Abusive websites and customer retention

Why is it that companies that should know better embark on programs of customer abuse when they should stop and think like a customer, at least for a few seconds? This is a small tale of a company getting it right, then making three all-too-common mistakes. These are not the only ways a company can abuse its customers, but is an example of the kind of non-thinking that should be avoided.

I'm a car racing fan -- not a fanatic, but a fan. I'm enough of a fan to have gotten up at 2 a.m. recently to watch the first race of the Formula 1 season live from Melbourne, Australia. I've been to a few Formula 1 races -- a few at Watkins Glenn New York in the 1960s and a couple in Montreal a few years ago -- but I mostly watch the races on TV as part of an audience of about 527 million (in 2010). On the East Coast of the United States this is not too bad; most races have been scheduled for midday in Europe, which makes it 8 a.m. in Boston. (Except for the few races in parts of the world, like Australia, where that is not possible, and the few races a year shown by Fox Sports, which seems to not get the concept of live TV.)

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I've been using the formula1.com website to get real-time information on the races -- the leader board, commentary, lap speeds and inter-car gaps. As recently as early last year this was just about the perfect fan site. Even today, it is very good -- the only significant failings are the lack of real-time video and the fact that the site yells at you when you connect to it.

I have yet to find anyone who wants websites to yell at them when they connect up -- particularly when you are sneaking a look when the boss is in the middle of a boring talk. Yet, for reasons best known to their analysts, website designers keep adding unbidden sound to websites. Come on, I can click on a link if I want a blast of sound.

Formula 1 is a big business, with an annual income in 2010 of $1.58 billion and a profit of $137 million. All of this is dependent on fans like me who go to races and watch them on TV. So one would think that Formula 1 would go out of its way to encourage race fans. If that were the case why not have live, low-resolution streaming of the race? It is not like someone will watch the animated large postage stamp rather than an HDTV screen if they had the choice.

Last year formula1.com also had a very nice free smartphone app that provided most of the same information as the parent website. This year they decided to try to gouge users for some money for the good parts of the app. They still have a free app that is worth just about that, but you have to shell out $30 or so to get what you got last year for free. Yes, the app does have some neat additional features but it seems extraordinarily counterproductive to make it more expensive to be a fan of Formula 1. How much do they expect to make from this app? I'd bet that it is a vanishing small amount when compared to the current income.

Formula1.com has decided that a loud show will somehow make their site better -- they are wrong. They have decided to restrict video coverage to commercial distributors and they decided to try and get a few extra dollars from their fans for a useful smartphone app -- both counterproductive decisions. These are, by far, not the worst things companies do to their would-be customers, but they are examples of what might be best described as thoughtless.

If you recognize your company in this tale, you might want to rethink how you treat those who would be your customers.

Disclaimer: Harvard has not fallen into any of these traps (as far as I know) but I have no idea if that is because of careful consideration or lucky accident. Thus, the above tale is my own.

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.

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