Business owners: Offering poor wi-fi for patrons is worse than none

Summary:Working all over town I am exposed to lots of places with free wi-fi. Unfortunately, it's often very poor and unreliable for customers.

Poor wifi zone

You own a small business and you notice that many people frequent your competitors and pull a laptop or tablet out of their bag and get to work. You've read how many establishments bear the expense of providing free wi-fi for their customers to entice them to come in and keep coming back. 

You're not technically experienced so you contract the wi-fi service out to either a big company or a small local business. The initial installation of the equipment goes well, and soon you are able to advertise about your free wi-fi. What you may not realize is that your customers soon notice that your wi-fi is not only spotty, it usually sucks.

Perhaps your provider offered you tiered service that charges you more the better bandwidth they deliver. You thought about it and decided that since you are providing your customers the service at no cost that you'd go with the slowest, cheapest bandwidth available. That's understandable, you're a small business after all and need to watch your costs.

Once your establishment gets the reputation of having poor wi-fi you can expect regular customers who need dependable wi-fi to go elsewhere.

Be aware that this can come back to haunt you as regular customers soon realize they cannot depend on your wi-fi. They come in to get work done and they can't do that because your service is not consistent or is too slow most of the time. Mobile workers have deadlines and can't be cut off when the going gets tough.

Working away from my office most of the time, I understand this is the way it is and I always have the ability to connect via my own 4G/LTE connection. That's not typical though, and once your establishment gets the reputation of having poor wi-fi you can expect regular customers who need dependable wi-fi to go elsewhere. This week I've heard two such workers mention to others that they no longer go to Business X as they can't always get online. In these cases the free wi-fi is not attracting customers, it's driving them away.

One phenomenon I'm noticing more often lately is throttled service. In several shops I've seen wi-fi service that is good until doing something like updating an app. Watching the bandwidth closely, I start downloading an update, say 10MB, and watch it begin fast and then throttle down to very low speed. It's obvious that the business's wi-fi provider monitors activity and steps the speed down when "large" downloads occur. Their trigger for the throttling is not very big.

This too will keep customers away once they experience this regularly. They need to get things done and they either can't do it all or it's a horrible experience. They end up going to the joint down the street that doesn't have these issues.

I understand how hard it is to be a small business owner. Profit margins are often thin and costs have to be watched closely. If that's the case with your operation, maybe you'd be better off without the wi-fi service.

Like every aspect of your business, your objective with the wi-fi should be to provide a good experience for your customers. If it costs too much to provide good wi-fi, perhaps you should add a tiny bit to all of your prices to cover it. Make sure your patrons are happy to be in your shop, and more importantly will be happy to return again and again. Otherwise, you might as well hang a big sign like the one above in your front window.

Note: I wrote this article in a coffee shop known for its poor wi-fi. I didn't use my LTE connectivity to see how it progressed. As expected, it was a horrible, drawn out affair.

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Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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