Matching Big ISP Tactics

There are three billing practices that are routine for the large ISPs that smart competitors avoid. First is offering special low prices to attract new customers. The second is bundling, which means giving a discount to customers buying multiple products. Third is what has become known as hidden fees, where there are routine monthly fees that are not included in the online advertised price offers to customers.

A lot of smaller ISPs wonder if they should match these same tactics. The argument for copying the tactic is that it allows advertising rates that can be compared to what the big companies advertise. The main argument against matching these tactics is that the practices are deceptive, and customers have made it clear that they don’t like these tactics. Fiber overbuilders tell me that the first customers they win in a new market are those who feel deceived and mistreated by the bigger ISPs.

Big ISP online advertising has felt sleazy for many years. I wrote a recent blog where Charter in Los Angeles offers customers drastically different introductory rates depending upon neighborhood – with the highest rates being offered to the neighborhoods with the highest level of poverty. It’s common to see broadband specials advertised for less than half of the list price. A customer has to click through multiple levels of footnotes to find out the rate at the end of the special – if it is online at all. It’s not hard to think that somebody could be attracted to low rates without understanding that big increases will be coming in a year or two.

Bundling is an interesting pricing strategy. Customers are given a discount for buying multiple products but are never told which products get the discount. If a customer tries to drop one of the bundled products, they inevitably find that the dropped product had all of the discount and the customer usually ends up paying full price for the products they don’t drop. This tactic is intended to bully folks into not breaking the bundle.

Hidden fees are just plain sleazy. A customer buying an online cable product will get socked with a range of hidden fees on the first bill. While they thought they were buying a $40 cable package, the first bill could easily be $60 or $70. The most common hidden fee for broadband is usually a high rate for the cable modem, which can be over $15 per month. Even more expensive are data caps, which can significantly add to the monthly bill.

The majority of the small ISPs I work with don’t use these tactics. They understand that these tactics are what drive consumers to seek them out. Most of the small ISPs I know have the philosophy of charging the same fair rate all of the time.

But I’ve seen ISPs that start with the simple, fair rate philosophy and get sucked into offering discounts to try to win new customers. Their marketing folks become convinced that matching the big company techniques is the only way to get new customers. I’ll grant that mimicking the big guys is probably the easiest sales technique, but acting like the big ISPs is a poor long-term tactic for many reasons.

  • Promotional rates tell customers that rates are negotiable, and once an ISP goes down that path, customers will ask for breaks forever. Many consumers are used to negotiating with the big ISPs and will do so with the small ISP as well.
  • These tactics tell customers that your rates are too high and that the real rate is the discounted rate. Customers who are too timid to negotiate for lower rates feel cheated.
  • Unplanned discounts can be devasting to cash flows and meeting financial objectives. If your business plan and budgets are based upon a specific set of rates, then giving discounts lowers the average revenue per customer. Do the math and consider what happens if the average revenue for all of your customers drops by $5 or $10.
  • Matching the big ISP tactics also attracts customers who will drop an ISP for a small discount elsewhere. Every few years, they will compare you against the competition and will take the best offer. ISPs with fair rates tell me that they rarely lose a customer to special rates – and that might be because they don’t attract customers who get a thrill out of bartering.
  • Finally, special discounts complicate your dealing with customers. The ISP now has to track when special promotions are finished and notify customers that rates will increase. This likely means having to talk with most of your customers, and calls to the call center will skyrocket. It’s important to remember that most customers view the perfect ISP as one they never need to talk with.

I’m a huge fan of keeping things simple because I have seen so many ISPs that thrive with the philosophy. The danger of mimicking the big ISP tactics is that the public will see you as just another untrustworthy ISP.

 

Pricing Strategies

One of the things that new ISPs always struggle with is pricing, and I’m often asked advice on the right pricing strategy. It’s not an easy answer and in working across the country I see a huge range of different pricing strategies. It’s really interesting to see so many different ideas on how to sell residential broadband service, which is fundamentally the same product when it’s offered on a fiber network. The following are some of the most common pricing strategies:

High, Low, or Market Rates? The hardest decision is where to set rates in general. Some ISPs are convinced that they need low rates to beat the competition. Others set high rates since they only want to sell products with high margins. Most ISPs set rates close to the market rates of the competitors. I sat at a bar once with a few ISPs who argued this for hours – in the end, the beer won.

One Broadband Product. A few ISPs like Google Fiber, Ting, and a handful of smaller ISPs offer only a single broadband product – a symmetrical gigabit connection. Google Fiber tried going to a 2-product tier but announced this year that they’ve returned to the flat-rate $70 gigabit. The downside to this approach is that it shuts out households that can’t afford the price. The upside is that every customer has a high margin.

Simple Tiers. The most common pricing structure I see offers several tiers of prices. An ISP might have three-tier offerings at $55, $70, and $90, ranging from 100 Mbps to gigabit. Generally, such prices have no gimmicks – no introductory pricing, term discounts, or bundling. There are still ISPs with half a dozen, or even more tiers this would confuse me as a customer. For example, I don’t know how a customer would be able to choose between buying 75 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 125 Mbps.

ISPs with this philosophy differ most by the gap between pricing tiers. Products could be priced $10 apart of $30 apart, and that makes a significant statement to customers. Small steps between tiers invite customers to upgrade, while bigger steps between tiers make a statement about the value of the faster speeds.

Low Basic Price. I’ve seen a number of ISPs that have a low-price basic broadband product, but otherwise somewhat normal tiers of pricing. This is done more often by municipal ISPs trying to make broadband affordable to more homes, but there are commercial ISPs with the same philosophy. As an example, an ISP might have an introductory tier of 25 Mbps for $40. This pricing strategy has always bothered me. This can be a dangerous product to offer because the low price might attract a lot of customers who would otherwise pay more. I’ve always thought that it makes more sense to offer a low-income product only to homes that qualify in some manner but give them real broadband.

Introductory Marketing Rate. Some ISPs set a low introductory rate for first-time customers. These rates are generally good for one or two years and customers routinely sign contracts to get the low rates. The long-term downside of this pricing philosophy is that customers come to expect low rates. Customers that take the introductory rate will inevitably try to renegotiate for continued low rates at the end of the contract period.

An ISP with this pricing structure is conveying some poor messages. First, they are telling customers that their rates are negotiable. They are also conveying the message that there is a lot of profits in their normal rates and they are willing to sell for less. Customers dislike the introductory rate process because they invariably get socked with an unexpected rate increase when rates jump back to list prices. The time of introductory discounts might be coming to an end. Verizon recently abandoned the special pricing strategy because it attracts low-margin customers that often leave at the end if the contract period.

Bundling. This is a pricing strategy to give a discount for buying multiple services and has been the bread and butter for the big cable companies. Bundling is making less sense in today’s market where there is little or no margin in cable TV. Most small ISPs don’t bundle and take the attitude that their list prices are a good deal – much the same as car dealers who no longer haggle over prices. In order to bundle, an ISP has to set rates high – and many ISPs prefer to instead to set fair rates and not bother with the bundle.