Diana Goovaerts recently wrote an article that quotes Frontier’s Consumer EVP John Harrobin as saying that Frontier expects to become the ‘un-cable” option in the market. He says that Frontier is doing this by simplifying its product lines to eliminate behavior that customers hate.
One of the biggest changes is to get rid of special pricing, where a customer signs with an ISP due to a low-price special, only to see the rates jump up at the end of the special period. This is the one characteristic of big ISPs that customers dislike the most. For years I’ve been advising smaller ISPs to avoid the practice and to offer a fair price all of the time.
I have ISP clients who sometimes panic when they see big ISPs offering special prices as they enter a new market. The specials work to some degree, and the big ISPs lure some customers with the special prices. But small ISPs have learned that after a year or two, when the special pricing ends, they have a good chance to win most of these customers. Small ISPs have learned that when they treat customers fairly that those customers don’t bite on new pricing offers. In the long run, the best way to reduce churn is to treat customers fairly and with transparency.
The interview didn’t mention it, but if Frontier is going to be an un-cable ISP, it also will have to eliminate hidden fees. These are the fees that are not included in advertising but appear on the first customer bill, usually as an unpleasant surprise. The biggest hidden fees are for cable TV service where ISPs hide programming and sports fees and settop box fees – and where a first bill can be $30 higher than the advertised price. But big ISPs do the same thing and don’t mention expensive modem fees in advertising – and customers are instantly unhappy when they get a first bill where the actual price is $10 or $15 higher than the price they expected.
Frontier has announced plans to build fiber to pass 10 million homes and businesses. The company was getting creamed by competition as long as it primarily offered DSL. In 2018, Frontier lost over 200,000 broadband customers. In 2019 the losses grew to 235,000, and in 2020 the company lost 400,000 broadband customers. But by 2021, Frontier started turning the ship around and only lost 35,000 customers for the year as fiber additions started to outnumber DSL losses.
Frontier has a long way to go to have its customer base come to trust it. The company was guilty of all of the same sins as other big rural telcos. It cut back on maintenance to the point where customers might be out for a week or two before they heard from a technician. In many cases, the company would disconnect a customer that had a problem rather than fix it. The company accepted federal CAF II funding, but many customers saw little or no improvements. Frontier has a long way to go to regain the trust of customers that it largely abandoned for many years.
Building fiber is a huge start to regaining customer trust since delivering broadband that actually works is essential to have customers want to stay with any ISP. But Frontier is still going to have to demonstrate to customers that it cares about them when there is a problem. Most small ISPs try to clear customer problems within a day of a trouble report and will work extra hours to do so. If Frontier really wants to be the un-cable company it will mean adding maintenance staff. Folks have become so reliant on broadband that they are annoyed if they lose service for an hour – they won’t forgive an ISP that puts them out of service for a day or longer.
Frontier has also been embroiled in a few overbilling controversies in recent years, and being the un-cable ISP means taking the attitude that the customer is right, even if that costs the company a few bucks.
It’s going to be interesting to see if Frontier’s practices live up to the public relations hype. There is one sign that perhaps the company has started to turn the ship. In the 2022 American Customer Satisfaction Index, the consumer rating of Frontier jumped from 57 to 61 in one year. In 2020, the only ISP with a worse customer rating was Suddenlink. Within a year, the company bypassed the rating for MediaCom and CenturyLink. A 60 rating still means that Frontier (and most other ISPs) is still the most disliked companies among 45 different major business sectors. But if Frontier can sustain being an un-cable ISP, then over time, customers will begin to trust the company again.