Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to rake it in by screwing your customers

A long, long time ago I was at Prodigy when we decided to change from hourly pricing to a flat rate of $19.95 per month. Flat rate pricing was clearly preferred by our customers, and our competitors who were offering it were taking them away from us.

Problem was, when people are accessing the internet by dialing into 28.8k modems, more hours online meant more peak demand meant more modems needed, meant more expense.

As we evaluated the price change, I noticed that some of our formerly best customers would now become our worst customers. For instance, there was a bunch of die-hard group text-based RPG fans who spent 100+ hours online per month*. Paying by the hour they were great customers, but with a flat rate they were our worst. We had to ditch the RPG.

In fact, we had to ditch any content that people spent a lot of time with. It turned out that the people who liked the service the most, who spent the most time on it, were our worst customers. Our best customers were the people who never logged on but never got around to turning off the monthly bill.

I lost interest in this business model and moved on; businesses that do better as their customers do worse should not survive.

I was thinking about this today because of my friend Josh's excellent blog entry on the Google Mortgage thing and on retail banking in general.

Unlike most people's mental model of retail banking operations, banks do not make most of their money on the difference between the rates at which they lend versus the rate they offer for savings. American banks, quite distinctly from banks elsewhere in the world, make the bulk of their money from fees and charges. Invisible and often unavoidable consequences of little clauses in contracts that no one ever reads.
Banks' best customers are the ones who are getting screwed by the banks. Banks' worst customers are the ones who are probably pretty happy with their bank. This perverse incentive shouldn't persist, but it has. What's it going to take to change it?

* This was a lot back then.

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