To all our non-South African readers, I apologise in advance for airing this dirty laundry in front of you. But, spending a lot of time in South Africa, means that I need to take the context of this country seriously.
In SA, we have only one fixed line telecomms provider, Telkom. They are making excessive profits. They charge more than ANY OTHER telecomms provider ON THE PLANET, and given the importance of telecomms to the national economy, they are holding back economic growth. That in itself would be indefensible, but now they’re treating their customers badly – even insulting us.
Next year, the long awaited second national operator (SNO) will finally open doors for business. I can imagine that Telkom are going to be seriously surprised at how much bad feeling exists towards them when people literally flock to the new company – JUST ON PRINCIPLE. Let’s hope the SNO brings real competition, and unlike Cell C (the third cellphone company) which simply joined the pigs at the trough and provided no real competition for price.
The lesson for everyone else works itself out in a company like Microsoft. As soon as we have a viable alternative to Windows, many of us will switch ON PRINCIPLE. A monopoly can screw you, and then when their monopoly is coming to an end, start to pretend to love their customers. But customers have LONG memories.
Back to Telkom. To read a great article about them at MarketingWeb, click here, or read it below.
Thereâ€™s no spin like Telkom spin
Youâ€™d think that if you were a company with a monopoly position, huge profits and provided essential services at exorbitant prices, the very least you could do would be to be nice to your customers. Evidently not, according to the Telkom method. This seems to state that the route to take is to screw your customer royally, and then be obnoxiously rude to them when they complain.
Everyone knows my feelings about Telkomâ€™s unethical pricing practices. It has long been my hobbyhorse that Telkom needs to be forcibly tamed and then dragged into the 21st century.
Lately it seems that the mutterings and murmurings of the similarly disenchanted are starting to reach the public ear. Over the last couple of weeks in almost every publication that I have read, there seems to be a negative story about Telkom. (I liked the story about Suzanne Vos, the IFP MP, who went to a Halloween party dressed as a Telkom bill â€“ it was the scariest thing that she could think of). This bad press has ranged from a front-page article in The Citizen with the headline â€œTELKOM RIPOFFâ€? (couldnâ€™t have said it better myself) to more technical articles in the IT press about the monopolyâ€™s new ADSL pricing system.
Which brings us to Telkomâ€™s biggest and loudest critic: Rudolph Muller and www.MyADSL.co.za, an online community website dedicated to consumer issues in the broadband market. MyADSL has over 7 000 registered users, which is quite a significant number when you consider that there are only around 150 000 broadband users in South Africa. Muller, with the support of his members, has been pressing Telkom to make broadband Internet more affordable since 2003. The site was included in the Financial Mailâ€™s top five sites for 2004, and the large member base has formed a vibrant online community.
MyADSL pressured ICASA to hold hearings on Telkomâ€™s ADSL offering, which resulted in draft recommendations highly critical of Telkom. Muller is often quoted in articles about broadband and as an academic has conducted studies together with the University of Johannesburg on the various broadband offerings in South Africa. In fact, he is the kind of person that a marketer would want on their side.
If you were a marketer able to easily access a large number of your customers, to hear their impressions of and complaints about your product, and to find a way to satisfy their needs, youâ€™d probably grab the opportunity with both hands. Not Telkom. Despite continual requests from Muller for a representative from Telkom to take part in his forums, and an ongoing request for communication from the monopoly â€“ the result is exactly â€¦ nada. Muller had a meeting with Papi Molotsane, the CEO of Telkom, who evidently assured him that Telkom would like to enter into dialogue with MyADSL, and that the corporation was determined to become more customer-centric. Someone forgot to tell the marketing and communications departments.
On the MyADSL site on Monday Muller posted an email from the Telkom Corporate Communications department berating him for asking questions about Telkomâ€™s plans and accusing him of refusing to set up time to meet the marketing department. Read it here (complete with bad grammar and misspelling): http://www.mybroadband.co.za/vb/showthread.php?t=31384
Telkom then released an incredibly badly written press release, claiming they received bad press because people donâ€™t understand them, that their Internet Service Provider customers are frauds and thieves and that, actually, MyADSL members agree with their new pricing policy. Fair enough, I suppose, if it was true. But it isnâ€™t — it is the most blatant bit of spin that I have seen since I last read a statement from the ANC Youth League. Read it for yourself: http://mybroadband.co.za/nephp/?m=show&id=1150
The claims have little basis in fact, the most blatant being this one: “Mr. Muller’s 6 000 MyADSL members also expressing their overwhelming support of this change in that 85% voted in favour of an ADSL usage based billing strategy, according to a poll done on the MyADSL website.” This is partly true: there was a poll. In fact there were two polls. The first one (mentioned by Telkom) asks: â€œWould you support a â€˜pay-per-gigâ€™ ADSL billing system if the associated costs were in line with international trends?â€™ â€? Telkom seems to have forgotten to add in the last bit about international trends.
The results were 85% positive. However, a more recent poll, not mentioned in the press release, paints a slightly different picture. â€œDo you support a usage based ADSL billing system?â€? had an overwhelming (94%) negative response. Evidently thereâ€™s spin and then there is Telkom spin.
What can we learn from the Telkom method? If you are a monopoly there is no need to respect your customers? If you say it often enough then it must be true? If you are critical of the services that you receive, then you obviously donâ€™t understand the offering? That customers donâ€™t know what their needs are? Telkomâ€™s methods seem to run contrary to conventional thinking â€¦ or is it just me?
I cannot wait for some liberalisation of the telecoms sector; improved competition simply has to improve the service that customers receive.
This article was shortened by Marketingweb.
# Andrew Fraser manages branding, advertising and promotion for the South African subsidiary of a large multinational electronics corporation. The views expressed are his alone and not those of his employer.