Sunday, 26 March 2017

Misleading customers?

Speaking as director of A&A I can say for sure that we absolutely do not want to mislead or trick customers in any way whatsoever, at all, ever.

We actually want to make the products and services we sell "intuitively" reasonable and fair if we can. The sad state of things is that some things have some caveats. The main one being the minimum term on some of our broadband services and so some early termination charges.

In some cases we have taken a pragmatic and statistical view, so FTTC on BT backhaul we sell on 6 month terms even though we are stung with 12 months terms from BT. This is because what we pay BT for the circuit is only part of the cost - it does not cover the bandwidth usage, for example. We feel that overall, even for those ceasing within 12 months, we do not lose out, much, on average, by having a 6 month term and a low monthly early termination charge for remaining term.

Sadly, for the TT FTTC backhaul, not only are we stuck paying a to a 12 month term, we even get stung with a nonsensical "early termination fee" on top of that - even though TTB get the full cost for the term without having to provide service. It is actually more expensive to have service for 355 days than 356 days. It is a crazy situation which we have tried to re-negotiate without success several times. As a result we sell these services with a 12 month term and a higher monthly early termination charge just to make sure we usually cover our costs.

If only Openreach did not do FTTC/FTTP on 12 month min term and if only BTW and TTB did not insist on 12 month min term too, we would not insist on it, simple as that.

However, on the bases that we are stuck with some shit like this, and hence some services we sell that are not as "intuitively fair" as we like, we are really keen to ensure transparency and making sure no customer is fooled or tricked by what we sell or misled, or even misunderstands by mistake.

The web site explains. The order form lists "key contract terms" and requires ticking a box to agree the minimum term and early termination costs. These are the very first of these terms. Not hidden away with all the bureaucratic crap we have to do anyway - but up front, at the top. We then email those terms as an order confirmation just to re-enforce what was agreed.

Recently a customer purchased one of these 12 month term services at a premises where they would be living there for only a few weeks. And as such was shocked at the cost to terminate or move to new address within 12 months.

I was horrified! How did this happen? We try to be so clear. We even have services (with higher install costs) that have only 1 month term that would have been way better. How did this happen?

The customer did speak to sales, and so far I have confirmed that the sales staff have reviewed the calls, but I want to as well. It is all very well saying "you ticked this box", but the whole customer experience matters.

What is the way A&A handle this? To be honest this is rare so comes down to me to decide. What I have said is that if we, in any way, on the phone call (for example), misled the customer, then the customer should not lose out and not pay the early termination. If we said something on the call, we stand by it. If that is wrong, then I have to make sure that staff have the training they need to not make that mistake in future.

But, as it seems to be, assuming we are right, and we were not misleading in a call or website or order form, this is still a big concern. How did this happen, and importantly what can we do to stop any sort of misunderstanding like this in future? Bigger text, bolder font, what?

I take this seriously - we are not here to trick customers. When there are caveats, like minimum terms, we need to be really clear. I really wish we did not have them, but we are not trying top "trap" customers. Customers should stay with us because they want to - because the service is worth every penny. Definitely not because we tricked them.

So my job this week is going through the call recordings, the web site, the order form, and doing all I can to ensure no customer ever has this misunderstanding again. I have offered this customer the option to spread payments (though she declined). If my investigation finds any hint that we misled her in any way, I will refund the early termination charges.

If A&A do not trade on integrity, we should not be trading at all.

Update:

So far we have added this extra box above the "Key terms", tweaked wording a bit, reviewed call recordings, and discussed further ways we can improve. Thanks for all the suggestions.


37 comments:

  1. How do you make it clear to a customer that the term ties to a single location, and that the contract is not transferable, especially since there was a period where BT Retail would let you transfer the "contract" tie-in from premises to premises (as a response to cablecos doing the same thing)?

    Back in the day, if you signed up for a 12 month tie-in, you could get BT or some of the local cablecos (this is before the NTL/Telewest duopoly on cable) to transfer the remainder of your tie-in from one line to another - so you could sign up for a line on a 12 month tie-in, move house after three months, and avoid fees by having the same type of line at the new house on a 21 month tie-in; equally if your new premises had a line ready to reactivate (normally no tie-in), you could transfer the remaining 9 months and reactivate it on a 9 month tie in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the web site makes this clear, but that aspect is the main focus of my investigation. Did we make that clear or not.

      Delete
  2. Create a random quiz at the order point that asks (not give multiguess choices) the customer about the terms and conditions. If they cannot answer clearly, decline the order.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Only problem I can see with this is that if the ordering process becomes too difficult some users may feel put off by this and simply not bother / go elsewhere.

      Delete
  3. For what it's worth, as a recently returned customer I found this perfectly clear - unlike with BT Broadband, where I had to drag the truth out of a reluctant "advisor" in a tortuous online chat.

    If things can be improved further, great, it you're already doing better than most of the competition...

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't know what you currently have, but rather than "I agree to the minimum terms" it would be clearest to say the terms, eg. " ... this product has a minimum term of 12 months, therefore you are obligated to pay no less than £xxx in fees until the term expires on the 23rd May 2018"

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm not yet an AAISP customer (deciding whether to keep an active landline is on the long list of things of things to ponder with my wife), but we did get close to ordering in January. Then, the "Key terms" section read as follows:

    Please confirm you agree these key terms
    • Home::1 is only available to non VAT registered residential users, 18 years old and over, paying by Direct Debit.
    • Home::1 has strict automatic credit controls requiring an active Direct Debit instruction at all times. Service will stop if DD is cancelled and not replaced; any issue with payment; or reaching usage limits until topped up. Streaming video can use a lot of your usage allowance.
    • Home::1 VDSL (FTTC) Standard has a minimum contract term of 6 months. You may terminate or migrate the service within 6 months but there is an early termination charge of £20/month per line for the remaining term.
    (continues)

    When I read that in Jan, to me, this seemed concise, detail conscious, honest, authentic. I see AAISP as "small company that tries to really understand what they are doing, as opposed to large incompetent bureaucracy driven by internal politics", which I am very attracted to!

    But now I read your story and looked back at the terms, it occurs to me that each of these terms start with the product name, which is largely noise from the customer's point of view. The relevant term here starts with "Home::1 VDSL (FTTC) Standard", which I suspect would cause some of my relatives to glaze over. There's also quite a lot of other unexplained jargon which personally I understand (I think) and appreciate, but which can communicate "don't bother reading this small print, it's just here to keep the lawyers happy" to an unfamiliar audience.

    My 5 minute attempt to make this a bit less jargon-y, but still preserve the accuracy... (my apologies: I expect I've messed up many important points, but hopefully this helps to illustrate)...

    Payments
    • I am 18 years old or over
    • I am not VAT registered
    • I will pay by Direct Debit
    • I understand that my Internet service will stop if the Direct Debit is not paid
    • I understand that if I cancel this service within 6 months, there will be a cancellation charge (£20 per month for the remaining period)

    Usage limits and speed
    • I understand that a usage allowance applies, that my service will stop if this is exceeded, and that streaming video can use this allowance quickly
    (continues)

    I was going to mention Ecotricity here as my "wow this provider communicates well" example, but when I look at their current terms & conditions, it doesn't seem so amazing after all. I have built up that impression of that company somehow, though - perhaps it was clearer years ago when we signed up.

    I like DrPepper's suggestion of a quiz... but I'd suggest the softer approach of just calling a few recent new sign-ups, talking through their order, checking the important details are clear (perhaps disclosing up front that you are testing your messaging, not them).

    Hope I'm not coming across as terribly patronising - apologies if so. I've been enjoying your blog for a while, RevK, and hope to be an AAISP customer soon. Best wishes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this is the right approach. Front-loading is another technique that helps make web content more likely to be read, e.g.:

      "I understand that if I cancel this service within 6 months, there will be a cancellation charge (£20 per month for the remaining period)"

      to

      "Cancelling within 6 months will incur an additional charge (£20 per month for the remaining period)"

      There is old (1997) but good (evidence based) article on writing for the web: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/

      And a 2015 one from the same author covers other considerations: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/legibility-readability-comprehension/

      Also +1 for the user testing instead of a quiz. A quiz would hit conversions significantly.

      Delete
  6. Ask the customer to type in how many months they expect to use the service. If it's less than 12 months, suggest an alternative product. If it's more than 12 months, you have both the checkbox and the customer's own indication.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It needs to be how many months they plan to use the service AT THIS ADDRESS.

      Delete
    2. Well, even that is ambiguous, as to be WITH US AS PROVIDER, AT THAT ADDRESS, ON THAT LINE... I know, pain in the arse.

      Delete
  7. It is a problem, that people like me never ever read the not-so-small print, just tick the box and go yadda yadda. Dr Pepper above is on to something, it is a good idea to demand a response from the customer that is more than just something thoughtless and robotic. That would wake someone like me up and give them a problem they had to solve. Asking some questions of the customer might be an idea too: “how long are you going to be at these premises" (answer is not a Boolean). This latter idea is all protecting the customer from themselves, not just being clear about terms.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Isn't all this idea of a quiz, etc overkill? How many customers do you get per year in this kind of situation? I can read and comprehend T&Cs if they're clear, I don't need a quiz and probably couldn't be arsed finishing the order if a quiz appeared.

    From what I've read above I'd hide the order buttons behind an initial button which states 'I understand the terms" and have a warning next to that in bold stating that customers must understand the terms they are signing up to, to please think about how they apply to their own situation, and to please call or ask on irc if they'd like to go through anything first.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Don't make people do a quiz... however I like the idea of calculating and displaying the actual end date of a contract.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm on TT backhaul and didn't have any problems understanding that I'm on 12 months minimum term.

    While you're looking at your system and processes however, it's worth noting that accessing Broadband Circuit Details from Control shows the following:

    Billing: Installed Tue 21 Jun 2016, Next bill from Sat 01 Apr 2017, Min term ends Wed 21 Dec 2016

    I know I'm not on a 6 month minimum term but this says otherwise...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And yet I've had a telco and an electricity supplier both slap me with "early cancellation charges" because I cancelled 6-12 months *after* the minimum term ended. (In the case of the electricity provider, the charge magically vanished when I phoned them, in the case of BT they spent a good hour on the phone arguing the toss before agreeing to cancel the charge - BT seemed to think that they could magically begin a new 12 month term at any point after my original term ended without notifying me)

      Delete
    2. Just in case it comes up, again, this might help:

      Ofcom GC 9.3 (a)(i):

      Communications Providers who ... are providing Fixed-Line Telecommunications Services and Broadband Services to Consumers must not, at the end of those Consumers’ initial commitment period, renew those Consumers’ contracts for a further initial commitment period unless that Communications Provider has first obtained those Consumers’ Express Consent

      Delete
    3. And the relevance to either of these replies to my post pointing out an error in AAISP's backend systems is...? :)

      Delete
    4. The good news Peter, is that the date it is showing you is what the billing works on, so it may be you have managed to get 6 months when it should be 12. I'll look in to it for new orders though. It should also not show a past date like that as just confuses people :-)

      Delete
  11. Unfortunately some people just don't read more than the bare minimum and I'm not sure there's anything you can do to fix this.

    I used to be membership secretary of a mountaineering club, and the "membership" page of our website quite clearly stated the annual membership fee, my email address and provided a link to download the application form. I used to regularly get emails asking "how much is membership?" and "where can I download the membership form?" even though the only place my email address was published was right next to the answers to those questions.

    My conclusion - some people simply won't read things that are put in front of them and have to be spoon fed information in person. I decided that the people emailing me had glanced at the page, spotted an email address (since email addresses stand out quite well from other text) and immediately asked their questions of me instead of bother to read the relatively small amount of other text. I'm not sure you can do anything to help these sorts of people without insisting that they order over the phone so you can spoon-feed them the terms and check they understand them.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'd recommend that you get some non-customers in for some testing. Offer people £50 to come in for an hour and test out the website. Get them to explain to you what their broadband requirements are, then watch them ordering via your site (in a test mode, obviously), and afterwards ask them some questions about the agreement they would have made.

    That way you'll find out easily what bits of your messaging are working and which need tweaking, and even what user requirements are being best served.

    ReplyDelete
  13. If you have done everything reasonable to warn the customer, then I think you can sleep safely at night.

    If what you say is true, you've included a tick box next to a statement warning that this fee exists and accurately describe how much it is going to cost to term, then I think you can sleep safely at night.

    It sounds like you're going well beyond what Lord Denning would have expected in his "Red Hand Test" (see Thornton v Shoe Lane Parking). The computer system/website presented the terms, with those terms that are particularly harsh next to a tick box the user has to tick to affirm they have read. The customer has accepted the contract on those terms.

    What more can you do, put in 64pt red writing "IF YOU NEED THIS SERVICE FOR LESS THAN 12 MONTHS THIS SERVICE IS NOT INTENDED FOR YOU AND WILL COST YOU A LOT MORE THAN YOU THINK"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One problem with even that bold statement is that the cost of early termination is done monthly on remaining term at a lower rate than the service cost when you have it, and there is no installation cost on that product (broadband side), so even if you intent to use for 6 or 12 months the end result may be something that is actually not a daft deal for you and chance to save up for the ET charge.

      Delete
  14. I like your clear language.

    Might you simplify it further by removing the "Please check the terms carefully as", and just leaving it as "There is a minimum term of 6 months on this package"?

    Is there a more user-friendly way of explaining "regrade"? What does this cover? Moving house? Buying some extra capacity?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did that initially, and thought it would be clearer to say check the terms. As for regrades, the key thing there (and somehow we should say this maybe) is "we'll tell you if this applies when you ask to regrade". Because, to be honest, it is complicated, and we also do not know what new products will come along in the next 12 months or whatever where a regrade to them would count as termination or not.

      Delete
  15. It sounds like all of this assumes that the potential customer is doing their research and ordering through a website (full of info, and probably more than one website)? What if the person doesn't have internet access -- which is the problem that they are trying to solve? Or is placing an order on a smart phone?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The order form works fine on a smart phone. But if someone calls in an orders the staff read though it as they enter the order for them, including terms.

      Delete
    2. Oh, and this particular customer placed the order themselves on-line...

      Delete
  16. Re screenshots, isn't it a 12 month contract for terabit packages?
    Perhaps it would be wise to make it clear that this minimum package applies to this line at this address.

    Also, your policy could be far, far clearer with regards to regrades between backhaul suppliers

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That diagram says ADSL Terabyte, which is 6 months. The regrading between carriers bit is made very clear when you ask for a regrade. We cannot predict the future in terms of what new options will require a cease of existing service and what will not, and which will mean paying early termination or not, and which will start new 12 month term or not. These are things that are complex now, have changed over time, and will change in future. All we can reliably do is ensure we advise people at the time they order a regrade.

      Delete
    2. I think it would be far clearer if you were advised you COULD be held to term when you regrade, which will be confirmed when you regrade. Then the customer is aware and can discuss with sales in advance.
      At present the minimum terms all relate to migration or termination, not regrade.

      Delete
    3. It states, as you can see: In some cases a regrade can count as termination for the purpose of these charges.
      How is that not clear?

      Delete
  17. As a 2 year customer of A&A you guys are one of a very rare type of company that puts customers ahead of profits! I actually love being a customer, and I cannot say that about any other company I do business with.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I think a lot of people will take the view that "As a 'consumer' I cannot be expected to understand contract terms, and if the terms are 'unfair' then I cannot be held to them. Also, there is the legal principle that in the case of a contract dispute, the party who worded the contract will be held at a disadvantage ("Contra Preferentum"). As the service is billed monthly, then if I want to stop, I can just stop paying the monthly bills. End of chat."

    How about whenever an order is placed, it is queued for a call back from the sales team? Sales team phones the customer, explains the early termination conditions, and gets the customer to understand and agree to them. Record the call. You're golden.

    Sure, it's more expensive than full automation. But it then becomes a question of cost/benefit. Compare the cost of having to get sales to do these callbacks against against the cost of the occasional customer not paying their early termination.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not sure that is quite the principle, more a question of interpretation of terms being in favour of party that did not draft them. There is no ambiguity here. Also, consumer rights, drawing onerous terms to attention, which we have done. On your basis à call would not change that any more than stating it twice in the form and the tick box. Also, a lot of comms contracts have a min term, so much so one mobile provider rather oddly advertises "no contract" (when they mean no min term) as a selling feature!

      Delete