Thursday, February 09, 2006

Modern Customer Service


One of the biggest problems of the manner in which many businesses offer what presently passes for "customer service" is that there is no consistency in who is working to resolve a problem, and thus there is nobody who is responsible to resolve the problem. Some companies, such as (at last check) MCI, claim not to have individual extensions for their employees. (A phone company wihtout extensions? C'mon.) Even if you have the employee's name, you have to try to work your way through an invisible labyrinth of switchboards to be reconnected.

Some more recent examples of this phenomenon:

* My webhosting company, eager to make me wonder why I stayed with them after last year's experience, tried to pair customer service highs with customer service lows. The highs? Their employees are for the most part very good at dealing with increasingly frustrated customers. The lows? Pretty much everything else.

I was having some problems with a server, so I requested that they reboot the server. The site didn't come back online, which isn't a particularly good sign - but also one they should catch. When they did get the server restarted, it wouldn't run Apache, which is to say it wouldn't run any websites. They ran a diagnostic and, surprise, the hard drive was failing

I asked the technician who called with that news how long I could reasonably expect one of their hard drives to last. "We use Seagate drives." Yes, but how long should they last? "I've seen them last a month, and I've seen them last five years." Yes, but how long should I reasonably be able to expect them to last? "If you need to be absolutely certain that your data is always online there are systems which can do that. For $100,000.00 you can set up a...." I'm aware that if I spend an unlimited amount of money I can get a much more reliable system; I'm asking about this hard drive on this system. I know I'm not one of your heavier users, so what can I reasonably expect? "I've seen them last for years, or sometimes just a month or two." Egad....

Rather than sticking a new hard drive into the old system, I contacted customer service to upgrade to newer, more capable hardware. "You're aware that we won't be able to transfer your IP's over to the new machine?" Well, not ideal, but I still wanted to upgrade. I made clear that I wanted to cancel the old machine, as it wasn't running anyway and I wasn't going to bring it back online even if they put a new hard drive in it. I added on their backup solution which, although in my opinion a bit overpriced for what you get will perhaps save me some grief the next time my hard drive fails after a period of time they cannot approximate.

So I go to the new server's administrative interface and start setting up the websites. At which time I notice that the only IP Addresses I can assign to websites are those from the old server. I contact customer service. "The new block of IP's should have been assigned to your server." Well, yeah. "Hey - you say you're cancelling the old server. We can transfer that block of IP's to your new server if you want." I thought you couldn't do that. "It's pretty easy. I'll take care of it for you." It should be done in about sixty to ninety minutes.

Later that evening I still can't work with the IP's, so I call back. "It says here in the notes that everything is fine." What does it say if you attempt to verify the notes, rather than just reading them. "Oh. It looks like it wasn't completed. And the guy who does that went home for the night." So? "He comes in about 8:30 in the morning. I'll put a sticky on his screen and he'll probably take care of it first thing."

At 9:00 the next morning.... "That was done last night." Did you see the sticky on your screen? "Yes, I did, but the notes say it was done." Did you attempt to verify the notes, rather than just reading them? "Oh. Let me look into this." [Insert 40 minutes on hold here.] "It was done yesterday." If it was done yesterday, why isn't it working now? "Our system has to reset itself for the changes to take place, and it reboots every six hours. So everything should be working by noon." Didn't the system reboot, then, at 6 AM? And for that matter at midnight last night? And at 6 PM yesterday? "Um, the system will reboot at noon and it should work after that."

That was accurate - shortly after noon, everything seemed to be working... except for the fact that I couldn't access the server by FTP or POP or SMTP. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out if there was a problem at my end... nope. Back to technical support. "The ports are closed." Yes, when I called you I told you that the ports were closed. I need them open, so I can set up my websites." "I don't know why they are closed." I don't care. I need them open. "It may be a security reason, because they should be open." Well, find out if there is a security problem then, fix it, and open them. "I can't see from the account history if you closed them or if we did. If you closed them there will be a charge to reopen them." I'm telling you right now that you closed them. "Let me check something. Can you hold for a couple of minutes?" [Insert a couple of minutes on hold here.] "We can't figure out who closed the ports, so we'll open them without charging you." You closed them. Thank you for agreeing to reopen them. "I said we couldn't figure out...." Well, as I said, I didn't close them, which leaves you.

"Which ports do you want open?" How about the ones which are supposed to be open by default? "I can't advise you as to which ports to have open." I'm not asking for advice, just the default settings. [Insert tedious discussion of ports here.] "We can have those open for you in one to two hours, and I've made the note extremely clear so that they will do it right." Is this something I can fix from my end? "No, this has to be changed here... wait, yes. On your machine you can open these ports yourself." Can you tell me how? "Sorry, I can't do that."

Two hours later, a return call to indicate that the SMPT and POP ports (those for email) remained closed (although I had been happily transferring files to the server to bring the sites back on line). "Let me tell you how to fix that yourself" (Less than thirty seconds later....)

Although the summary doesn't necessarily convey it, that last technician was highly professional, courteous, and knowledgeable. He was unable to be more helpful because company policy is to charge by the task for as much support as possible unless a customer is paying a monthly fee to have support included with their server. So even though every single problem I had was the fault of the webhost, their own policies prevented their technicians from providing actual customer support... because I hadn't paid them for the privilege of helping them troubleshoot their own screwups. It says something that at the end of the day (well, actually, the end of the second day) their own technical support representative was sufficiently exhausted with their system to break the rules by giving me instruction, rather than issuing yet another ticket to have things fixed in-house "in an hour or two."

* I sent an inquiry to Comcast over some email problems, noting that AOL was rejecting emails I was sending. In the first email I described the correction that AOL requested they implement in order to resolve the problem. In the second email I summarized the problem and pointed out a minor incorrection in the first email.

The response to the first email explained that they could not make individualized changes to Comcast accounts, then presented a lengthy (and entirely irrelevant) description of how to configure email for an Outlook Express account. (Even if I used Outlook Express, that wouldn't be the problem....)

The second email, which by any sensible measure should have been sent to the same person, went instead to a different person. That second person, looking at exactly the same problem, indicated "We are aware of this issue and we apologize for any inconvenience that it may cause you. Our engineers are in contact with the email administrators at AOL, and they are working together to resolve this issue."

In my opinion, they're working a bit too slowly at one end or the other, but at least the second communication was relevant and helpful. However only the first communication was given a customer service ticket number, so I can't follow up to the second without being routed to yet another random customer support person.

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