A long-overdue consultation on the great on-line rip-off

The importance of the Ofcom review on Quality of Service information cannot be under-estimated. 35 years ago, when I had responsibility for the NCC Microsystems Centre – running the flagship awareness prgramme of the day. We tried to intoduce the idea of assessing ease of usability, reliability and quality of service from a user perspective. We failed. So has every attempt since. Hopefully this exercise will be more successful.

There was an attempt in the early 1990s to use techniques akin to those introduced to help the car industry reduce warranty claims and also expensive law suits concerning overturning vans and exploding tyes or fuel tanks. Material was collected by computer assisted telephone interview on customer satisfaction, including niggles, let alone serious faults, after days, weeks and months of purchase. This was tracked back to production lines, component suppliers and design teams. Direct payback was inside 18 months but even better were the gains in market share as transformed quality control procedures led to growing customer satisfaction. We thought the ICT industry was ready for a similar approach, mixing on-line monitoring wth similarly structured consumer surveys. 

We quickly discovered that ICT suppliers were happy to consider on-line monitoring but had no wish to encourage end-user response. They had managed to classify software as a service (thus avoiding product liability) and prefered feedback from the technically wll informed professionals who attended their user groups.

They already had quite enough complaints from ignorant end-users who did not understand the complexity and inter-activity of their products and services. They had no wish to trigger more – let alone incur the expense of re-engineering for simplicity and reliablity – perhaps even removing well-reviewed, but little-used, technical facilities in order to do so.

The only taker was a major City dealer. For them the difference between 2 seconds response time and 45 seconds (let alone five minutes during a market peak) was worth a fortune. They forbad publicity and quietly cut the throats of their competition.

Today we are told that mainstream ICT products and services are mature enough for all the world to use. But still suppliers persist in heaping layers of complexity onto infrastructures that are suspectible to catastrophic failure, let alone unpredictable variablity of response. For example we have ministers announcing plans to spend millions on traffic or offender monitoring systems dependent on communications that fail during thunderstorms – let alone when subject to deliberate jamming.

The Ofcom consultation documentation is hard going, which might be seen as evidence that our regulator does not see the importance of this exercise or does not wish to open the hornet’s nest that is “Quality of Service Information”. But competition cannot operate if business and consumers do not have readable, reliabke and comparable information on what is being sold to them. This is therefore, arguably, the most important consultation that Ofcom has ever done. The deadline for responses is 8th October. Make your views known. 


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