred?

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  6. "If you build it, they will come" - seems to sum it up quite nicely. Those who are technically minded appreciate what A&A offer. I was trying to explain this to my OH the other night, who asked why I was paying £60 a month for something that TT could provide for <£30 supposedly, and I had to explain that you get what you pay for. When you realise this, things fall into place better.
    I just wish there was a better way to sell A&A to my friends than "when BT mess it up, they actually sort things out" as being a plus point - since when did getting BT to do what they are supposed to do, have to become a selling pitch!

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  7. The approach AAISP takes will probably be determined by the kind of customers it wants to attract, as different things will appeal to different audiences. Perhaps SMEs are more desirable than consumers, for example, or that there is a higher margin on VoIP than on DSL.

    However, for us, the things which convinced us to part with an unlimited, free of charge (except for access line) Internet service were:

    1.) we value our time, and time spent speaking with the incumbent provider's customer service team was time wasted; and
    2.) the incumbent put CG-NAT on the line.

    I suspect *everyone* knows someone who dreads calling their broadband or landline provider, and would rather hope that something gets better by itself than go through the frustration of some providers' helplines.

    My experiences with AAISP are that:

    1.) when I call, it is answered quickly
    2.) by someone who speaks English with native proficiency; and
    3.) they have the expertise to really dig into a problem.

    A nice comparative advert would be comparing a customer's feeling about calling their incumbent provider with the feeling of someone about to call AAISP, with the AAISP call being answered quickly by an expert capable of speaking in a way a consumer understands. They say "look, I know your time is valuable — how about a FaceTime call if that would be easier, to see the lights on the modem?" etc.

    "Your time is precious. So is your hair. Don't throw it away over cheap broadband".

    Coupled with a voiceover at the end as a result of a survey of AAISP customers, saying that [x]% rate our customer service as excellent. But why not find out for yourself — why not give our sales team a ring on [number] and see how we can help you.



    Failing that, have you thought about just buying a list of email addresses...

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    1. Buying a list of email addresses!!!! No chance.

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    2. Looks like the smiley face must have fallen off the end of that suggestion :)

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    3. Amusingly, I currently have someone using the "but we bought "opted-in" lists of email addresses!" to defend their contravention of PECR. :)
      http://blog.nexusuk.org/2015/03/not-best-defence.html

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    4. Steve — do note that the ICO has declined to be quite so binary on this point, unfortunately!

      See paragraphs 77 onwards of their Direct Marketing Guidance. Unfortunately, since it indicates that there are circumstances in which, in the ICO's view, there are circumstances in which not getting direct consent is still sufficient under PECR, it rather undermines what could have been a clear position.

      See the example in paragraph 84, in particular: the ICO merely considers that this activity is "very unlikely" to be consensual!

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    5. Ultimately the courts decide, not the ICO, yes? Neil?

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    6. Yes, and the reason I post it was more a "forewarned is forearmed" situation.

      As I think you (or someone else who has posted here?) has discovered — not you, actually, as it was at a contested hearing — the judge did not appear to be aware of the PECR regime at all. If a respondent appears before such a judge and says "but, look — the regulator, which has been entrusted to deal with this topic, has made a clear public pronouncement in the form of guidance, and this stops short of saying "no indirect consent', so clearly PECR cannot mean this."

      It is not a great argument, but I can see why a judge unfamiliar with the regime might not be willing to be at odds with the regulator.

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    7. Yes, and your comments are welcome. I am sure Steve will take note. I may have my first actual PECR hearing next month, which will be fun. Defendant refused all mediation which I hope will be taken in to account in costs if I lose.

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    8. Good luck!

      I wonder if one might bring it in more broadly than just in terms of costs? That it could be taken as being indicative of a wider problem, that the respondent in not one to be troubled by the niceties of the legal framework, and so on?

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    9. No idea, part of doing this is to empirically learn some of the practical matters of small scale legal process. I think he had two chances to use a mediation call, which I would have been happy with, and refused.

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    10. It seems that the ICO has a "cheat sheet" for direct marketing, with a line on it which might be helpful in the event that someone wields the direct marketing guidance document.

      In particular, this bullet:

      " We don’t use bought-in lists for texts, emails or recorded calls (unless we have proof of opt-in consent within last 6 months which specifically named or described us)"
      https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1551/direct-marketing-checklist.pdf

      My feeling is that I would probably go with something along the lines of:

      The wording of the law is clear. "Unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents" means exactly what it says on the tin: that I must have notified the sender of my consent to receive these messages. I have not.

      However, even if you, Judge, are consider that the ICO's guidance is persuasive, and that the words "unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents" are capable of being interpreted more broadly than just a direct communication of consent from a recipient to the sender, the ICO has placed a very clear limitation on the ability to use lists for email marketing.

      As such, even if you are persuaded that consent can be given indirectly, unless the sender can demonstrate proof of opt-in consent within the six month period before the email in question was sent, and that this consent clearly shows the respondent's name, or a description which can only mean that my consent was being given to the respondent, the sender still fails to comply with PECR. The sender cannot provide this proof, since I have not given my consent, in this way or in any other.

      But goodness knows if that would cut any ice or not!

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    11. I wonder what it would cost me to have you come along to my next case in front of a judge... I know I cannot claim for legal advice from the other party in small claims.

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    12. And I absolutely cannot give legal advice, or represent someone in litigation, because I am employed by someone else to give them legal advice exclusively.

      Sitting in court other than as an observer would be beyond what I can do, but a definitely-not-legal-advice discussion beforehand, to explore the kind of things which might come up and how one might handle them, for my academic interest and research, should pose no problems.

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    13. Neil: interesting points - I was actually reading the guidance for unrelated reasons earlier today.

      paragraph 77: "This will depend on what exactly they were told when consent was obtained." - a spammer arguing this point in court is going to have to explain what you were told. Can't see how a buyer of a random email list is going to be able to do that.

      I don't understand why the ICO has been vague on this point though, since in paragraph 76 they pretty much explicitly say the PECR doesn't allow third party opt-ins like that. In any case, third party opt-ins do, at the very least, not comply with their published "best practice" so a spammer is immediately having to argue from a weak position.

      Revk: Good luck. I was under the impression that trying to settle out of court first was a requirement of the small claims track and that judges wouldn't look to kindly on people refusing to do this?

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    14. I'm not sure if offers to settle and refusing mediation count against the defendant if they subsequently successfully defend the action. If you won, you could certainly use these to justify additional costs as it would be "unreasonable" behaviour I think. Though costs would be limited to your travel time, accommodation, mileage and £90 per day of lost earnings, with you being liable for the same to them.

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  8. Every successful business niches, and your niche is the thinking customer who appreciates value rather than lowest price.

    Those adverts focusing on price etc. are nothing to do with you in your niche - so whilst you might have an emotional reaction to their stupidity, they are in fact doing you a favour in attracting people you don't actually want as customers.

    Clearly define your niche and market to that. I suspect this blog and customer referrals are a huge part of that - because your customers tend to be more on the thoughtful scale.

    If you want more customers than your current niche then you need to re-target more than just your marketing message. You'll have to change the offering e.g. your pricing is way to honest - and hence complex - for the thoughtless consumer. You'll also have to change your customer service culture from "Solve the problem" to "Make the problem go away in a way that means you can't be blamed". Oh, and outsource it all to the lowest cost country regardless of the customer experience.

    I also suspect you wouldn't want to work in such a company :-)

    How about "Good, honest broadband for the thoughtful". And then advertise in The Economist and The Week... but certainly not anywhere you might see TalkTalk or BT advertise...

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  9. Hire a PR firm?
    They can be used for active, positive PR as well as just damage control!

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