Your company brand is only as strong as your technical support

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Screaminglaptop
Although there are certainly more stressful days to endure, like climbing Everest, brokering a major peace treaty in the Middle East or launching a new business, yesterday was frustrating, draining and generally unpleasant.

My blog went down out of the blue, after functioning perfectly well for nearly two years.  I was clued in by some generous and aware readers who sent me emails alerting me about the situation (thanks for being the first Tim, and for troubleshooting and commiserating with me).

And so began my journey with the Typepad technical support system.  Notice that I am saying "system," not "people," since, as I will explain in a bit, the people are perfectly capable and helpful.

For context, I am probably the kind of customer that tech support people groan at when they receive my help tickets.  As much as I try to explain my problem objectively and descriptively, the best I can do sometimes is "my blog isn’t working – please fix it!"  So a typical technical support interaction with me requires some diagnosis and problem-solving.  I know a few things just to make me dangerous, but generally live in the realm of "clueless end user."

So here was the sequence of events from yesterday:

  • 9:35am:  Realized there was a big problem with my blog which needed to be fixed, but I didn’t know what it was.  So I sent a help ticket to Typepad technical support
  • 10:08am:  Added some more relevant information to the help ticket, as I discovered more problems,  based on reader emails
  • 12:05pm:  Was beginning to get ants in my pants and begged for a response from technical support, also on the help ticket
  • 12:15pm:  Looked up the Six Apart company phone number on their web, with hopes of talking to human who could help me.  Received automated voice mail system which directed me to "technical support," which informed me that all help is handled via the web-based system.  Like I didn’t know that!
  • 3:09pm:  Added critical information to the help ticket, based on some analysis from one of my clients.  I had passed begging for help, and let them know I was very frustrated with lack of support
  • 3:15pm:  Sent a new, differently-titled help notice to see if someone, anyone, could get back to me.
  • 3:39pm:  Finally received a response from Typepad, which let me know the source of the problem was with my domain mapping with Network Solutions, which holds my escapefromcubiclenation domain.  They also added: 

"We answer tickets as quickly as possible in the order the arrive. Although we appreciate you adding relevant information to the existing ticket, each time you reply moves the ticket back to the end of the queue. We will get to your tickets as soon as we can, and we appreciate your patience."

  • 3:40pm:  Now I realize that I was actually contributing to my lack of response time by adding new messages to the help ticket!  The problem is, that fact is not highlighted anywhere on the help ticket system.  Or if it is, it didn’t jump out at me.  I wonder how many others have had a similar experience?
  • 3:41pm:  Responded to Typepad response, with a further set of questions.
  • 7:14pm:  Received response from Typepad with the final set of instructions I needed to resolve the issue.
  • 7:15pm:  Called Network Solutions technical support.  Got a human being on the phone and within 5 minutes had the problem diagnosed and fixed. 
  • 12:15am:  It took a few hours to get the necessary changes spinning through the Ethernet, (plus I fell asleep because I was exhausted) so I finally made the final tweaks to my blog and was back online.

So what was my biggest takeaway from this experience?

My formerly strong and enthusiastic support of the Typepad platform, built over two years of good and stable service, was radically diminished because their support system failed when I needed it most.

How can we apply this learning to all of our businesses?  Take into consideration the following things:

  • What are the different levels of support needed by your customers?  Does your support system include a way of distinguishing between general questions, which can take a few hours or days to reply to, and critical-path issues which need to be resolved immediately?  This can apply to any kind of business.  If you sell tee-shirts online, a customer may not mind if a personal purchase arrives one day late.  But he will care if the custom tee-shirt for his 16-year old doesn’t arrive in time for his birthday.  If you are an accountant, your clients may be able to wait two days to learn the difference between a debit and a credit.  But if they are meeting with an IRS agent for an audit in an hour, they will need to hear from you right away. 
  • How clear are you with instructions and guidelines for your technical support?  Do you clearly outline critical things (like moving the help ticket to the back of the queue if more information is added by the user) in your web and written communications?
  • If you can not afford to offer extensive technical support for your product or service, do you have a trusted network of people who can for a fee?  I didn’t learn until this morning that there is a Six Apart Professional Network.  I would have gladly paid someone to help me figure this problem out yesterday at 9:30am.
  • Do you have a way for your customers to get in touch with a live human being by phone in case of emergency?  I realize that it can be very expensive and unwieldy to deal with technical support on the phone.  But there are times when your frustrated customer can be helped in five minutes or less if they talk to someone on the phone.  I can’t believe that it was much more expensive to pay the Network Solutions tech support guy than the Typepad tech support folks who typed their responses.  But the difference to me was huge — I got resolution in 5 minutes from one, and in nearly 16 hours with the other.
  • Do you think holistically about what your customers need and balance your business model accordingly?  In the case of Typepad, they are building more and more features to make your blog a website-and-blog-in-one.  This is great, as it allows entrepreneurs to consolidate their online presence and save money with web design and hosting.  But it also means higher stakes for customers, who may suffer great financial consequences if their business blog goes down.
  • Do you support your excellent technical support people with a system that works?  I really can’t say anything bad about the people that work in Typepad technical support.  They are always very courteous, knowledgeable and professional when they respond to questions.  The problem is that the system they work in is radically insufficient for the needs of their customers.  So they probably take unfair heat from grumpy pregnant (and non-pregnant) customers like me all the time.  Good people will tire of this and leave to go elsewhere where their skills are allowed to be applied very effectively.

I realize that I may be a tad dramatic in going into so much detail about my blog being down for one day.  No one was hurt, the stock markets survived and no rain forests were cleared as a result. 

But the impact to the trust I have in a company I have been doing business with for a long time was pretty major.  And this makes me stand up and take note.  A strong brand and trusting customers are  very precious and fleeting things indeed.  It doesn’t take much to erode years of goodwill.  So I will be taking note of how this applies to my business, and I encourage you to do the same.

 

Filed Under: Managing your business

25 Responses to “Your company brand is only as strong as your technical support”

  1. Rhonda says:

    Reading this very late as my RSS feeds have been down for a while (another customer service story!!). A work colleague once said that it’s how you deal with a customer’s problem that will make people remember your company – good or bad. Think about it – do you think of how good or bad your insurance company is? Probably not… until you need to make a claim! At that point, everything else you’ve thought about them goes out the window. Same for any service industry. I’ve written about quite a few personal customer service incidents on my blog – some good, some bad, and some that were exceptional (http://sandgroper14.wordpress.com/?s=customer+service). How you deal with the problem is the most important thing… and what you’ll be remembered for long after the initial pain point has gone.

  2. Rhonda says:

    Reading this very late as my RSS feeds have been down for a while (another customer service story!!). A work colleague once said that it’s how you deal with a customer’s problem that will make people remember your company – good or bad. Think about it – do you think of how good or bad your insurance company is? Probably not… until you need to make a claim! At that point, everything else you’ve thought about them goes out the window. Same for any service industry. I’ve written about quite a few personal customer service incidents on my blog – some good, some bad, and some that were exceptional (http://sandgroper14.wordpress.com/?s=customer+service). How you deal with the problem is the most important thing… and what you’ll be remembered for long after the initial pain point has gone.

  3. Coming up from behind on the ticketitis posts, my ten pennyworth is that ticketitis is a nearly incurable disease at many businesses, but customernonservicitis can be fatal. I have just emerged from an experience with one of the insurance companies (AXA) with who I have an annuity. They failed to deliver a payment (after having done so regularly – that’s the way with annuities). I had to contact 12 different customer service reps by transatlantic telephone over two weeks, spending about five hours in the process – in order simply for them to pay me the quarterly sum which they had contracted to do in 1999. I call this WOMUM – Word Of Mouth UnMarketing.

  4. Andy Pels says:

    Well, lookie here!
    Pam has given us a sly demonstration of how to handle an unexpected problem with your business.
    –It wasn’t her fault, but she didn’t spend valuable time assigning blame. She communicated (when the web spirits allowed) clearly about the problem, its effects, and the intended solution. She got it fixed, even at the expense of some precious slumber time (get it while you can!). AND – later when things were more calm, she cooked the whole thing up into a delicious and satisfying serving of Lesson Learned (where the blame was then appropriately assigned, of course). All of this adds up (in my estimation) to her loyal readers becoming even more loyal.

    And this is all for a free product!

    Let’s all remember to cosmically thank Pam by making sure that from time to time we pose as a customer of our own business, and see what kind of job we (and our system) are doing with fixing problems.

    And as far as real reciprocity goes, Pam, once I’m truly up and running, maybe I’ll send you a promotional t-shirt. Woohoo!

    Andy P

  5. I’ve been using blogger.com and can’t understand why it’s considered slummy! I’ve had each blog shut down for a few hours when their robots confused them with splogs…but I’ve had my own articles “posted” on splogs hosted by wordpress. Of course I haven’t had a crisis yet. 😉

  6. Joel says:

    Thanks for the response, Pam. I am about to start my own blog and I was literally just about to sign up with TypePad when I saw your post. Now I am looking at WordPress too. I may still go with TypePad though.

    Good luck!

  7. Joel says:

    Do you plan to stick with TypePad after this incident? Just curious.

    I am not sure Joel … my long-term plan is to create an integrated website/blog, so given their current support model, I am very wary of sticking with Typepad for this. I have heard good things about Wordpress, so am considering it, but am not quite ready to take on the big project of transferring platforms. Stay tuned!

    -Pam

  8. Greg says:

    My $0.02 worth as a professional computer guy (not specific to your case)…

    IT is usually considered a cost to be cut. If a tech keeps a system running error-free, costs get cut because “they really are not doing anything.” Many times I have had end Users refuse to spend even modest amounts of money to backup their data, or spend some time to understand why. Or, instead of hiring a professional, they will get someone to do it for free.

    I encourage anybody who uses IT as part of their business to create their worst-case scenario, decide what the break-even point is for avoiding it, then getting with a professional to implement a plan. Oh, and do some regular disasters testing too!

  9. gosh, just by reading i can feel you angst and frustration! It’s very true indeed, once the customer is burnt, even if they had years of great services from you, they can lose faith and close the book on you fairly quickly. it’s what they say: you are only as strong as your weakest link.

    i also, as a consumer, prefers talking to humans than robots. so i have made myself a promise no matter how big my little biz grows, i as an owner should be reachable no matter what, especially if there is an issue.

  10. Handling problems for a customer is an opportunity to really show how much you care. Every company fails at some point – what’s important is how you handle the situation – it can become either an opportunity to reinforce your brand or kill it.

  11. Graydon says:

    Just another one of the many reasons I use another CMS and a kick-ass host.

    I like live talking people as well… but would take live chat any day.

  12. mark p. says:

    Although we appreciate you adding relevant information to the existing ticket, each time you reply moves the ticket back to the end of the queue.

    That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s hard to believe anyone would design a system that brain dead.

    I almost wonder if the support rep just made that up trying to cover for letting your request drop through the cracks.

  13. Duane Benson says:

    Hi Pamela;

    I feel your blog-pain. Last month (July), on the 24th, I sent out my regular monthly newsletter to my customer base. Most of the articles in my newsletter are linked references to blog posts with (hopefully) useful technical hints and tips.

    At just about the same time, all of TypePad, and their parent site SixApart, went down. At least I wasn’t alone, but since pretty much everything of theirs was down, I couldn’t even find a phone number to call nor could I submit a trouble ticket.

    It was an incredibly helpless feeling to wait the better part of the day with no way to contact anyone about it. Granted, my numbers aren’t all that large, but when I checked the stats the next day, I found that 90% of the clicks from my newsletter to my blog didn’t get through. That was disappointing, bad for my brand and a missed opportunity to talk to my customers. The real trauma, though, was the realization that I could not contact TypePad about it.

    I spent about two hours of that time looking for an alternative blog system. Not necessarily due to the outage, but due to the inability to contact anyone at TypePad. The thought of migrating 125 posts is daunting enough that I’m still with TypePad, but if not for that barrier, I would have switched to something local – with a live person to talk to – that day.

    Duane Benson

  14. How to destroy Goodwill Part 2

    Yesterday I linked to a story about a very bad customer service experience. Just to prove that Pam is not alone, Andrew Koenig tells his tale of woe over on the DDJ website. Part 1 here, and part 2. And…

  15. I use a company that designs my website (and blog which is Wordpress), hosts it on its own platform, provides the tech support and charges for that service. I’ve been with them for 4 years, find them very customer friendly and think they know the business. I’m redoing my website and blog and will probably go with them again, if for no other reason is that I know their warts. BUT, they’re outsourcing and get stuck in this “no answers/out of our control” zone as well. PLUS, they keep some funky hours and there’s certainly not 24/7 support.

    I’ve had my own business for 10 years and have yet to figure out the best arrangement –but I know that what I want is a person to talk to. I think that’s step one – Know what you need since self employed is hard enough.

  16. Mark Bean says:

    http://gigaom.com/2007/08/16/skype-outage/

    Hehe I jinxed Skype. (See earlier comment above)

  17. Dave says:

    Gang:

    The world of technical support has been on a down-hill slide for a lotta years, ever since someone did studies that showed that most, not all, customers don’t tie future purchases to the support they receive.

    Pam’s post, while very emotionally appealing does not address this main concern all tech companies have regarding technical support. They don’t want to spend a bunch of money on something which does not yield financial benefit. That said, perhaps Pam’s post will help Typepad understand it needs to get into the insurance, oops, I mean Technical Support business.

  18. A person on the other end of the line is why I adore my webhosting service…

    http://machighway.com/

    Mac Highway has nice and knowledgable real people answering the phone and they even send you an email if spammers are stealing bandwidth, etc.

    I recommend,

    Marilyn.

  19. This is the very reason why I left Sprint and went to Verizon. It cost me an arm and a leg, but having a real live human being who offers exceptional customer support was well worth the pain, agony, money, and therapy induced trauma from working with Sprint.

    Sometimes a girl has to do what a girl has to do!

  20. Rohit says:

    Pam,
    I am fan of your blogs and follow very closely and that’s how I partial came out of cubical nation. Along with my IT job, I have started a restaurant franchise to start some regular income before jumping from the clip. Safer Entrepreneur.

    I do agree that Typepad should have responded quickly and adding more information to a ticket moves it to end of queue doesn’t make sense, your readers do understand the limitation of current technology and defiantly doesn’t affect the goodwill you build by your hard work. Keep up the good work.

    Becoming and Entrepreneur : http://joshiventures.blogspot.com

  21. Roger Farley says:

    Just as important!!

    Your vendors and partners that make up your internal workings that allow you to operate your business are all apart of your business and, like it or not, have a serious impact on the formula of your businesses success.

    Not to discourage new business owners, but this is why businesses stick with who they know and rarely walk across the street for the new guy.

    But, as soon as a customer feels like they’ve put a bunch of effort into a relationship with a product vendor and is then let down this bad????

    The real opportunity for the new guy is when things like this happen.

  22. I have experienced this pain and aggravation with Typepad’s support system several months ago. Oh my. Thanks for giving me proactive suggestions on what to do in future events. Somehow in the bigness of things talking to people has become a ‘lost art’.

  23. Mark Bean says:

    Sorry to hear about your pain.

    http://www.office20.com/blog/2007/03/14/my-skype-account-got-hacked-why-customer-service-matters-for-office-20-companies/

    My Skype account got hacked earlier this year and the level of support was almost zero – even for paying customers.

  24. rick gregory says:

    One more:

    Look at your support from the customer point of view.

    They kick your ticket to the end of the queue when you are adding information. Um… what? Why would adding information EVER move the ticket’s position in queue? First off, this isn’t intuitively apparent. Second, you’re actually discouraging your customers from adding information that may help you resolve the issue.

    yes, yes, I get the technical reason this might happen… queue position is determined my record modification date, etc etc etc… but that’s looking at the situation from the point of view of the SYSTEM… not the customer.

  25. How to destroy Goodwill in one easy lesson

    Pamela Slimblogs about her difficulties with Typepad support, and how it seriously erroded two years of built-up goodwill. Something to think about with your business and mine….

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