Companies

Cataracts for Customers

Let’s say you have an iPhone, and your carrier is AT&T.* That puts you deep inside what Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) calls a confusopoly (and illustrates here). His text explanation:

A confusopoly is a situation in which companies pretend to compete on price, service, and features but in fact they are just trying to confuse customers so no one can do comparison shopping.

Cell [mobile] phone companies are the best example of confusopolies. The average consumer finds it impossible to decipher which carrier has the best deal, so carriers don’t have normal market pressure to lower prices. It’s a virtual cartel without the illegal part.

Now let’s just take data (and leave text and voice charges aside). Whether you choose the mobile share or the individual plan, you’re certain to pay for more than you use, unless you work carefully to use exactly 300Mb, 3Gb, 5Gb or whatever you guessed you’d use when you set the plan up in the first place.

But how can you know exactly what you’ve used? Well, by doing this:

You go into settings, hit General, then Cellular, then Cellular Usage (be sure to scroll down, because it’s off the screen), then Reset Statistics. But first you’ll want to freeze the prior total by taking a screen shot. You do this by pressing the round button in the front and the rectangular one on the top, at exactly the same time. Since resetting causes the phone to forget all prior data usage, you’ll need to save the screen shots so you can track that usage, by eyeball (since you don’t have the data, just a snapshot), and do all this repeatedly, over time. Not easy. (For example, I missed screen-shooting the middle bottom one in the example above, so I created a new one just to illustrate how disadvantaged your ability to track usage actually is.

Usually you don’t need to pay much attention, especially if you’ve got a data plan in the GB rather than the MB range.  But you need to do this often if you leave the country and need to get on the Internet. Because, according to AT&T’s Affordable World Packages page, every KB will cost you $0.0150 in Canada and $0.0195 in the rest of the world. Since there are 1000KB in a MB, and 1000MB in a GB, we’re talking $15/MB and $15,000/GB in Canada and $19.50/MB and $19,500.00/GB elsewhere. This kind of non-plan tends to cause “bill shock.” In many cases, shock is an understatement. (Here’s a report on my own run-in with Sprint several years back.)

So instead you go for one of the “affordable” plans, which look like this:

att international

The overage in each case is $30/120MB, which is 25¢/MB, or $250/GB, which is 25x the overage AT&T charges on its 3GB and 5GB domestic plans for individuals.

Confused? Of course. The whole system is partially opaque, like a cataract, or frosted glass. On purpose. This whole thing is designed so the phone company’s billing system knows constantly what’s going on while you don’t.  Knowledge, by intent, is highly asymmetrical. That way they win and you lose — while thinking you’re winning because you’ve picked the “best” plan, and have avoided getting a $10,000 bill after making the mistake of watching a movie over a cell connection in London when you thought you were on the hotel wi-fi. (Easy to do. The only thing that looks different while you’re watching is a tiny wi-fi symbol at the top of the screen, which you won’t see if you’re watching the movie in landscape mode.)

Yes, AT&T does send little text warnings when you land in another country, and notifies you as well when you hit an overage threshold, at least stateside. (I dunno about overseas.) But they still hold nearly all the cards, while all you’ve got is guesswork up front and a labyrinth of screens to spelunk through just to see where you stand, cringing every time you go there, in fear that maybe you didn’t set things right in the first place, or that you forgot to turn off cellular data (steps 1-3, above) when you left your hotel room’s wi-fi zone.

This actually sucks for the phone companies as well as for their customers. That’s because customers are a company’s nerve endings in the marketplace. If a company has a genuine and respectful relationship with customers, those customers send clear and strong signals reporting on what’s actually happening in the marketplace. Company and customer see clearly together, rather than with one clear and one half-blind eye.

Mobile phone companies don’t have to suck. A good case in point is Ting, an independent mobile phone company operating here in the U.S. With Ting, you pay only for what you use. They do publish plans, but they do that only because plans are what people are used to. Beyond that it couldn’t be more simple. Each month you are either credited for what you didn’t use, or charged for what you did, if you went over your planed amount. They also publish their phone number right on the home page, and have clear help pages and forums linked there too. They do sell phones, as cheaply as they can; but they don’t subsidize any. You either bring your own phone or buy one from them. They don’t care. There is also no charge for stopping your account. Or (and this is cool) for tethering, for example by using your phone as a wi-fi hotspot.

Ting was started by customers who were tired of having to deal with mobile phone companies that game customers with gimmicks and gotchas. They’re a great model for what innovative companies in other industries can do to break up confusopolies there as well.

And I do have some* hope for AT&T. At the Retailing Summit in Dallas this week, Kelly King of AT&T did a good job reporting how hard the company is working to change its ways, and to become more customer-friendly and helpful. It was an impressive talk, and made clear how much catching up to demand all mobile data carriers have to do.

Do you know of other companies breaking out of the confusopoly mold? Let us know in the comments below.

* I don’t mean to pick on AT&T. They just happen to be my mobile phone carrier, and the one I know best. One could say the same of Sprint, TMobile and Verizon, I’m sure. (And yes, there is this, about a different division of AT&T. It matters, but it is also beside the points being made here.)

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Personal vs. Personalized

In Worth The Deal? Groceries Get A Personalized Price, Ashley Gross on NPR says,

Heather Kulper is one of those people who really wants to get a good deal. She’s a mom in a suburb north of Seattle who writes a blog about coupon clipping and saving money.

On a recent shopping trip to Safeway, Kulper pulls up a special Safeway app on her phone called Just For U. It shows her deeper discounts on products that she’s likely to buy based on her shopping history. The deals are lower than the club card discount listed in the aisle. When she checks out, she gets that personalized sale price.

“This is the artisan caramelized onion bread, which is normally $4.29. Priced with the Safeway club card, it’s $2.99,” Kulper says. “But with the Just For U personalized deal, it’s 99 cents.”

Kulper says it feels a little bit like she’s getting a secret deal.

It’s kind of like the old days, when you walked into a relative’s small grocery store, and they gave you the family discount. Except now, this is a big corporation using computers to calculate exactly your propensity to buy and at what price.

She concludes,

On this most recent trip, Kulper saved 41 percent with the Just for U app and coupons — $21 altogether — on her purchases. She says she’s happy with her discount, and she doesn’t mind that Safeway knows every tiny little detail of what groceries she buys. To Kulper, it’s worth it, as long as she can save money.

I can’t find Heather Kulper’s blog (the story doesn’t provide a link, and searches go mostly to the story), but it’s clear that she’s one kind of shopper: the aggressive bargain hunter. Is Safeway trying to turn all customers into full-time bargain hunters? Hard to say at this point, because it’s not clear whether a card-carrying Safeway customer is hunting for bargains, or simply forced to use the card to avoid paying the inflated “normal” price. It’s also not clear whether a personalized discount is any different than a coupon. The image above is one I shot of a Stop & Shop scanner, telling me about one in a series of discounts it offered me, based (presumably) on past purchases at the store.

Let’s think about about turning this around, to a system you control as a customer. You share your shopping list with the stores where you like to shop, and they come back with information about what they’ve got. Maybe they tell you they’ll give you a discounted price, or maybe they’ll tell you something is out of stock, or maybe they try to switch you to buying something else. In any of those cases you should also be able to tell them what you like or don’t like about what they’re telling you, and why. What matters in this alternative system is that the system is yours, not theirs. You take the lead, you control the information you share, and you aren’t trapped into many separate relationships, each with its own system for relating with you. In other words, it’s personal — by you —rather than personalized for you.

This is VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management. It’s how you run your relationships with many different companies, rather than how they run their relationships with many different customers. (Those are called CRM, for Customer Relationship Management, a many-$billion business.)

It’s still early, so there’s lots of room for customers to take the lead in helping develop VRM tools and services. You’ll find a list here, in the ProjectVRM wiki.

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Let’s help NBC prep for the 2014 Winter Olympics

ice crystals and olympics symbol

The 2012 Summer Olympics are almost over, but not the challenge of a world where more and more customers are looking to watch coverage — especially of the live kind — on devices other than TVs, and through connections other than cable and satellite.

This has proved hard for many cable and satellite TV customers (myself, for example.) who would also like to watch NBC’s coverage on computers, smartphones, tablets, or large screens connected directly over the Internet.

For example, in spite of NBC’s good efforts (in the form, for example, of smartphone and tablet apps), it has often proven hard for cable and satellite TV customers to authenticate with their providers, or to find what programming packages are required to obtain NBC’s coverage services for the olympics.

No doubt NBC will soon be sitting down with itself, and with its distribution partners, to discuss what they have learned over the last few weeks, and to begin preparing for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Customer Commons wishes to help with that, by convening an independent forum where all of us can discuss what we’ve learned, and where customers can offer constructive help.

This will not be the place to complain, or to assume that the only parties in a position to come up with good ideas and solutions are NBC and its distribution partners. Out here in the long tail, we have plenty of good ideas too, and are willing to help any way we can. (In fact, I did that for NBC’s Winter 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, by contributing ice crystal images that appeared on screen throughout the event.) We are mindful that the goods are not free for the taking, and that improvements must be worthwhile for everybody, starting with NBC and its bottom line.

We’ll start with comments here, while we set up the forum. If the forum proves successful, we will also have a body of experience that can be leveraged in other markets where meeting demands of a fast-arriving future are daunting for everybody involved. We also invite ProjectVRM and PDE.Cc developers to come help out too. (These are developers working to solve market problems from the customer side, in cooperation with sellers.)

We have a unique opportunity here, while the olympics are still going on, to direct everybody’s interests in a positive and mutually helpful direction, a year and a half before the next olympics begin. So let’s go for it.

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Which companies love customers?

Not love to have them, but love interacting with them, knowing them, talking with them, learning from them, involving them in the business, and letting them take the lead sometimes. (And not just by using a “loyalty card” or some other gimmick.)

In The Intention Economy, I give two examples, one offline and one on.

The first is Trader Joe’s, whose retired President, Doug Rauch, told me that his main job at the store was talking with customers. That is, literally, shopping along with them. Seeing what they liked, didn’t like, and why. Asking questions. Getting input. Trader Joe’s, he said, doesn’t just look for transactions, but for relationships. When I asked him if there was anything in the store that customers did not influence, he said no. When I told him we lived in Santa Barbara, he asked if we shopped at the store on Milpas Street or the newer one near Upper State. I was impressed. The dude was based in Massachusetts and still knew every store, and had shopped along with customers at every one he went to as well.

The online example is Zappo’s, which encourages its service people to maximize interaction with customers on phones. The company also welcomes exceptions. For example, I have wide feet: 9 1/2 EE. Shopping just for what fits me is easy. A few minutes ago I bought replacements for my several-year-old ASICS Gel-Cumulus 13 athletic shoes. The old ones look more worn than they really are, so I got some fresh ones. There was no reason to work with a human in this case, but I sensed a human sensibility to the ease with which I could find and get what I wanted. (The Kid and I like to sing, “Shop like a man, fast as you can,” to the tune of the Four Seasons‘ old “Walk Like a Man.”)

So who else is there? You tell us, in the comments below. No restrictions. The only qualifications are the ones I laid out in the first sentence. And tell us why, too.

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