Not 'Getting to know you'

This piece was written a few months ago. But everything in it is still depressingly relevant, although the advertising has moved to newspapers and magazines and now resorts to, in the circumstances, unfortunate slogans such as A promise is a promise is a promise and Make a New Year's resolution you can keep ...

Getting to know you is the advertising slogan that Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC) have been pushing at us on our television screens, in newspapers and all over the railways and Tube. But do they really want to get to know us, or do they just want to get to know some of us? Here I intend to put forward two main points:
  1. CWC don't want to know a significant proportion of their customers (primarily ex-Videotron subscribers intent on retaining unmetered local calls) and are effectively treating them as a dead weight to be dumped. This I dub the 'la la la I can't hear you' approach to customer relations.

  2. Despite their glossy surveys and marketing, CWC have no interest in getting to know what their customers really want, instead dictating what they should want by offloading a raft of quasi-Tomorrow's World ideas that are at best undeliverable and at worst plain crazy. This I dub the 'we'll tell you what you want, what you really really want' approach to market research.

The 'la la la I can't hear you' approach
to customer relations

If you're an ex-Videotron customer, brought involuntarily under the wing of CWC and wanting to keep your unmetered local calls, it seems that CWC don't want to know you. They don't want to hear your opinions, answer your letters, faxes and emails or give you a straight answer when asked about the future of unmetered local calls. In short, CWC are ducking and diving in the hope that everyone goes away and crawls back under their stones. I have a feeling CWC have a shock coming to them when more and more ex-Videotron subscribers (with and without Internet access) hear what's in store for them in June 1998. I harbour a hope that CWC will then be forced to 'get to know us'.

For many months now the rumours about unmetered local calls have been around. CWC have been persistently evasive when asked to confirm or deny them. One minute the unmetered calls were safe, then they were definitely going, then they were only going if you changed your contract. And what underhand tactics they used to try to trick customers into voluntarily giving up unmetered local calls - price rises, binding previously separate telephone and television contracts together, announcing new special offers but only making them available to those who sign a new contract and, worst of all, hiding the loss of unmetered calls in one situation on the third page of a leaflet! Eventually the truth came out. But despite (or perhaps because of) the ensuing row CWC still refuse to discuss the issue or explain why they are intent on breaking the promises made by the former Videotron and without which CWC would have a much smaller customer base. They still ignore attempts to communicate with staff at high levels while staff lower down the chain of command appear to have been instructed to answer telephone callers with prepared speeches and push 'wonderful new packages' at every available opportunity.

Many people have made phone calls and sent letters, emails and faxes to staff at all levels of CWC to enquire about the loss of unmetered local calls and other issues such as the availablity of cable modems. Responses have ranged from the patronising to, in the majority of cases, nothing - not a word, not an email, not a letter! This cavalier attitude towards the legitimate concerns and worries of a substantial portion of their customer base is a bad sign. Many people only switched to Videotron from BT because of the attraction of unmetered local calls. Many people had second lines installed for Internet access solely because of unmetered local calls. Since these services were promised as permanent and not a gimmick by Videotron I cannot see how CWC can expect customers to take loss of these unmetered local calls lightly. Changing to a new telephone provider is a big wrench for most people - the new number has to be distributed and stationery changed. To find, after a couple of years, that a carrot used to tempt subscribers away from BT has now been swallowed by CWC is hard to stomach indeed. Perhaps they will choke on the carrot?

I put it to you that CWC are not interesting in 'getting to know' the section of their customer base that are ex-Videotron subscribers. Because, if they did make an effort to really get to know us, they would realise that what we want is unmetered local calls and a telephone system that meets our needs: a fast, reliable system with flexible billing and unmetered Internet access, as was already started off by unmetered local calls to ISPs on the Videotron/CWC network. It seems to me that CWC only want to get to know us on their terms, which really isn't what getting to know somebody is all about - is it?

The 'we'll tell you what you want, what you really really want'
approach to market research

The glossy survey that CWC produced in late 1997 was very much an exercise in them telling us what we should want in the future. Hardly getting to know us at all, but rather them showing us what wacky (tacky?) ideas they have in store for us and how little they are concerned with getting the basics right. The survey was full of questions concerning half-cocked ideas that are largely either undeliverable in the near future or are simply not what people want. Ideas such as seeing hotel views live, ordering groceries to be delivered to your door, having an auto-translation service to speak to people all round the world in their own language and being able to view holograms of dead relatives! These things might be OK in a perfect world, but not when the basics are not being done properly. CWC's ideas are fine for a Tomorrow's World feature, but where were the pressing questions about telecommunications provision and Internet access? What do customers think about:

  • An efficient, flexible and reliable telephone service with billing tailored to suit individual needs.

  • Non-metered Internet access either via a telephone modem or, preferably, a cable modem, allowing people to take part in the Information Revolution rather than watch others do so.

  • The prospect of gaining unrestricted access to a vast world of information, education and business resources and entertainment already available now via the Internet.

I pondered why such questions hadn't been asked by CWC. I came to the conclusion that there are three reasons:

  • Because CWC could provide fast, cheap access now but are trying to milk Internet access by telephone for all it's worth until superior technologies finally appear and they are forced to deliver something better.

  • Because CWC don't appreciate or understand the real needs of their customers because they lack the market knowledge and foresight to provide what people really want. Despite the 'survey' it is clear they are trying to lead rather than guide the customer.

  • Because CWC have no interest in becoming a major player in the telecommunications industry and think they can make easy money from cable television (£10 to watch a football match!). When looking over a September 1997 leaflet from CWC I noticed a very revealing statement right after a description of new telephone and telephone packages:

    We're committed to giving you the best in cable television and we do believe that these changes will give you an even better service.

    Where is the word telephone in that statement? It says it all - CWC are only interested in the fast bucks to be had from cable television and don't intend to compete seriously in the telecommunications market.

So it looks as though CWC intend to market what they want the customer to have, instead of basing their marketing decisions on what they should already know, namely that customers:

  • like unmetered local calls and flexible billing.
  • prefer to be given a fair deal and competitive prices.
  • want to be offered fast, reliable and unmetered Internet access.
  • demand that promises previously made to them be honoured and respected.

Yes, I'm sure we'd all love to experiment with some of the wacky ideas CWC have. But not at the expense of the fundamentals that CWC seem to be avoiding! So I say to CWC: let's get the basics right and leave the wacky ideas with Tomorrow's World for now. Prove that you can deliver fast, reliable and cost-effective access to technology that already exists and people might just believe you can deliver on some of the more ambitious things. As they say, don't try to run when you can't walk - at the moment, where the Internet is concerned, CWC seems to still be at the crawling stage.

Text by Martin Eager

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