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Since when is misleading customers a winning strategy?

Suppose you go into a shop to buy a drink. You notice that instead of saying “1 litre” on the carton, it says “up to 1 litre” instead. You buy the drink, go home and empty out the contents and measure them. You find there was only half a litre in the box. How do you feel?

Sounds bizarre, but that is exactly the game many internet service providers (ISPs) play with you. They flash a big number at you, say 8Mbps connection speed. That sounds dramatically faster than the meagre speeds you currently obtain, so you cough up some extra money to get the high speeds.

What you don’t see is the little “up to” or asterisk placed slyly after that headline speed. If you bothered to research it, you might find that the headline speed is pretty much NEVER going to be achieved by you or anyone else. No, I exaggerate: one day when you are the only user on the network; when there are no clouds in the sky; when Mars is perfectly aligned with Mercury; and you stand on one toe and make no sound when using your computer – you may just get your headline speed.

This is not just a Kenyan peculiarity. In the UK recently, communications regulator Ofcom found that ISPs typically deliver just half the speeds they promise to customers. They promise Ferraris, said one consumer group, and deliver pushbikes. Millions of customers have been sold short by most UK ISPs. The exception was Virgin Media, which uses a more modern network and delivered close to its advertised speeds.

Virgin founder Richard Branson, never one to miss a marketing opportunity, promptly launched a campaign called “Stop the Broadband Con!” which asks people to sign up to protest the false advertising. This has been followed in the UK by appeals for stronger codes that require ISPs to disclose a “typical speed range”; to allow customers to cancel contracts if speeds fall short; and to impose financial penalties on delinquent service providers.

I recently ‘tweeted’ about this problem, and was startled by the strength of feeling amongst Kenya’s online community. There is real anger and discontent about what Kenyan ISPs are promising and what they are delivering – and 50% of promised speeds seems quite an achievement in these parts.

Clearly, regulators around the world are going to crack down on this problem, and our own CCK may also wake up and do something about it. But I am less concerned about what regulators can do, and more perplexed about why businesspeople are happy to indulge in this practice. Since when is misleading customers a winning strategy? How can obfuscation be a good thing?

If you are a tourist hawker, there may be some mileage in deceiving customers – you never expect to see them again! But for any business wanting to build repeat customers and loyal buyers, deception is an astonishingly short-sighted strategy. I invite Kenyan ISPs to come on to internet forums to see just how much hatred they are generating…

Whenever I put this to ISPs, I am given long explanations about broadband economics and the high cost of connectivity in Africa. That is really beside the point. What is so very difficult about selling what you can really offer, at the price that gives you a return? Not doing that breaks a central brand promise for any business – trust. If you want long-term success, you have no choice but to be honest in your dealings and straight in your transactions. This use of smoke and mirrors and weasel words is childish, short-sighted and best left to street-traders. The more thoughtful ones will see that and stop the deception.

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