Boingo Has an Image Problem

Here’s how the Wi-Fi provider could fix it.

People on their laptops at the airport.
Searching for affordable Wi-Fi.

Photo by iStock

While travelling through Newark last year, I was in urgent need of Wi-Fi for important fantasy-football-related business, and I signed up for that airport’s Boingo wireless service. In my hurry, I either didn’t notice that I had signed up for a monthly recurring charge, or more likely, I just forgot to cancel said charge when I got back from my vacation. The other weekend, I noticed that Boingo had charged me $134.34 over the last 15 months for my 47 minutes of Internet use at Newark Liberty.

I called Boingo on a Saturday, waited a fairly reasonable 30 minutes on hold, and spoke to a very nice customer service representative named Margaret who informed me that she was only authorized to give me a refund for the past six months of nonusage. So my 47 minutes of use was now going to cost only $74.64. Later, after I found scores of online complaints about Boingo’s billing practices and decided to contact the company’s press department, I received a full refund of my entire charges, including the original $4.98 fee that I really did mean to pay. (The company says that the full refund was thanks to a supervisor reviewing my case after I had gotten off of the phone with my customer service representative, and not due to me being a reporter. Lucky me!)

So far, this story reads as the cautionary tale of one man’s stupidity in not carefully reading/remembering admittedly transparent terms of service, and not checking his bank statement each month (my wife does it—lame, I know).

The only problem is all those online complaints I mentioned. The user reviews for Boingo, for example, include 99 one-star reviews out of a total of 121, with dozens of complaints about over-billing, struggles to cancel, and unexpected fees. A typical user review went like this:

The Yelp reviews were not much better, with the company getting two stars out of 33 reviews and many of the customers complaining about struggling to cancel both online and over the phone.

When I looked on the company’s Facebook page, many of the user comments in the last month were along a very similar line. For the month of October, 14 out of 19 user comments were about inability to recover online passwords or get through to customer service in order to cancel, unduly excessive billing, and other unspecified “glitches.” A couple of typical ones:

Displeasure with the company has even spawned a “I Hate Boingo” Twitter account.

Now, out of fairness to Boingo, they make the existence of the recurring charge explicit during sign-up and they do offer an option for pay-as-you go. Also, the company was nominated in 2010 for a Mashable Award for stellar social-media customer service, and they did seem genuinely responsive to those Facebook complaints. Finally, many of the people making these complaints have technically not been cheated, but rather failed to read or understand the company’s billing procedures. 

All of that said, Boingo clearly has a problem with overzealous billing, or, at the very least, with the perception of overzealous billing by a large number of customers. Boingo can, and should, do four things to fix this problem.

1. Repair password retrieval and treat every customer complaint the same. Until three or four years ago, the only way to unsubscribe from Boingo was to call the company. You couldn’t cancel online, because Boingo wanted to “save” any customers who attempted to leave (“save” in the company’s terms, “upsell” in the terms of angry Internet forums). They have now set up online cancellation, but according to many Internet comments, the password retrieval system does not always work. Once you do connect to them by phone, your experience may be different depending on your level of anger toward Boingo. According to the company’s vice president of corporate communications, Christian Gunning, customer service representatives are “advised to err on the side of being more helpful and more generous than industry standards would accept.” I was very calm when I called the company and that was certainly my experience. By the same token, angrier customers—the ones who are the most likely to complain loudly online—may be getting short shrift from Boingo. “The people who scream and yell swear words at the customer service agents probably don’t get that [second] look,” Gunning said. It’s probably not a good idea to be less responsive to angrier customers.

2. Expand the six-month refund policy. Gunning said that the company only offers the “generous” six-month refund policy, rather than a less-generous 60-day refund policy that is the industry standard, because complaints about misunderstanding the terms of service are so rare—“in the low single digits” of total calls and cancellations percentage-wise—that it doesn’t hurt the company to offer a larger-than-normal (if not always full) refund. But it seems to me that the six-month refund policy is probably there because people paying for months at a time for one-time use is a real problem for the company. Based on the online complaints and my personal experience, it seems like people who would need refunds of longer than six months is also a real problem. Boingo should probably extend its policy to full refunds if it wants this to be less of a problem.

3. Email monthly receipts. Gunning expressed exasperation with all of the online complaints by people who aren’t checking their bank statements each month, and told me that the company has done everything it can to make the charges explicit. “I don’t know what additional steps I could take,” he said. When I suggested email notifications for every bill, he said, “You do get a notification every month—it’s called your credit card statement.” Except that I didn’t—early in my Boingo subscription, I went three months without a charge, only to be hit with a lump sum the following month; later I went two months without seeing Boingo on my statement, then got another lump-sum charge. So even if I had been checking my statement, I wouldn’t have noticed until I had been charged $30 or $50. A monthly email would have helped in my case.

4. Don’t delay your monthly charges and hit customers with one-time lump fees, ever. Yeah, just don’t do that.

Even if these billing issues are relatively rare in terms of the company’s 11 million connects and 300,000 subscribers, Boingo acknowledges that the problems are real. “We see a fair amount of this,” Gunning says. “What we understand is most of the sales are done at an airport and people are harried and they’re just trying to get online quickly.” It sounds like Gunning was unintentionally describing at least a small part of his company’s business model: getting harried travellers to overpay for a product when they’re too rushed to notice the fine print. If that’s not the case, though, Boingo can solve this perception by offering anyone who has this problem a quick, full refund. Unless, of course, Boingo really is running an over-billing scam. In that case, they’re doing great!