It’s Not Bad Customer Service, It’s Bad Technology

Implementing any hardware or software solution carries some degree of risk. In fact, any sort of solution whatsoever is risky.

The question is: how to mitigate the risk, and what degree of failure is acceptable?

Yesterday I wrote about what I perceived to be bad customer service from a company called Business Catalyst, aka Good Barry (Customer Service, Good and Bad). I use email every day to communicate with dozens of people all around the world. When the people at this company were failing to respond to my messages, I assumed they were either uninterested or simply too disorganized to maintain communication. Either way, I decided that this was a business that I didn’t want to work with.

In fact, it turns out that Business Catalyst employs a spam-prevention protocol called “greylisting” (check out the markedly pro-greylisting article about the protocol on Wikipedia: greylisting). Basically, all messages to their email server are initially assumed to be unsolicited and are refused. The greylisting protocol further assumes that legitimate mail comes from a legitimate mail server that will, eventually, try to send the message again. Those are two pretty big assumptions, from my perspective, and they present a pretty significant amount of risk to the solution.

What’s more, though, there’s no opportunity for mitigation in the protocol. That is to say, there’s no way to tell how many legitimate messages are failing to get through (as is clearly and painfully demonstrated by my experience). You can be reasonably certain that spam is being blocked, but you can never be certain about what legitimate email might also be getting blocked.

And that results in situations such as mine, where all email from one domain is refused and, from the sender’s perspective, simply goes unanswered. Now, I’m naturally (and proudly, I might add) a squeaky wheel, and I worked damn hard to make sure that Business Catalyst heard my gripes. But how many people just never receive replies to their messages from the company and walked away silently?

Anti-spam activist Justin Mason listed off several other greylist failings over 5 years ago (For Reference: Why Greylisting Sucks). I’m surprised that this long after the protocol was introduced, with all of its inherent risks recognized, that it’s still in use without any safety net for legitimate messages having been introduced.

Business Catalyst suggested that the mail server at my email service provider, 01.com, may be incorrectly configured to support the sort of responsiveness that greylisting depends on. I asked the support staff at 01.com about this, and this is their response:

Right now, it looks like the recipient might not have things configured correctly on their end. I’ve had a server admin look into this and what is happening is their server is telling our server that a particular email address does not exist. Logically, our server stops attempting to send the email because it is being told no such address exists.

Great, so now as a user I’m the monkey in the middle. I’m not going to play that game, I didn’t like it when I was 5 (it’s why I quit wearing baseball caps) and I loathe it as an adult.

But, anyway, it’s sort of a moot point, isn’t it? If one mail server refuses mail unless all other internet mail servers being absolutely correctly configured, that’s leaving open a tremendous gap of failure in the system.

Just based on my experience, as an average email user trying to communicate with an established methodology, I’d say greylisting isn’t an acceptable method of spam prevention. There are other, more comprehensive and less risky methods like Spam Assassin or even desktop tools, such as Symantec’s Norton suite, that provide recipients a better opportunity to verify the quality of messages that they’re receiving and those which are being refused. Heck, even Gmail’s basic anti-spam methodology, which simply segregates what it considers to be unsolicited email from qualified messages would be better.

In closing, I’d like to close the loop and say that the folks at Business Catalyst/Good Barry responded proactively to my post yesterday and worked quickly to resolve the issue (they basically disabled greylisting). I think it was a bad decision on their part to enable greylisting in the first place, and it took longer than I would have liked for the resolution to arrive (I posted repeatedly to their support forums over many weeks about their failure to respond to my emails, but instead of a response from anyone at the company, I was simply ridiculed by other forum users).

Will I try Business Catalyst’s service again? Maybe. I think they have a solid, if rough, suite of unique tools for managing businesses online, and there is really no comparison to it. But the sheen is off my enthusiasm for the company and my trust in their ability to recognize and support my interests is dented.

But I’m a proud supporter of mistakes, which always yield new learning, and believe in the grace of the second chance. So, maybe…

Customer Service, Good and Bad

I’ve recently had two notable customer service experiences. One was awesome, the other was autrocious. Both are worth sharing as a lesson for businesses that engage in customer service.

The amazing customer service experience I recently had was delivered by Apple’s MobileMe.

For some time I had been experiencing a problem with syncing failures between my desktop iCal calendar and the calendars on the MobileMe web site and my iPhone. I had spent a considerable amount of time self-troubleshooting the problem using Apple’s online support documentation, and I had failed to resolve it. By the time I chose to engage with the chat-based support of MobileMe, I was borderline irate. In fact, I was actively researching alternatives to MobileMe.

It didn’t take the MobileMe support technician, Nicholas C, long to cool me down, however. After he read my brieft rant about all the time I’d spent on the matter already, he replied: “I really appreciate the insight to the issue and im sure we can get this up and running as it should.” As simple a reply as it was, I found it reassuring. He didn’t dismiss my efforts, was able to see past my somewhat rude mannerisms, and he approached the problem with positivity.

Throughout our hour-long session, in fact, Nicholas punctuated our chat with statements like, “Awesome, you’re doing great Andrew,” and, “you did great.” I consider myself an advanced Mac user, and many of the troubleshooting tasks he had me perform were mundane. However, the simple fact that Nicholas was recognizing the time and effort I was investing into the process was satisfying.

Nicholas worked with me through Apple’s online documentation twice, but he was not able to resolve my issue this way either. At this point, I asked him: “should I just cry now? ;-)” He replied: “please no tears, i dont want to give up. This is pretty different though… lease give me a moment to research this for us… I want to see what im missing or waht else can be done”

I like how he recognized that the situation was now unusual, and also that he referred to “us,” recognizing the fact that we were working together on the matter. I’ve never experienced that before during a tech support session. Typically a support technician has difficulty disassociating him or herself from the role as a representative of their employer.  This can lead to adversarial discussions when the technician becomes defensive of the company’s product or service. Instead, Nicholas adopted a tone of advocacy, and that had a tremendous reassuring effect on me.

In fact, despite the fact that this technical problem with MobileMe was consuming a tremendous amount of my time, Nicholas’ ability to openly recognize my interests and communicate a commitment to collaboratively resolving my problems overcame my anger at the technical failure of the MobileMe service itself. And by creatively problem-solving with me, effectively reaching a resolution, my chagrin was turned to gratitude and I left our session with a renewed faith in the MobileMe service.

Nicholas closed our chat session by saying, “i really appreciate your patience working with me,” and I believe he honestly meant it.

Now compare that to an abysmal customer service experience I recently received from the web business services company, Business Catalyst (aka Good Barry).

In a nutshell, a variety of company representatives including several members of the executive team, stonewalled my efforts at communication for over 7 weeks. I won’t go into great detail on this matter, but suffice to say that I was attempting to rectify a minor billing matter with the account of a not-for-profit client. For some reason, however, the accounts team, the sales team, and the executive team opted to completely ignore my repeated email and Twitter requests for assistance.

When I finally announced my client’s departure from the Good Barry hosting environment as a result of the poor customer service I’d received, one of their team invited me to email him regarding the issue. I did. Not surprisingly, he failed to respond.

I finally received an email with a resolution to my problem the other day — a full two months after I’d first made a request regarding it. There was no apology for the delay, no recognition of the tremendous amount of time that I’d invested in seeking to have a simple matter dealt with; just a simple email with an explanation of the action that had been taken.

Ironically, Business Catalyst provides a suite of web-based tools that promise to enhance customer service for online businesses. My experience suggests that more than software is required for a positive outcome to a customer’s concerns. More valuable are people within an organization who take a genuine interest in them.

With MobileMe, I started my customer service experience ready to move on. Thanks to Nicholas, my commitment to MobileMe is instead renewed (as will be my account later this year).

Back in January when I began my efforts to resolve my issue with Business Catalyst, I had lined up several clients to subscribe to their service and was on the verge of investing in the company as a resale partner. I’ve since placed those clients elsewhere and am now sworn off dealing with this company in any manner at all.

When I deal with clients, I act transparently and place their interests ahead of my own in the relationship. Clients and customers are the reason for any business’ existence, and it’s absolutely important that they remain satisfied with the business’ service, feel recognized, respected, and compelled to maintain the relationship.

Apple recently made me feel valuable and wanted while Business Catalyst silently expressed a preference to have me go away. I hope that me own efforts in customer service fall on the former end of that effect spectrum and never the latter.

how to verify yukon tourism web sites

The Yukon News reports that some Yukon tourism operators are having trouble with a fraudulent web site (Suspicious website troubles Yukon B&B owners).

Liesel Briggs has sought assistance from Yukon Tourism in rectifying the matter, and rightly so. Tourism is a bread and butter industry for the Territory, and the government simply can’t afford to let this sort of activity get out of hand. It won’t take much for it to irreparably damage the Yukon’s reputation. I can already imagine our new nickname: the Nigeria of the North.

However, action shouldn’t be taken against whatever loser is squatting at the other end of yukonvacation.com. That’s just a waste of time.

Instead, the government should devise some sort of online verification system for yukon tourism web sites. This would be a relatively simple system to devise and establish, and it would spin positively as a defense in the interests of prospective visitors.

Simply put, the government could set up and maintain some sort of authoritative registry of Yukon tourism operators’ web sites. A simple ID key, possibly encryption-based, would be issued for each web site.

A simple logo could be designed, stating something like “Authentic Yukon Tour Operator – Click Here to Verify”. From each tourism web site, the click would send the visitor to the authoritative government system for verification. Web sites that might illicitly use the logo would fail.

The sort of verification system would serve two purposes, really. Primarily, it would validate “true” Yukon tourism operators. Secondly, it would provide visitors to the sites with piece of mind that they’re dealing with genuine businesses.

A tertiary effect, and one that could be spun off into a larger marketing plan, would be to establish a verification system for an “authentic” Yukon experience.

The government can’t sit idly by and hope sites like yukonvacation.com go away. It’s imperative that something be done to protect the reputation and interests of one of the Territory’s key industries.


the sexiest daisy

Hm. Tight jean cut-offs, weird cowgirdles, or colourful file system diagrams? I’m having trouble with this one…

Prophylactic Mac utilities that identify the bulges in our file system are creeping onto the scene like so many bikini-clad Hiltonites on spring break. Problem is, most offerings should have stuck to their grandma’s frumpy nighties rather than parade their hairy moles and continental birthmarks around the Mac beach (I’m looking at you, OmniDiskSweeper and, yeah, you too, WhatSize).

There’s a new file sweetie on the scene, and she puts the hard back in hard drive. She’s DaisyDisk, and, man, what a sweet flower she is. DaisyDisk sports a pie chart that can cut my pie any time. When she spots the biggest files on my disk I get this urge to ejacul– er, eject them from my system.

Sure, at $20 she’s an expensive date. But eye candy on your arm don’t come cheap, and neither do the prettiest little file system diagrams that look good enough to eat.

Ask her for a date. You’re hard drive will be glad you did after she helps you squeeze out the gunk clogging it up.

The best part? DaisyDisk doesn’t have two redneck brothers who will beat you up if you step over the line.


shortcover’s dead end

From my understanding, the loss leader is something that is either sold at an extremely reduced price or just given away in an effort to stimulate the sale of other goods or services.

The new Shortcovers web site and iPhone app seems to almost depend on the loss leader, as they give away early chapters of many books in hope of the sale of additional chapters or the whole book.

The problem with the Shortcovers methodology, however, is that the loss leader leads nowhere, so it’s in fact just a loss.

Here’s a screenshot of the last page of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in the Shortcovers iPhone app

Notice how, at the end, it says, “Continues…” Well, of course it continues. It’s the first chapter of the book! Unfortunately, in this environment, there’s no indication of how it continues. There’s no, “Click here to buy chapter 2…” or “Learn how to buy this book.”

Remarkably, for a site that seems to have staked its sales model on that loss leader doing its job, that free stuff just leads to a proverbial dead end.

Poorly thought-out reading experiences such as these are the reason why the ebook has had such slow uptake. Technical impediments to the consumption of the media itself just slow adoption and drive people away.

If this were a book, instead of an ebook, I could have just turned the page and kept on reading…

a few notes on iPhone e-reading

The flavour of the month is the eBook, what with the Kindle 2’s release and iPhone commercials celebrating animated page turns. Another major release, though slightly more under-the-radar is the release of Shortcovers, a social-reading environment.

I’ve been playing with 4 e-reading environments on my iPhone lately: Google’s BookSearch, Stanza, Shortcovers, and Classics (as seen on TV!). Each is a different take on accessing content, browsing it, saving it, and buying it. Remarkably, however, only a couple of the apps seem to have put any thought into the act of reading itself. And I find that quite surprising, really, since that’s what each should be all about, right?

The worst reading experience in this group of apps occurs with Shortcovers. Two things really hinder one’s ability to enjoy the content. The first, and most annoying of all the apps, is the omnipresent interface. Here’s a screen shot:

That’s a whole lot of interface at the top and the bottom of the screen that interferes with one’s reading enjoyment. The iPhone offers little enough screen real estate, there’s no need for an app to reduce that further.

Google’s BookSearch interface is moderately better.

While there is just the top iPhone bar to content with here, I find it more distracting than helpful that the Google developers have seen the need to make it translucent.

Unfortunately, the translucent title bar come off as a poor attempt to overcome what is certainly the greatest annoyance with e-reading on the iPhone: scrolling text.

Both Shortcovers and BookSearch force the reader to scroll through text to read it, and this is exceptionally annoying. Scrolling is inefficient and provides a constant distraction from the content itself, as one’s mind must remain wary of when to scroll, how much by, and at what rate. Then there’s the matter of correcting the over-scroll which totally destroys the reading experience.

The other two apps I mentioned, Stanza and Classics, have eliminated scrolling. Instead each screen of text is a page, and you simply click from page to page. This results in a vastly more natural and pleasant e-reading experience.

Classics also offers a page-turn animation, which looks great on television commercials, but is actually moderately distracting.

The yellowish hue that the Classic’s developers have imbued each page with is also very nice and conducive to a much more natural reading experience. Their choice of font is excellent, though it unfortunately cannot be changed to suit one’s preference.

Unfortunately, the app sports a sizeable omnipresent header that is distracting and unnecessarily steals away valuable screen space.

So far, my favourite e-reading experience, is found with Stanza.

With Stanza, as you can see, it’s just a page with words. And that’s what reading is all about. There is no scrolling, and the interface goes away (you can make it come back just by tapping the screen, though). To turn a page, you tap on one side of the screen and a new page slides into view.

Interestingly, of all the apps, Stanza’s approach is the simplest, and that’s what makes it such a great reading environment. Whilst e-reading is a technical undertaking as a platform, that doesn’t mean that the experience of e-reading need be obfuscated by a technology-based approach.