Wordsmithing Those Tech Specs? Choose Carefully!

Now Serving Unlimited DataEver been in the position of having to tune-up specifications and product announcements to add the proverbial spin and sizzle that will entice customer attention?  I have, on numerous occasions, and likely will again in the future.  As a result, this news tidbit caught my attention.  The Federal Trade Commission moved forward with a federal court complaint against AT&T on 10/28/14.  The charge centers on the legality of throttling the connection speeds of those customers who consume the most bandwidth on their “unlimited data” plan, all while the customers were already under contract, and failing to alert customers of the change.

(CNET:  http://www.cnet.com/news/ftc-sues-at-t-for-limiting-speeds-on-unlimited-data-customers/  )

As noted in the article, Verizon has adopted similar throttling practices and “tiered” plans in an effort to limit exposure on its “unlimited” plan, and has gone through similar jousts with the FCC.  Sprint and T-Mobile have opted to go the no-throttling route.  The issue is now several years old, but the ripple effects continue.  The FTC has basically thrown down the gauntlet:  unlimited means unlimited – period.

It struck me how these telecom giants got caught in the oft-dangerous practice of speaking in absolutes when there are conditions and constraints that must be considered.  Perhaps you too have participated in a sales pitch or product demo, and the question “How many users can I have in the system?” or “How many widget identifiers will the system hold?” arises from an audience member.  The presenter, or worse yet, the technical team representative, responds with “it’s unlimited.”

An unlimited number of widget records or users – hmmm.  Really?  From the presenter’s side, it is a far better response than admitting “Actually, we didn’t spend the time to implement a programmatic upper boundary” or “We were told to leave it unbounded because the MarCom folks really like the term unlimited”.

Perhaps that “unlimited” description sounds fantastic to some audience members.  To my ears, those “unlimited” responses are triggers.  Do you mean you have not considered whether or not your double-byte integer index variable will ever max out?  Do you mean you don’t know the maximum record count imposed by the open source/free database tools you are using?  Are you telling me that you never considered the usable disk space left over after X number of add/delete transactions have caused ongoing fragmentation, or orphan records that need to be swept, and which will eat away at your “unlimited” storage over time?   My crap detector goes red critical when all I get back in response is rapid eye movement.

In my experience, Murphy’s Law will prevail – there will be a customer or user who will take you at your word and stretch that limit to the breaking point.  Therefore you must refine the word choice – “virtually unlimited,” with a clarifying comment added, or an asterisked footnote advising of system limitations in terms of overall capacity, performance or peak loading conditions.  As a product development professional on one side of the table, I know those are important considerations that must be carefully noted so that customer expectations can be properly set.  As the buying party on the other side of the table – in a consumer or enterprise procurement role – I expect to see those limits and clarifications from the product or service provider.  If I don’t – it is cause for pause.

Speaking in unquantified absolutes comes in multiple flavors when describing services and products. Too many years ago I came to know that contracts were often littered with the term “best efforts” or a “best efforts clause” when it came to describing the gyrations that a company would undertake to resolve problems being experienced by their customers, or in sales/distribution agreements describing how the sales agent must commit to working hard to sell a company’s goods/products.  Perhaps it was the fad at the time, introduced and propagated by one or more companies to differentiate themselves from the pack of competitors.  (“We will do our absolute best to satisfy your needs!”)

My personal introduction to the “best efforts” terminology occurred while sitting in a customer’s conference room, surrounded by 15+ leadership team members from a division of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, attempting to discern how my organization would turnaround what was deemed a “poorly performing” custom software installation. With no legal counsel present on our side (typical small company – sigh), I had the pleasure of being poked at by their contracts executive, who demanded to know whether or not every single person in my company, from the night cleaning crew to the President, was working on “their” problem 24/7.  He pointedly wanted to know what aspect I personally planned to work on back at the office that night after I finished my 4 hour commute through LA traffic.  Of course, we learned from the experience.  Our Contracts Admin replaced “best efforts” with “reasonable efforts” and clarifying language in all subsequent agreements.  I developed a finer sensitivity to, and intolerance for, specifications and agreements that do not contain understandable, quantifiable, and objectively measureable limits and performance criteria.  And I have noted that the legal community now has a body of work cautioning against clauses with unlimited enthusiasm and hype along the lines of “best efforts”.

So who is right in the FTC-AT&T dispute?  That will be an issue for the courts to decide.  The underlying lesson in any event: Unbounded spin and hyperbole need to be sanity checked against worst-case scenarios before the commitment hits the streets.  Otherwise you may end up in the unfortunate and often indefensible position of having to deliver when the customer says “All we want is exactly what you promised!”


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