Customer Care Catastrophe

In theory, I’m every customer care agent’s wet dream. I read the fine print of contracts, I plough through manuals and tutorials, and I consult FAQs and forums to gather relevant information. Only if educated guesswork and common sense fail me utterly, I contact help desks.

In practice, I seem to be most customer care agents’ worst nightmare. I expect answers they are not able to offer to questions they are not supposed to even consider.

How I expect customer care to work: Anna Kendrick, When I’m gone. Watch this video on Youtube

When I was a young person and the world still somewhat sane, the quality of products and services — and nothing but — used to rule business. Emotions were what some people drew from being (or not being) in the position of owning or employing them.

Today, emotions — and nothing but — are ruling business, it appears. Well, be it. Yet then again, if “emotions” are the new pink, good customer care should be the heart and soul of any business model — more so than ever before.

Granted, customer care does not promise immediate profits (and may be expensive), customer care agents are no salespersons. Nevertheless, it is the backbone of a solid enterprise. To keep current customers happy — or past customers coming back — is, in the long run, more important than quick sales. Efficient and reliable support is a valuable investment in the future of one’s business.

I, for one, do not expect any product or service to work “out of the box”, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty in the process of making things work. Yet I do expect the manufacturer or vendor to support me in my efforts to eventually get what I paid for.

The Web Host from Hell

My last website host is a horrible example of business conduct. They don’t even try to hide that they consider customer care a costly inconvenience — at best — once the deal is cut.

Here’s my advice: Test the customer support before you close the deal. Just send them a genuine or fake enquiry (ask a question about their service that is not discussed on their website, or invent a problem you happen to know how to resolve) and wait how they react. Losing a day or two in the process is not desirable, but considerably better than being tied to a crooked business partner for a year or two.

Since my Irish web host (they were darlings, I tell you) had had to close shop rather unexpectedly (small price tags and great support did unfortunately not suffice to keep them in business), I had been left to look for replacement literally overnight, without the opportunity to test customer support prior to signing the contract.

The problems began on the very first day. They were of a purely technical nature, but nothing to lose one’s head, really. As I said, I never expect smooth sailing, even (alleged) professionals are only human (and, as the old truism goes, “shit happens”).

It was their response to my enquiry that I took issue with. They bluntly told me that it was, of course, my fault that things did not work as expected. No further explanations, no offer to be of help. At least, they refrained from openly telling me how annoyed they were upon the bother I had caused.

I eventually figured the issue out, fixed it, and let the case rest for the time being. I did make a mental note to look for a different host to be ready once my contract would expire, though.

There were a number of other technical issues during that year, all of which were processed pretty much in the same way (they were, without exception, resulting from my incapacity to comprehend their exceptional code work, they decided, and thus I was responsible to keep from disturbing their excellent system), but there is no reason to bore the precious reader silly.

In early December last year, my (former) domain expired. That was nothing to worry about. Since I had not bought my domain through them, they refused to include it into my hosting contract. That was something I had expected. What I didn’t expect was that they would later act as the domain reselling agent (without telling me so in advance). Quite honestly, I would not have thought that this is even possible, or legal.

They had informed me two weeks in advance that my domain would expire (that’s common procedure) and that I was to renew it before the deadline or it would be offered to third parties for sale. There would be a “period of grace” though, but after that I would be charged an extra fee, should I decide to keep it. Their e–mail included a link to a website where I was supposed to pay the bill and by such renew the domain. The website turned out to be one of their subsidiaries, and required me to log in (or register) in order to make the payment.

Curiously, I was not giving any credentials for this site, and the access information I had for their main site did not work on the subsidiary. That I was also able to renew my domain from within my web hosting account (and therefore with credentials I already had) was nowhere mentioned. It was not instantly obvious to me as I had no idea that they were also acting as reselling agent in this case (after all, they had refused to offer this service). Yet this approach seemed to work just fine — until I received word that my payment had failed.

When I contacted customer care to investigate what might have gone wrong, they told me that my credit card had been declined, but that everything was fine on my end. Nevertheless, I should see to pay the invoice in time, as delays would only raise my expenses.

They were, of course, right: everything was fine on my end. My credit card was active and working (as proved by other transactions), my account well balanced, but how did they believe to know that? Supposed recipients of payment are not given any reason as to why transactions fail.

Thinking “the system” had just suffered some unexpected disturbance, I kept trying to pay that invoice for two weeks, but my every attempt was rejected. “Try another payment method, then (another credit card or PayPal)”, they kept telling me.

As if I hadn’t thought of that already; they had had declined PayPal earlier, requiring credit card payment instead. So I had kept my credit card information in their system for this purpose only.

As time went by, they kept sending me copies of the same invoice, reminding me to cover the bill in time, or else — until we were past deadline and “period of grace”, and I called shenanigans.

Since their reminders had not been sent from a “no reply” (i.e., a non-monitored, automated e–mail account) but their billing department e–mail account, I simply replied to one of those, telling them what’s what and demanding for them to close my account, effective immediately.

Their response would have been hilarious, if the situation was not so utterly lacking of perspective:

Please be aware that your email was not received. In order to ensure you receive the safest and fastest support experience possible, tickets should be opened through our ticket submission forms.

Please login to https://customers.[ourserver].com/
to submit your request or use the following link below:
https://support.[oursever].com/index.php?/Tickets/Submit

I may be thick, but I had been under the impression that a paying customer may expect that replying to an e–mail concerning payment matters (like, one that has an invoice attached) from a monitored e–mail account of the billing department is as good as “creating a ticket” addressed to said department.

More time passed, and all I received were more copies of this same invoice (with further notices that my payment had failed). The matter started to worry me, but I honestly had no idea how to settle it, seeing that they had become increasingly uncommunicative.

My credit card had been active and good for a lot more than ten quid all through this period, until I received a letter from the credit card carrier, informing me that my account had been locked as a security measure. Would I please contact them as soon as any possible?

As it turned out, the hosting service had issued copies of the invoice (which also included a link to pay it) and their message that payment had failed, every time they had attempted to withdraw the money (USD 9.95) from my credit card without my consent (I do never tick off “auto renewal”, or give my consent to automatic transactions).

Not only had they not been authorised to do so, they had also failed to inform me of their efforts in advance. I was a bit astonished, to say the least. After all, if you receive an invoice with instructions how to balance it, you do not expect your business partner to also try to get the money behind your back. In my book, this is so close to attempted fraud that it should be illegal — at the very least, it is a breach of trust.

Anyway, the carrier considered these attempts likely to be illicit, and locked my account until they would receive my nod to release the money. Good thinking (and excellent customer care).

While I had tried to figure out what technical peculiarity might have actually caused all this — with an active credit card and a positive bank statement, the bug could only be found on the web host’s end — I had come across yet another issue that in itself would have justified the immediate halt of all business relations with this particular enterprise.

When I had bought their services, I had been asked whether I wanted my data stored on a server in the USA (Texas) or in Europe (The Netherlands). In order to avoid possible calamities with transaction fees, and taxes, and whatnot, I had opted for my website to be hosted on a server farm in Amsterdam. So this was where all data ended up at first. Yet sometime during the past year, my website had been moved to a server farm in Texas, without any notice.

Meanwhile, I had bought a new domain for a fraction of the renewal fee (this is not uncommon for hosting companies who actually take care of domain renewals, while you have an active account with them; for companies who don’t offer this service, this is outrageous, though) and obtained the services of a hosting agent I knew to be reliable.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I had informed them in no uncertain words how I felt about their performance that they offered decent support.

Suddenly, I had the undivided attention of one customer care agent who was “terribly sorry” that their service had not been to my liking, immediately deleted the invoice in question, and promised to stop disturbing my circles for good. That was nice — yet it was too little, too late.

At the end of the day, keeping web hosting and domain hosting strictly separated appears to be the better long-term solution (at least for me). The freedom to “change horses” whenever I see fit outweighs the little extra work of configuration and keeping track of different contracts.