THE BLOG

Broadband and Mobile Providers Prey Upon the 'Weak' and 'Uncertain'

26/03/2015 12:22 | Updated 25 May 2015

"If you wish to downgrade or cancel your account with an internet service provider or migrate to another provider, you're back to the age of telephone and Royal Mail. There's no quick 'unsubscribe' button."

So says Luciano Floridi, Professor of Ethics of Information at the Oxford Internet Institute in a conversation we recently had.

By the same token, he pointed out, "the same provider does offer an easy and quick way online (no telephone call and no physical mail needed) to upgrade one's product or switch from a residential to a business contract".

I've become increasingly uneasy about the retentions policies of UK broadband providers.

I've been pondering why you can sign up or upgrade online, but can't downgrade or cancel without making a phone call.

And I've been wondering whether the practice was ethical.

Because whether you intend either to cancel your broadband package or to downgrade it to something more financially manageable or less wasteful, UK broadband providers uniformly force you to speak (or 'interact' online) with a person whose job it is to, rather than help you take that action, prevent you from doing so at any cost.

Robin Mansell is Professor of New Media and the Internet at The London School of Economics. She explained to me that "one of the bigger barriers to changing suppliers are 'switching costs'," and that "one such cost is [ensuring the customer knows] neither how to unsubscribe easily from a service, nor what the likely consequences will be."

Now, don't get me wrong; it's perfectly natural that broadband, TV and phone providers would want to keep you - you are after all their primary resource. But shouldn't customer retention be a natural by-product of great service and happy users?

Removing the exit signs would not be an ethical way to up the revenues of a car park. Nor would it be acceptable to force customers to negotiate their escape from said car park with a person whose job it is to see how many car park users he or she can deter from ever leaving. And yet, for UK broadband, TV and mobile providers, this exact behaviour is the norm.

It's a sticking point for customers. A point where a lot of us simply give up or turn back.

Providers know that the act of having to explain to another human being why we're cancelling a service will prevent many of us from taking that action.

They know that people are naturally averse to confrontation. They know that we'll sometimes feel the reason we're leaving, downgrading or taking our business elsewhere won't stand up to rigorous scrutiny. They know we don't want to tell someone we can no longer afford their service. And they know that's a hard thing to tell anyone - even a giddy call-centre kid chirping cheerfully into a headset.

Retentions departments serve a single positive purpose: If you have no intention of actually leaving, providers will offer you the moon on a stick if you wave your cancellation gun with adequate conviction.

For the rest of us they are hellish gauntlets set to test every facet of our willpower.

"Why are you leaving? Oh, that's not a very good reason, we can fix that. If you leave, where will you go? Oh, they're not as good as we are. If you go there you'll have exactly the same problems. Worse problems. Your whole world will implode.

If you stay, here's the moon.

The stick's detachable."

If you love something you should set it free, and never is that idiom more true than when applied to your customers. What broadband, mobile and many other online service providers need to realise is that a trapped customer will never truly love you back - that an effective retentions department is (in the words of Professor Floridi) a system designed not to assist, but to "discourage the weak and change the mind of the uncertain".

And that's hardly something to be proud of.