Wednesday, 16 August, 2006

I’m On Hold

Posted in Internet, Rants & Raves at 1:48 am by glpease

Seriously. I’m on hold with Amerion for what I hope is the last time, waiting for someone from my soon to be ex- Internet “Service” Provider to answer. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally reached my threshold, and it’s time to take action.

It started last week, when I got a phone call from a friend who told me he’d tried to send an email, and it bounced. I asked if he’d received the mail I’d sent him a couple days earlier. He hadn’t. The wheels began to turn. His was not the first call. I’ve lost more email than I’ll ever know, and outbound messages have gone missing, likely with equal, though unknown frequency. This has gone on long enough.

When we send an email, we have some expectation that it’s going to be delivered, that the recipient will be able to read it, and can reply to it if they wish. We all have a tacit understanding that this modern marvel of communication is, at least, reasonably reliable. My friend’s phone call was the last straw.

Immediately, I called my ISP. After wandering through their labyrinthine voice mail system, my call was directed to the proper queue, to be answered “By the next available representative.” It’s always the same. Press buttons, listen to options, “As our menus have changed,” mutter curses on the ancestors of the people who invented automated call directors, press more buttons, and finally, find myself exiled to the land of Permahold, serenaded by the most obnoxious, hell borne Music-On-Hold ever visited upon humankind. (To make matters worse, they apparently only paid for 43 seconds of the dreadful stuff; when the refrain reaches what would be its blessed end, it starts again, over, and over, and over.) All the while, a voice-over tells me how important my call is, and that it will be answered in the order received. Thanks. “Your estimated waiting time is [pause] ninety-three minutes.”

If my call, or anyone else’s call was truly important to them, I’d think they’d either hire enough people to actually handle incoming calls in a timely manner, or fix the problems that people are calling about, thus reducing the call volume to a more manageable level. Instead, we, the customer, must simply wait. While under some circumstances, I might believe that my call is important to them, my time clearly is not. I’m not waiting 93 minutes. I hung up, and called back an hour later, repeating the whole process. This time, I’m told I will have to wait ten minutes. Okay. More music; more patronizing voice-overs.

When a human voice finally answered, I began to explain the problem. These bounced emails are not my first or my only concern. Messages I’ve sent have gone into the aether, never reaching their destination, and messages others have sent me have joined them in Neverland, along with all those single, mis-matched socks. There’s no pattern in these failures. Whether it’s gamma rays, sunspots, turmoil in Belize or some sort of silicon shortage, sometimes email just seems to go missing. On top of that, over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed increasingly frequent slow-downs in my email downloads; not long ago, it took several minutes to download nine headers – not full messages, just headers. I could tolerate periodic sluggishness, but when technology simply and silently fails me, when that tacit understanding is broken repeatedly, the situation becomes unacceptable.

So, I gave this representative all the information necessary to “look up my account,” answered her questions, and explained, simply, that there was a problem. “I’ll have to transfer you to the Domain Support department. Hold on, please.” Again, I’m on hold. After another 15 minutes, I hang up, deciding to take a different tack. In the meanwhile, I receive an email from the first representative, asking me to fill out a feedback survey to help “fine tune” their support. They need a complete overhaul, not a tune up.

On their web site, there’s an option to have them call me. I enter my phone number on the web form, and go about my business. Some time later, I get the call. Again, I explain the situation. Again, I am transferred to Domain Support. Again, I am exiled to Permahold. In the meanwhile, I receive, almost instantly, another request to fill out a feedback survey. What the hell? I’m on hold, I might as well fill them both out. At least, for the moment, my email seems to be working. It took only a few minutes to fill out the surveys, and, not surprisingly, I was still on hold. I started over, once again entering my phone number on the web form.

This time, when the representative called, I explained that I didn’t want to be transferred to Permahold this time. He assured me that he’d put me right through to someone in Domain Support. He lied. Another request for a feedback survey arrived, and was filled out.

After five more iterations of this nonsense, I finally spoke to someone in Domain Support who insisted there was no problem on their end, that I must be doing something wrong, that I clearly didn’t know how to configure my mail client, and on and on. He put some “notes” on my account, and assured me, again, that there was no problem. Another survey request appeared in my inbox.

When I signed up with Value.net years ago, they were a wonderful, small ISP. They provided fantastic service, and on the rare occasion when something went wrong, I could call, talk to a person who knew something, and know that it would be fixed promptly. Sadly, they were purchased by a larger internet company. That company was then absorbed by Amerion, and things really started to powerdive. Amerion is one of those big, monotlithic conglomerates that cares only about the bottom line, not about the customer. There’s no way to reach anyone in a decision making position. The only way to contact anyone is via their automated call director, that transfers the caller to a first-line support person, or by “Live Chat,” amusingly called “Ask the Expert,” or by their web callback form. Sadly, this is the way more and more businesses are going, but that’s another topic for another day.

One more time I’d try. Ten minutes after entering my telephone number, again, on the web form, I got a call. I explained both the problem, and what I’d been through over the past several hours. “I’ll be right back with you. I’m not going to put you on hold, but I’m going to walk over and talk to someone in Engineering.” A few minutes later, he returned to the phone. “The server your domain is on is having some problems. It’s heavily fragmented, and everything is running very slowly. We don’t have a prognosis, but the guy I talked to said it would be at least a few days.” Finally, at least someone admitted it wasn’t MY problem!

“In a few days, I can have a new ISP.”

“That’s true. When you call to cancel, please explain why.” Amazing. Someone with a clue. His feedback survey was completed in a much more positive light. I hope he doesn’t lose his job.

The next morning, I called LMI in Berkeley, a small ISP that was given high recommendations from a couple friends. A woman answered the phone. I told her I wanted to talk to someone about taking over my domain. “Hold on, I’ll transfer you to Kevin.”

Seconds later, I was telling Kevin what I needed.

“Come on in and fill out the forms. We can have you setup tomorrow.” He quoted me a price that was less than 1/4 of what I’d been paying, and offered more services. Bonus. It took me 20 minutes to drive over, another 10 to fill out some forms, and 20 more to drive home – far less time than I’d spent on hold the previous day. So far, everything is going great. I talked to Kevin about the company’s goals, about their future plans for growth. They’re happy where they are. Maybe they’ll expand a little bit, but nothing dramatic. They want to be a local internet company. I hope he’s right.

In the time that I’ve written this, (I’ll give it an edit pass later, before I post it) I’ve been on hold. Again. This time, it’s to cancel my “service” with Amerion. I wonder if they will get this right. I’m ready to fill out their feedback survey one last time…

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9 Comments »

  1. pat dean said,

    Greg,

    I feel your pain. I have had problems with ISP’s for some time. My current provider is better than the others. It can be very frustrating when trying to place last minute bids on pipe blends on eBay.

  2. Tony Ferrill said,

    ISP’s,the phone company,the water company,the electric sompany…one more electronic menu and I will scream!And don’t ever cross up the IRS….
    I had the call waiting feature taken off my phone,I have thought it one of the most rude things to put people who take time out of their busy schedule to speak to me “on hold” so as not to miss a call….
    The two times my ISP went south in the last year,I had the problem resolved in an hour or less.But going through the menu to get a “live” voice was maddening…

  3. George Dibos said,

    Ah. Never mind technology, Greg, the problem is growth. The complexity increase incurred by market expansion is both multiplicative and compound, and rarely even understood, never mind accurately estimated. The result? Big short-term profits followed by long-term (i.e. perpetual) Crisis Management, every time. It applies to all organizations, from fruit markets, to oil drilling outfits, to… pipe tobacco companies.

    So, your adventure with Value.net was a frustrating (absolutely!) experience, but correspondingly memorable for that reason, yes? Good! As in, file for later reference when one of the Bigs comes calling (they will), and want a piece of what YOU’VE created. They’ll offer mucho capital, all right, but only if their cost accountants and empire-builder-minded managers are given a piece of the decision action. And the second thing they’ll want to do (the first is to source cheaper ingredients for your blends), is put the GLPease phone number into their corporate phone tree answering system!

  4. glpease said,

    Is the problem really growth, or is it greed? A properly functioning ISP is a relatively scalable operation. The technology is well understood, and not remarkably complex. The human factors are less easily apprehended, but still do not present an intractable problem to an organization interested in providing service for a reasonable return on investment. Of course, increased growth must be met with increased support and a corresponding increase in costs if a certain level of service is to be maintained. At some point, it’s conceivable that continued linear growth may result in a non-linear increase in support load, but I suspect that’s not what is going on here.

    Sadly, when some organizations become absorbed in increasing their profit margins, service is often, perhaps usually, among the first things to be sacrificed, and the customer, the very mainspring of the profit machine in first place, suffers most, while the shareholders and CEOs gleefully cash their cheques.

    The problem is compounded when this sort of shoddy service becomes widely accepted as the standard of practice. The consumer is sold a bill of goods, unwittingly, and his acquiescence becomes a tacit agreement that the shoddy service is good enough. The next generation simply thinks, “This is the way it is.”

    I’m happy to have found a small, sensibly run ISP that is providing me, so far, with excellent service at a reasonable price, and seem to be more interested in keeping their customers happy than in unsupported growth. At least, that’s my hope.

    As for the big guns having GLPease in their crosshairs, bring ’em on. I’m not really interested in getting out of the business any time soon, but I suppose we all have a price. 😉

  5. Matt Robilard said,

    Had a similar experience with my cable provider…..If you want a laugh, go by:
    thesqueakywheel.com and search for charter…My story is there for come commiserating (sp?) reading….Glad its working out for you now….

  6. George Dibos said,

    Greed or growth? One’s the emotion, and the other’s the instantiation and manifestation of it. I think the word “excessive” is necessary when discussing the Capitalist system, to distinguish between what makes it work in the first place, and what melts it into a puddle of slag when there’s too much. (Hello in there, Mr. Kozlowski! Do they ley you use your $47,000 antique French umbrella in the exercise yard?)

    But the correspondence isn’t reliable. (I was bitten by a German Shepherd, therefore all German Shepherds are mean dogs. Not.) Determining whether cost-cutting or incompetence is the root cause of poorly managed growth requires a knowledge of intent, which we don’t have.

    The two tend to go hand-in-hand, though, don’t they? Cutting costs without an awareness of the consequences IS incompetence.

    If I had to lay down a twenty on a bet, I’d go with Value.net being pretty normal/average regarding all this. Meaning, sincere and idealistic people started the company, some money was made, the Professional Greed Squad noticed and made a proposal that couldn’t be refused (you alluded to such a thing yourself, just now). Then, excessive greed (cost-cutting) TOGETHER with an ignorance of the exponential increase in system complexity that accompanies linear growth, is now shaking them like a Terrier with a rat.

    Good thing you found a replacement, too, because such situations NEVER get better. Value.net won’t be around much longer.

    If they ditched the ISP thang and started selling your blends they might, though… Hey, there’s an entirely new vista of opportunity for you, GL! Locate in-terminal-decline companies, whatever their business and from coast to coast, and convert them to pipe tobacco dealers! They’d be saved, you’d expand, and the rest of us wouldn’t have to drive as far for a can of Odessey, since there’d be so many more outlets. Is that a win-win-win, or what?

  7. Joel said,

    Greg, I don’t believe it’s either greed or growth. You remember the Peter Principle? The one that says you usually get promoted one level past your level of competence? I think that’s it. The companies are far more than just one level past their level of competence. And most of the folks in upper levels are in the same boat. The result? Just what you experienced.

  8. Julie Harrington said,

    I feel your pain Greg. I am at my wit’s end with Amerion – same situation, small local ISP, wonderful service. Got purchased by Amerion and things went downhill at an alarming rate.

    I’m looking for another company to transfer our domain to and then we’re finally finished with Amerion. However I won’t be holding my breath, since they still seem to be haunting you from beyond the termination point.

    Best wishes for a happy holiday!

  9. glpease said,

    Thanks, Julie. I have to say, this is really rich. For those who just tuned in, Amerion have announced, via their “migration” mailing list, that they are in the process of fiddling with things, and “upgrading to a new platform,” promising that “this upgrade will substantially improve the flexibility and features of your web site and provide you with better tools to manage your domain.” Here’s the rub. I’ve not been one of their customers for months, so I really don’t care.

    Okay, that’s not really the rub. Here it is. You can reply to their email, and broadcast your thoughts to everyone on their migration list. EVERYONE. Talk about a breech! If I hadn’t enough reasons to leave them behind in August, this would certainly have frosted the bisuits. Strangely enough, even after two days of seeing email from people complaining about both this breech, and Amerion in general, not to mention all the “interesting” replies, they STILL haven’t figured it out and fixed the problem. Brilliant.

    It was bad enough when I paid them to annoy me. Now, they’re doing it for free. Fortunately, I no longer have to endure their dreadfully banal “music” on hold any longer. 😉


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