When Things Stop Working

I hate it when a service from a business that I’ve come to depend on just inexplicably disappears.

It seems to be happening more and more and it’s usually a service I use on the web. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Many businesses treat their web site as an afterthought in their business plan.

An online business service is too often viewed as less important than one in the “real world”.

Take the “Flight  Status” section of Air North’s web site, for example.

Once upon a time this area of the web site contained up-to-date
information about the status of current Air North flights. This is what
the flight status of Air Canada’s web site contains. This is what
anyone would expect a section titled “Flight Status” on Air North’s web
site to contain.

Air North has stopped publishing flight status information to their web site, however. 

To a die-hard web user such as myself, this abrupt, unannounced change
is intolerable and deeply irritating. Even to a casual user, the spread
of misinformation is confusing and misleading.

If Air North has made a decision to cease publishing flight status
information to their web site, that’s fine. However, they need to
communicate that decision to customers. At the very least they need to
pull the link.

Another online service that recently stopped working is the “Track Your
Package” link on Amazon.ca. This used to be one of the highlights of
the web site. With a single click, and without leaving Amazon.ca, you
could view the status of your shipment while it’s in transit.

Nowadays, if you want to “Track Your Package” you’d better be ready to
do some work.

Clicking on the link will unceremoniously dump you on
Canada Post’s home page without any explanation as to how to proceed
from there.

Of course, in both of these situations there’s the possibility that the
service is just “broken” and the company is unaware of its status.

That’s no excuse.

A company is responsible for the quality and availability of any
service they offer customers, regardless of whether it’s the safety of
an airplane or an application on a web site.

If the business chooses to drop or alter a service, it’s incumbent on them to
communicate the change to their customers.

Failing to do so not only causes customer inconvenience and frustration
but also strikes at the credibility of the business itself.

Air North’s online flight status service may seem inconsequential to
some, but if a customer is relying on it to catch a flight or pick
someone up, then it can have frustrating, even detrimental,
consequences. If Air North chooses not to publish Flight Status
information to the web, they should pull the link and direct us to
their phone lines.

And of course you can check the status of your Amazon.ca package on
Canada Post’s web site — if you figure out the rather complex series
of steps required to do so. Amazon.ca’s “Track Your Package” link is
currently a misnomer. If they choose not to offer an automated tracking
service, Amazon.ca should remove the link and post some instructions on
how to proceed manually. 

I’m guessing these two companies are simply failing to put the required
quality emphasis on their web-based services. This isn’t uncommon. As I
mentioned earlier, businesses will often view their online efforts
almost as afterthoughts in light of their “real” operations.

In the case of Air North, they may just be trying hard to keep up with
their bigger competitors by maintaining parity in regards to web site
services, but may have insufficient technical or personnel resources to
do so. That a web service or two fails may be inconsequential as long
as they’re keeping up appearances.

With Amazon.ca it may be the case of a small subsidiary simply being incapable of maintaining the standards of the parent.

Particularly with the services they offer over the web, companies need
to be sensitive to their ability to provide ongoing support. Most
importantly, they must be certain that they have the required resources
to keep these services working.

It’s a common misconception, especially among management-level folks at
larger companies, that the web is some just-add-water panacea for all
sorts of business problems. In fact, any new web service requires just
as much time and effort as a “real world” one, especially in regards to
ongoing support.

Furthermore, a web site shouldn’t be considered a business adjunct.
Companies should view it as an integral element of their overall
operations and treat it as such.

As more companies understand the importance of the web and the reliance
on it that many customers develop, all of the “broken” flight status
services and shipping links will slowly disappear.

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
First published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 17, 2005