Aira’s astounding communications fail, or how to lose friends and alienate people
An update late on 16 January New Zealand time.
Aira’s CEO, Troy Otillio, has published a brief statement on Aira’s website, acknowledging the widespread concerns many of us have about how difficult it has been to find out how much we will pay for the new pricing plans. You can now visit this page, and view the complete list of plans in all supported currencies once the Aira offset has been applied. This information is publicly available on the web, without completing a form. The original pricing page still asks that you call Customer Service to get this information, but it is a long weekend in the US and hopefully this will be addressed so that the offset pricing page simply becomes the new pricing page.
I want to thank Troy for responding to the community’s concerns, and doing so personally on a long weekend.
There was always going to be debate and disagreement around the pricing changes, that’s the nature of the beast. But at least any remaining debate can occur with ready public access to the essential information about what these increases mean for us as blind people.
My original post is below.
I am interrupting my long summer break to write this, because I am saddened and disappointed that a service I value, run by people I respect, has been responsible for a communications debacle which is so bad that I can imagine it being used in comms degree classes as an illustration of what not to do.
Aira is using its own media, and some of the blindness media, to try and dampen down the completely justified concern and frustration about what they have done. But this situation won’t be put right until they correct the disregard and disrespect their recent communications strategy has shown for the blind community, the very people the company was set up to serve. Unless they do, the goodwill from the blind community on which Aira depends will remain substantially eroded.
Before I outline my concerns, it’s important that I provide some context around the business environment that has led to this communications failure.
I have blogged extensively about Aira, particularly back in 2018. Most blind people have experienced the frustration of asking a random stranger for directions, only to be given confusing or inaccurate responses. So when I was at CSUN in 2018 and a trained agent guided me, with nothing but the view of my iPhone’s camera, through my hotel to get to the exhibit hall, it was a key life event.
As many may recall, I even ended up becoming a VP at Aira prior to being offered a CEO role here in New Zealand.
The blind community is a very difficult market in which to build a successful company. Given the socio-economic status of many of us, consumers of a product or service in our community are often not the purchasers. It can take time for Government funders of blindness products and services to be convinced of the value of a new service. Aira was not simply a new product in an existing and well-understood category, like a screen reader. It is encouraging to see some agencies and states embracing the value of visual interpretation.
For Aira, where people costs are high and infrastructural costs are significant, finding a sustainable business model was always going to be a challenge.
Aira was initially funded by venture capitalists who invested with the hope that Aira’s leaders would find a path to profitability. As is common in this space, they tried all sorts of experiments to see what worked. Eventually, Aira lost the confidence and the funding of the venture capital community.
It might have been curtains for Aira at that point, particularly given that this change coincided with the COVID19 pandemic, which had the potential to affect its most promising revenue stream, Aira Access. There is no doubt in my mind that Aira Access, the idea that visual interpretation should be considered an accommodation for which businesses pay, is the sustainable pathway for Aira. If visual interpretation becomes as important and ubiquitous as Sign language interpretation, then businesses may consider funding visual interpretation as a core cost of doing business. That will be good for blind people as well, because competitors would undoubtedly emerge, and there is no way that Aira would have treated blind people the way they have this last week if a competitor offering professionally-trained agents existed.
Aira would have been considered a brief, bold experiment that was unsuccessful, were it not for the investment of money and energy of Troy Otillio, who had first consulted for Aira in the early days, eventually became its CTO, and took on Aira to try and keep it alive during the post-VC era. I for one have immense respect and appreciation for his tenacity, commitment and belief in Aira’s mission.
Because I have had product management experience in the blindness market, and understand Aira’s challenges, I have been perhaps more understanding than most when it comes to some of the disruptive changes the company has made. I was disappointed to see the glasses go, but the cellular plans that accompanied them were incredibly generous, development costs and support for the hardware were expensive, and hardware is a different skill set from visual interpretation, something that the new streamlined Aira simply couldn’t sustain.
I also understood that with high inflation and escalating labour costs, coupled with a free component that was a remnant from the past VC era, pricing and plan changes needed to occur. Aira took time to prepare the community for the pricing changes, including by appearing on my podcast where I sought to ask the questions I was aware that some members of our community were asking. I applaud Aira for grandfathering the current three plans for 2023, but am also aware of the upheaval that will inevitably be caused by the retirement of legacy plans which are held by some of Aira’s most loyal, long-term customers.
Price increases create communications challenges for any company. I think this is even more the case for the blind community, where money is tight for many, and people have integrated Aira into their suite of alternative techniques for living independently and getting things done. That can create a strong practical or even emotional attachment to the service. But Aira made things much worse for itself by not being straight up with the blind community, and that is what has prompted me to write this.
I accept that prices had to increase, but I strongly object to the hoops Aira continues to put blind people through just to get a simple answer to an essential question. If I want to subscribe to Aira after 31 January, how much will I pay?
When the page finally went live, rather than getting a simple answer, no matter how unpalatable, the amount blind people would pay was nowhere to be found. That is cruel and disrespectful given the anxiety that already existed for some about the impact of these changes on their wallets. Many customers may not have appreciated that the price businesses pay for Aira Access minutes is much higher than what Aira charges consumers. The Aira Access prices better reflect what it costs to pay the bills and have enough left over to invest in new products and services.
Aira chose to disclose what it called the full retail price of the plans on its website, to make it clear to its consumer and business customers alike that even with the price increases, the plans are subsidised heavily by Aira. If Aira feels the need to make this point, that’s fair enough, but the page should contain not just the retail pricing, but the offset pricing too, making it clear that the latter is available to qualifying individuals at Aira’s discretion.
If an employer is paying for Aira to help a blind person do their job, perhaps by way of the blind person filing a reimbursement, then Aira is justified in saying, “hang on, we are happy to subsidise blind individuals, but accommodations should be paid for fully by those who are required to provide them, and not subsidised by Aira”. It’s a loophole that we as blind people should ensure is not exploited, because we all want Aira to stick around.
At first, the disclosure of these plans without information about the subsidy caused considerable confusion and distress. Anyone who knows how a lot of screen reader users engage with information could have told Aira this would happen. When I ran Mosen Consulting, I used to have what I believed to be clear text when you added a product to the cart, telling people how to download their purchase instantly and that a link may not always reach their email because of spam filtering. No matter how clear that message was, I would frequently get people emailing me not realising that they had missed the opportunity to download their purchase right away. The reason for this is that many screen reader users will search for key phrases, or controls on a page. So I can imagine that a lot of consumers searched on a dollar-sign and completely missed the messaging, misguided though it was, about the prices being listed not being what they would be asked to pay.
There is nowhere on Aira’s website, even now after all the justified opposition, that a prospective consumer can go to understand how much the plans cost them. First, Aira told blind people that if they wanted to know how much the plans would cost individuals, they had to make a phone call to Customer Care. So they put a bunch of numbers on a website that are meaningless to the audience viewing them, and then turned something that should have taken just a couple of minutes online into a phone call where customers may have had to wait on hold. And of course, it is much easier to copy material to the clipboard from the web page and paste it somewhere than it is to write down all the details and hope you got them correct.
When people quite understandably expressed their strong displeasure, Aira made things worse by digging an even deeper hole. Rather than simply doing what they should have done from the beginning, and should still do to make things right, they put the price list that matters to blind people in a PDF file which you can only get if you complete a form. I have not been able to locate a link to that form on Aira’s pricing page, so you have to be well-connected to even know the form exists. I have multiple concerns with this approach.
Given that those on legacy plans can change to the current consumer plans until 31 January, and those on current consumer plans can keep them until the end of 2023, it is mostly potential customers who are being asked to hand over their email address and phone number to Aira to receive information that they should be able to get by going to a web page obligation-free. I have made the mistake in the past of providing my information to businesses to get some sort of promotion, and regretted it. Were I a potential new customer, I wouldn’t do it. Sure, many potential users of monthly plans will be subscribed to the free offering, but there will be some who don’t want to start using Aira and get dependent on it, only to find that they can’t afford it. Being able to determine how much this service will cost them, without fuss or gobbledegook, is vital. And Aira is putting these information barriers in front of assistive technology users, some of whom do not find using the web intuitive.
While I believe those at Aira to be decent people, there’s no getting away from the fact that this approach comes across as sneaky. Why are they going to such lengths to hide the true pricing from the public? The reason appears to have been stated by Aira on several occasions this week. It appears to be that Aira has had trouble explaining to businesses why there’s such a discrepancy between what businesses are being asked to pay and what consumers are charged for monthly plans. Rather than develop communications to business prospects that explain the demographics of the blind community and the need for this kind of subsidy, they have chosen to confuse and inconvenience blind people by displaying prices that make businesses happy. They appear to believe they have had to choose between annoying their blind customers and annoying their big business customers, and blind people are the ones they have sacrificed.
Aira has taken the approach that they won’t tell people what their offset prices are unless and until blind people have confirmed that they qualify. For reasons stated above, I have no problem with requiring the confirmation, but there is considerable benefit in disclosing the prices first, then seeking eligibility if someone expresses interest in taking up the offer.
I understand that Aira Access is the future, but I think this is a disrespectful, counterproductive, and lazy approach. It’s disrespectful because it’s the most basic principle of communications that you fit your message to suit the recipient. The recipients of a page about consumer plans and pricing are consumers. Sure, businesses may stumble upon that page too, but plenty of services offer different pricing for businesses and consumers, and those businesses’ websites say clearly what those differences are.
It’s counterproductive because Aira has alienated some blind people who were staunch allies. It is a worthy goal that visual interpretation might one day be considered an essential accommodation, and it is in Aira’s interests for that to come to pass. But if that ever happens, it will be because blind people will have advocated for it with enthusiasm. Nothing substitutes for a genuine testimonial from a customer. As my past blog posts demonstrate, I have been enthusiastic about Aira. This episode has left a sour taste for me to the extent that I now feel like I’m using Aira grudgingly when I need to get something done. The enthusiasm has gone. If a competitor came online tomorrow offering professional visual interpretation, I would cancel Aira with some relief at this point.
To try and restore what goodwill it can, Aira must put this right by publishing the offset pricing along with the retail pricing on its pricing page. As a community, we shouldn’t allow spin to make the problem go away.
The bottom line is this, if Aira feels the need to make blind people go through all these hoops just so we can find out what a new plan will cost us, because they are having trouble explaining things to businesses, get better explainers. I simply don’t except that credible corporate entities do not understand the concept of loss leaders or philanthropic programmes. This is why I consider the approach taken to have been lazy. They put the needs of the people for whom the service exists behind the businesses who, with the support of blind people which is not unconditional, will pay because they want our business or want to be exemplary accommodation providers. If Aira’s reputation deteriorates in our community, businesses will get wind of that.
Companies are run by humans. Humans make mistakes. In this case, Aira is run by decent humans and I still have hope they will recognise the damage and hurt this has caused and that they’ll put it right. But if that doesn’t happen, we as a community are not powerless, there is more we can do.
Where I live in New Zealand, there is strong consumer law, and I believe our Commerce Commission may be interested in a company that publishes pricing on its website that does not reflect what the customer will actually pay. Perhaps other countries in which Aira operates, or states within those countries, have similarly strong law we can use.
I urge those involved with blindness consumer organisations to encourage the leaders of those organisations to voice their displeasure to Aira, and that if there is no progress soon, those organisations make public statements of condemnation.
I am considering starting an online petition calling on Aira to put the offset pricing on its pricing page. If someone gets to start one before me that is respectfully worded, I will promote and sign it.
I hope that soon, I can be a proud Aira user again. Because it really is simple, people just want to visit a pricing page that has the actual price they will pay. Is that really so difficult to understand or too much to ask?