Customers Still Flock to Promotional Rates

FierceVideo and others recently reported on a survey done in June by the research firm Cowen that looked at consumer use of promotional rates.

Cowen found that 20% of big ISP subscribers are on Internet plans that have promotional rates that will expire within the next 12 months. Another 13% of subscribers are on promotional plans that will expire in a time frame longer than 12 months. Surprisingly, 10% of subscribers have price-for-life guarantees. This leaves just 57% of subscribers paying full price for ISP services.

Promotional pricing is a sensitive topic for the industry and none of the big cable companies or telcos disclose the volume or amounts of discounts they give to customers. The big ISPs are all under a lot of pressure from Wall Street, and one of the key metrics used by analysts to track the big companies is ARPU – average revenue per user. ISPs have hard decisions to make. Giving too many discounts can kill ARPU, but not offering discounts can lose customers and revenues.

Some big ISPs have been working to curtail promotional pricing. AT&T has lost nearly three million video customers in the last year and claims that the losses mostly are due to tightening the promotional pricing that was given in the past by DirecTV. It’s also been reported that Charter has been tightening its policies on promotional prices, and in particular was ending a huge volume of promotional pricing they inherited through the acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

The Cowen report highlighted the difference in discount philosophy varies by ISP. For example, the report said that 45% of Altice customers have a promotional package, Comcast has 42%, and Charter is at 32%.

The big ISPs dole out promotional discounts in a few different ways. All of the incumbent ISPs offer low prices on the web to attract new customers. These new customer discounts generally last for 12 to 24 months before customers are moved to normal pricing. The other big category of promotional discounts is discounts that are negotiated with customers, often when customers threaten to leave an ISP.

The Cowen study confirmed something that we’ve always seen in the market. The promotional prices tend to go to younger subscribers, and older customers tend to pay full price for services. It takes real effort to either change ISPs or to renegotiate pricing every year or two, and only consumers willing to go through that hassle end up with a repetitive series of promotional deals.

The statistic that surprised me was that 10% of respondents in the survey said they had lifetime rates. ISPs have been somewhat leery of using the ‘lifetime rate’ words, but over the years as ISPs increased speeds and prices on their networks they have often allowed customers to stick with slower and less expensive broadband – generally with the caveat that a customer with a grandfathered plan can make no changes without being moved to newer pricing. In my mind, there is a significant difference between grandfathering an existing plan that offers slower speeds than other customers compared to new lifetime sales promotions that offer such deals to new customers. One of the biggest advantages to the ISPs of grandfathered plans is that customers keep these plans for years, meaning no churn.

Small ISPs struggle with promotional rates. Some small ISPs that still offer video offer guaranteed bundled rates for customers who buy cable TV. But I know a number of small ISPs that have ceased offering bundled discounts since the margins on cable TV are too small to afford them.

Small ISPs also generally don’t like the hassle of always having to negotiate rates with customers seeking a discount. Negotiating with customers changes the culture in a call center and adds a lot of pressure to customer service reps – and is probably the number one reason why the public dislikes big ISP customer service.

Many small ISPs have also given up on the idea of having residential service contracts. It’s a major pain to collect from somebody who breaks a contract and drops service. Most of the small ISPs I know feel that their quality of service is superior to the competition and they don’t want to fight to keep unhappy customers.

How Smart are Promotional Rates?

I think the big ISPs are recognizing the impact that special promotion rates have on their bottom line. Promotional pricing is the low rates that cable companies offer to new customers to pry them away from the competition. Over the years promotional rates have also become the tool that cable companies use to retain customers. Most customers understand that they have to call the cable company periodically to renegotiate rates – and the big ISPs have routinely given customers a discount to keep them happy.

We’re finally seeing some changes with this practice. When Charter bought Time Warner Cable they found that Time Warner had over 90,000 ‘special’ pricing plans – they routinely negotiated separately with customers when they bought new service or renegotiated prices. Charter decided to end the practice and told most former Time Warner customers that they had to pay the full price at the end of their current contract period.

We’ve seen the same thing with AT&T and DirecTV. The company decided last year to eliminate the special discount on DirecTV and DirecTV Now. When the discount period ends for those products the company moves rates to the full list price and refuses to renegotiate. The practice cost AT&T almost a million customers just in the first quarter of this year. But AT&T says that they are glad to be rid of customers that are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. I’ve seen where the CEOs or other big ISPs like Comcast have said that they are considering changes in these practices.

At CCG we routinely examine customer bills from incumbent ISPs as part of the market research of helping ISPs entering new markets. While our examination of customer bills has never reached the level of equating to a statistically valid sample, I can report that the vast majority of bills we see have at least some level of discount. In some markets it’s rare to find a customer bill with no discount.

The discounts must accumulate to a huge loss of revenue for the big ISPs. The big ISPs all know that one of the only ways they are going to be profitable in the future is to raise broadband rates every year. The growth of broadband customers overall is slowing nationwide since most homes have broadband, although Charter and Comcast are still enjoying the migration of customers off DSL. The ISPs are continuing to lose revenues and margins as they lose cable and landline voice customers. Most US markets are seeing increased competition in broadband services for businesses and large MDUs. There’s not much left other than to raise residential broadband rates if the big ISPs want to satisfy the revenue growth expected by Wall Street.

If the big ISPs phased out promotional discounts it would probably equate to a 5% to 10% revenue increase. This is something that is becoming easier for a cable company to do. Many of them have already come to grips with cord cutting, and many are no longer fighting to keep cable customers. Cable companies are also less worried over time about customers leaving them to go back to DSL – a choice that is harder for consumers to make as the household need for broadband continues to climb.

Most ISPs won’t make a loud splash about killing discounts but will just quietly change policies. After a few years, I would expect customer expectations will reset after they realize that they can no longer extract discounts by threatening to drop service.

I’ve always advised my fiber overbuilder customers to not play this game. I ask clients if they really want to fight hard to win that slice of the market of customers that will change ISPs for a discount. Such customers flop back and forth between ISPs every two years, and in my opinion, companies are better off without such customers. Churn is expensive, and it’s even more expensive if an ISP provides a substantial discount to stop a customer from churning. Not all of my client agree with this philosophy, but if the big ISPs stop providing promotional discounts, then over time the need to do this for competitors will lessen.

This is certainly a practice I’d love to see slip into history. I’ve never liked it as a customer because I despise the idea of having to play the game of renegotiating with an ISP every few years. I’ve also hated this as a consultant. Too many times I’ve seen clients give away a huge amount of margin through these practices, giving away revenue that is needed to meet their forecasts and budgets. It’s dangerous to let marketing folks determine the bottom line because they’ve never met a discount they don’t like – particularly if they can make a bonus for selling or retaining customers.