Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Customer Service, Where Ha' Ye Gone?

I've recently had a few interesting times dealing with reputable businesses. Hold on a sec. Maybe I should qualify that. I'd have to call one of them a formerly reputable business.

I had a hosting company, in the sense that I contracted with them for services. My first account worked out really well. They were a relatively small company that the owners had built from the ground up. They were on top of things and had created a bunch of custom features and though not a giant company had a good reputation.

I bought in. I had a few small problems, mostly due to inexperience on my part, and the service was great. I always sent a final email thanking the service technician when my problem got resolved. I figured that I owed. I figured that people like to be thanked. And I was grateful.

Times were good. My site stayed up, it worked perfectly, I added to it, and had no further problems. So after almost two years with this company, they were the obvious choice for my second site.

A few months before this I'd seen a few emails coming in about the hosting company "joining forces" with some other company. Or maybe they called it "teaming up", or something like that. I vaguely wondered if something unfortunate was going on, but since nothing seemed to be changing, I ignored it. About the only change I could see was that they were offering more services at lower prices. Whatever.

Not too very long after setting up my second account I began checking it every morning. Every now and then the site would be unresponsive. I wondered if my internet service provider or my DSL provider was having problems, but then before I could get too worked up things seemed to resolve themselves.

This happened maybe once a week for a few minutes. Then it seemed to be getting worse, but it was sporadic. I'd had some problems early on with my DSL provider, a major phone company whose telephone support had been vile. But they had been OK for several years now. I wondered if I was getting hosed by them again, or if my ISP was mucking around, though they had been dead reliable and even had helped me figure out that the phone company was lying to me when outages were really the phone company's fault.

Anyway, one day my site simply did not work. I checked everything I could. Browser OK (I have four installed). Computer on and running. Other web sites came up OK. In fact I could access any other web site that I could think of except my own site number two.

After pulling some hair out and thrashing around looking to define the problem, my site was suddenly there again. This happened several times over the following weeks. It seemed to be down about 20 to 30 minutes, and then it was back. I kept notes.

Finally one day when this was happening I submitted a support request to the web host, documenting what I'd seen. The logs for my site showed nothing and there were no reports from the hosting company, or notes in their forums.

The response I got was to let them know if it happened again. I think I ate my tongue. But after a few minutes I got back on track and let it slide.

Then a few days later it happened again. After a half hour of thrashing around checking things I saw my site come up again, but five minutes later it went down and didn't come back for another 20, so I submitted another support request. And got pretty much the same response, so I kept after them, saying that I'd at least expect them to check things and let me know what they checked, when, and supplying some proof.

I got a condescending response from someone who said he was a technical support supervisor. He mentioned a couple of things that weren't all that deep and basically let me know that they were not interested in following up on my problem.

OK fine. I love you too.

About a week after that my site disappeared again. The original site was still doing fine. I never did have a problem with that, but the newer one was down. I decided to log on to the control panel and check the logs. I don't know much about web servers and the back end stuff, but I can make some sense of it.

Except that I couldn't get there. The whole server had disappeared from the internet. I checked the company's forums for an announcement, and checked my email inbox but found no news, so I submitted another support request in case they were unaware. I got a reply that they knew there was a problem. And beyond that they supplied nothing else, ever.

A couple of days later I received an email notifying me that my request for support had been resolved, so I queried them. They said that after three days of inactivity, their system considers all support requests to have been resolved. Period. Thank you very much now go away.

Then my site went down again and so did the server. Totally gone.

I submitted another support request and asked that it go straight to a supervisor. I said I was fed up with a web site that kept disappearing, and a server that did the same and wanted some answers and a resolution.

OK, children, now it gets fun.

After some back and forth the person identifying himself as a technical support supervisor told me three interesting things.

One was that they would provide no support for application programming problems. He said that if I was having problems with my web site I should contact my developer and work things out there.

I had a contact form on my site which had been working fine, but after the server disappeared it stopped working. Cold. Dead. I hadn't touched the site in several weeks and made this clear several times. Nevertheless, this guy had to make a point of telling me not to even think of getting any help of that kind.

Up to that moment it hadn't occurred to me for the obvious reason that I had had a perfectly working site and hadn't changed a thing. It could not be my faulty code.

The second thing this guy said was that they would provide zero help configuring anything whatsoever within my account. Since I was on an Apache server on Linux, there were .htaccess files and file permissions and things to fiddle with. But I hadn't, and hadn't asked for help either.

Then the third thing I was told was that if I thought that the goofiness I had been experiencing were due to hardware, operating system or server software problems, it was my job to verify it (right, from my apartment 1500 miles away), document it, and tell them exactly what they had to do to fix their system.

And by the way, we didn't notify anyone or put the outages on our company forum because that's reserved for major outages. (He didn't answer when I said that having my server disappear was a major outage for me.)

Talk about your body slam.

So there I was, having been told that no matter where the problem was, they were not going to do anything to help. Thank you very much and please don't call again.

Luckily my first account had only about a month to run, so I found another host that looked good. I even queried one of its customers. Everything sounded OK. A little more expensive, but I could consolidate two accounts into one for about the same total cost.

So then I notified the first company that I was going to move my first account, and in case I missed the deadline I did not want my account to be automatically renewed (which they normally do). This unleashed another load of stuff that went right into the fan.

It so happens that they have no way of closing an account unless they do it immediately. Their system is set up in such a way that they cannot indicate that an account just runs out and dies. According to them. So they could either close it immediately or if I ran over they would have to bill me for another entire year and then refund me (if things worked out that way).

The information on the company wiki said something else, but they didn't accept that. I got into a major email battle and made it clear that I would consider it fraud, and fight them up one side and down the other. All that fun stuff. They kept saying that the giant robot in the back room would not listen to them. Etcetera. It was lovely.

I spent about two weeks updating the style sheets for my site (on my desktop) simplify them and bring them up a notch or two in quality. I finished that and got my site moved over to the new host without a problem, and then managed to cancel my account with about a week left to run. Later I noticed that they had changed the company wiki to explicitly say that they could not cancel in advance.

A few weeks later I was ready to move my second site. First I had to get my domain name pointing at the new host's servers. I went into the control panel about three times and for the life of me could find no option to let me make the change.

Sounds like it's time to submit another support request. So I did, lucky me.

The reply I got was "You could change the domain nameservers via BackStage >> Domains >> [redacted].com, click on the 'Edit' button on the left and then you will be able to do that. Hope this helps."

Like I hadn't' been there.

So I replied, and told them that there was no 'Edit' button and sent a screen capture.

Of course the reply I got (from a different monkey) was "Hi, On Domains tab: [redacted].com click on that 'Edit' to change nameservers."

Lovely day in the neighborhood. Lovely.

Eventually, out of desperation I went looking around some more and accidentally stumbled on that elusive 'Edit' button under the name of the account that I had closed about a month earlier. I'm sure they never expected me to find it there, but I did.

So after gluing most of my hair back on I closed that account too, with 16 months to run. No refund of course. They'd never think of that, but I'm glad to be free, and the new hosting company is another small one, with real people working there, and it's their livelihood and they don't offer the lowest prices but they are actually on the job.

So far it's working.

Part two in this story is about a gift to my sister.

I sort of missed Xmas. I wanted to get her something. It's been especially bad for her since her birthday is about two weeks before Xmas, and she's been shorted all her life. Mine is in the warm months so I never had that sort of conflict. I can't understand why my parents didn't move her birthday to July instead. They muffed it and she's suffered.

So I owed her. I haven't been that good either, but now that I'm a geezer I realize I won't have another six decades to put it off. If I don't do something now, maybe there won't be a next year to make it up.

Chocolate and coffee seemed good.

I ordered some chocolate. Goofy web site but pretty good deals. Fantastic service. When you submit your order you can specify delivery options, such as an acceptable temperature range, or let them decide when it's cool enough to send chocolate, and so on.

An email confirming the order arrived shortly, then another one told me when the order shipped, and included a UPS tracking number. I followed the order and notified my sister when it had arrived, in case maybe it hadn't really. Then I got another email confirming that the order had been delivered. Everything went beautifully.

I've been buying coffee locally from a great company for 20 years. This was a good chance to share with my sister, and since the coffee company had an online store, all I had to do was order and pay, and let it all rip.

RIP. You know what that means, but I didn't get too much peace out of this one.

I selected two pounds of premium beans, then went to check out. I entered my billing info, credit card number and all that, but when I put my sister's name and address into the shipping address form the system changed the billing info to the shipping info.

I found this out after I submitted the order, on a summary screen. Too late, Jake.

I had to log on to the site (you need to set up an account in order to order) and filled out a contact form notifying them of the difference between the shipping and billing addresses (and that they were two different people). Silence.

I kept checking with my sister. No coffee.

After about a week I logged back into the coffee site and saw a note about the order having been shipped, but there was nothing else there. No tracking number, no way to follow up on anything. After 10 days my sister informed me that the order still hadn't arrived so I logged onto the site one more time and sent them a few flames. I gave them a day and a half to provide me with a definite delivery date, which had to be within the following week, or I'd have to cancel the order and demand a refund.

So then I get an email. Finally someone wants to talk.

Dear sir, so sorry. Order has been faithfully delivered. Here is fables UPS tracking number. Please see for yourself. Meanwhile we are sending a duplicate shipment Real Soon Now just in case. So sorry please.

It was about then that my sister went snooping out in the office of her apartment complex and found that her original order had indeed arrived and gotten stuffed away somewhere. Since they hadn't notified her (as they used to do) she hadn't thought of going out digging around.

The other half of this is that if I had had a tracking number in the first place I could have told her to go look on a particular date, to verify that it had or had not actually been delivered.

So I'm a butthead. My sister is at fault for not being curious enough, and the merchant created a bad experience by being secretive about all of this. I still don't know if the second, courtesy order has even been shipped. I just logged in to the web site and the address was still wrong, about a week later. And so on.

Great coffee though.


References:

Chocosphere. In Portland, OR

Batdorf and Bronson. In Olympia, WA

Ruby on Rails Hosting Info. Research a hosting company through customer reviews, such as this, for example.

Monitor Website Availability. (If you can afford to pay for it.) Send out HTTP / HTTPs requests to websites at regular time intervals to ensure they are up and running. Track Website Performance. Effectively monitor the responsiveness of your website over a period of time. Web Application Monitoring. Record & playback a sequence of HTTP requests. eg: Monitor your shopping cart, etc. Monitor Web Page Defacement. Check for the presence/absence of keywords. Get notified if your web page content changes. Instant Alerts: Instant Email/SMS/RSS alerts if your website goes down. Reports and Trends: Track website performance over a period of time and conclude on possible trends.

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