The fear of upgrading

Joseph Waring
17 Jun 2009

After years of churning out wireless network gear that's faster and more compact, equipment manufacturers still don't seem to get it. A survey of consumers found that 30% reported difficulties setting up their home networking equipment.

According to ABI Research, a shocking 11% of respondents actually returned products because they found them "too hard" to figure out and install. The survey showed that most of the difficulty involved the wireless setup.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, this 11% failure rate apparently is at the low end of the typical range of consumer electronics returns in the US. I find that number incredible - more than one in ten buyers of networking equipment give up in frustration while another 20% struggle through and are either successful in setting up their network after who knows how many attempts or they just give up. Unfortunately the survey didn't enquire about Wi-Fi routers gathering dust in the closet.

Because of their poor experiences in the past, users say they hesitate to upgrade their networks for fear of additional problems. But most said they would be more willing to upgrade if that made troubleshooting easier.

Users encountered these obstacles even though the vast majority of those in the ABI survey used their home networks only to connect PCs to the internet and a printer. As multimedia components are added and home networks look increasingly like corporate LANs, an even higher percentage of consumers are likely to stumble unless equipment vendors can streamline the configuration process - and that comes down mostly to software.

This represents a huge opportunity for the equipment suppliers that can automate and simplify wireless set-up.

The good news is that some are - at least those releasing product through service providers' retail networks. I recently had the pleasure to trial the HSPA wireless gateway from
SmarTone-Vodafone. After running into a wall previously trying to set up a WLAN (I was only saved from being one of the 11% by my office IT guy), I was wary when the operator dropped the box off at my office. But I was surprised to find it was nearly plug and play. Power on, a few clicks on the portal, enter a password and I was connected in just a couple of minutes.

This reaction when encountering a positive experience, unfortunately, is a reflection of how poor the average user experience generally is. Apple has twice created this type of response - first with music and again with online apps. It took a consumer electronics company to show the handset majors and mobile operators how an easy-to-use interface can make or break the music or the mobile internet experience.

And what are the costs in lost revenue due to cumbersome installation? The 11% that return products no doubt turn to someone else. But as more complex services are added to the equation, the operator faces a double hit: it can't sell valued-add services when the customer isn't connected and its customer-care expenses go through the roof to solve the problem via its call center or a truck-roll.

A BT Design executive recently told me: "The cost of reworking orders and fulfillment typically costs operators hundreds of millions of pounds a year. If we can get the first-time delivery right to over 90%, then the savings are massive and customers are happy."

Making services easy to use will be the only way for operators and vendors to differentiator themselves in the future as their offerings become increasingly similar.

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