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The Secrets To Losing Customers!

by David Brock on April 23rd, 2009
Yesterday and today, I’ve had to restructure a lot of what I had planned to accomplish. Our email server and our websites are hosted by Earthlink–everything went down yesterday. Late yesterday, email came back up–but we got bits and pieces of queued up emails delivered over several hours. Our websites are still down and we had planned to launch some major new things through the website at this time—clearly all of that is on hold, because we can’t start pointing customers and prospects to a website that is not operational.

I hate to use this blog site as a bully pulpit to express my dissatisfaction with specific suppliers, but given my experience and Earthlink’s handling of this situation over the past 36 hours–also given the idle time they have handed me, I have decided to use them as a case study for terrible customer service and sure fire examples of how to lose customers.

Many of us have become dependent on the tools and services provided by organizations like Earthlink. Disruptions in service cause disruptions in our business, consequently we tend to be hyper sensitive to service disruptions and outages.

Most of Earthlink appeared to be down yesterday. Thank goodness for Twitter, posts by other people in the same situation let me know that it wasn’t my problem, but a major Earthlink outage. Apparently Earthlink did not think it worthwhile to find alternative ways to let customers know about an outage. For instance, I could get to the Earthlink sign in screen, but I couldn’t get further. It would have saved me time and frustration if they had posted something on the opening page, outlining the problem. While frustrated, at least I would have known and they could have set a level of expectation: Lesson 1: When you have problems, let your customers at least know something is happening so you can set their expectation. Try to reach out to them proactively to alert them rather than catching them by surprise.

When Earthlink came back up, I immediately went to support and to Network Status. You can see it here. Basically, this has remained unchanged for the last 18 hours. When you look at the “Issues in Some Areas,” they show very limited outages and never show the problems I and the rest of the world have experienced. When I went into Get Live Help, then I discovered virtually everything was down and they were working to address it. Lesson 2: When you have a problem, own up to it, don’t hide it, you’ll be found out.

This morning, email seemed back to normal but our websites were still down. I contact customer service, and the initial response was, “everything is working, it must be something with your site, let me look into it.” Upon looking into it, the response was: “we are still having troubles with our website servers, so many organization’s web sites are not working, we are working as hard as possible to correct the problem.” Lesson 3: When you have a problem, don’t lie to your customers about it, they will catch you in it, it makes them more upset.

When I asked them, “I’ve had to waste a lot of time signing into support, to find out this news, you could have saved me a lot of time and frustration by posting this at Network Status.” The response was, “we will update network status.” 4 hours after that call, the same static screen appears, there has been no update. Lesson 4: Read Lesson 3, also, when you make a commitment, be sure to fulfill it.

As I mentioned, I keep going back into the system to see if something has changed. I have learned that Network Status is a static screen that does not change and really does not show the real situation with the network—I guess it’s there because you are supposed to have one of these screens when you are an ISP, I was under the mistaken impression that it was supposed to be operational. As you might guess, contacting customer support caused me to go through the same loop again.

So I’m stuck, all I can get is a response, “we are working on it.” I’ve searched Earthlink’s site, I’ve gone to their corporate site, there is no status update, no explanation of the outages they have experienced. I have not received an email explaining what happened or what is happening–though I do get their newsletter informing me how I can buy more stuff from them. Lesson 5: When you have had a problem and you have fixed it, get to the customers impacted, say you are sorry, and explain what happened and what you are doing to minimize recurrence.

While this may be counter intuitive, often, I have found companies that manage problems and communications with customers proactively, actually emerge with stronger relationships with customers. Most customers know problems happen. What customers want is to be informed and to see the problems resolved. Customers aren’t interested in excuses and react negatively to attempts to hide the problem. Lesson 6: While you want to minimize problems for your customers, properly managing the problems, keeping your customers well informed can enhance your relationship with the customers.

I don’t want to be unreasonable. Problems happen, while I might be upset, at if I am at least informed, kept up to date, and not lied to, I might be more sympathetic and patiently impatient. Cancellation of our accounts won’t even be a rounding error to Earthlink, they will never notice we are gone. We are a very small customer.

So I’ve finished my venting, our web sites are still down. Have to look at revamping more of my day. I still have no idea when the problem will be fixed. I just went into network status and it still shows there are no problems.

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  1. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    An update, we are continuing to struggle to get our website up. In the latest conversation with tech support, they can only point me to outside sites in which people are sharing their experience and frustration.

    There is no corporate announcement (or apparent concern for communication) that explains what is happening and what is being done.

    Oh, and by the way, the Network Status still shows there are no problems—totally reassuring!

  2. Johnny Douglas permalink

    As a former Field Service engineer for a major Computer Company for nine years and a software support specialist for the last 25 years. I can tell you that we the technicians do not like it when we have problems at the magnitude you have seen on your site.
    When it comes to budget crunch time the Information Technology budget is one of the first to be cut. Just this year we asked for two major things that would have given me confidence that our site would be more protected. I was declined on a request for a backup storage server, a storage server for users that had built in protection using a raid 6 configuration. Often Information Technology is considered as strictly overhead, and is widely misunderstood by management. We are often expected to make miracles happen when we are understaffed due to cut backs. It is difficult to keep everyone posted about the progress of an outage when you have been up more than 24 hours working and you are one third or fifty percent of the IT staff. You have to ask yourself, do you want the technician to continue to troubleshoot the issue and stay focused on it or stop and compose emails, and update temporary websites with a status. Management seldom steps in and provides these updates to end users or customers. It is always left up to a shrink wrapped understaffed IT department to multitask with troubleshooting and providing regular updates while buried in a string of failures that could have been avoided if management had not ignored the IT staff warnings and provided the funding to prevent such outages.
    We need businesses to wake up and properly staff their IT departments, and provide the funding for backup systems and redundancy. They should view it as buying the necessary tools that will allow them to produce revenue for their company and not just something they hate spending money on.

    Johnny Douglas
    MCP, Novell Netware Administrator

    • Thanks for the comment Johnny. You make some interesting points. The key is that our investments in creating customer experience (whatever experience we want to create) have to align with our positioning for customer experience. Otherwise, it’s just talk that customers see through very quickly.

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