Sometimes it takes having it really good to realize how bad something else is, or even vice versa.  The title of this post is Service, but not service in the sense of the software industry’s overloaded term, but as in customer service.  If you were expecting a software discussion, you can choose to tune out now.

Seven days ago, on December 21st at 12:58 AM it appears that something horribly wrong occurred on my Hosted Exchange server.  Seems that whatever it was was so bad that I still don’t have a fully repaired mailbox.  The service, 1and1, has informed me….well, they haven’t really told me much at all.  Both my wife and I have exchange accounts hosted with them, both on the same server. 

The day that this mass catastrophe occurred I called to inquire as to what the problem was.  I was told that they were aware of the problem and were working on it.  Everything would be back up and going “soon”.  How subjective the word “soon”.  As of today I can send emails out, but I can’t see anything coming in and, oh, I don’t have access to any of my old mail.  I’m not sure, but I think the 99.99% uptime SLA is shot to hell.

A few days go past and I was on vacation, so I didn’t think much about it.  Then I get home from traveling, but it still isn’t working.  I call again, same result except they tell me that sending should be available.  Sure hope no one responds.

Yesterday I spend 2 hours on the phone with them.  I get nowhere really fast.  At one point I actually had to ask the lady to let me finish my sentences since she kept talking over me.  I asked to speak to a supervisor and am told to hold.  Ten minutes into waiting I hang up.  I call back about half an hour later to talk to someone else.  This time I get someone that at least reads me the latest update from their admins.  The phrase “hopefully by the end of the year” is used.  I again ask to speak to a supervisor and am placed on hold.  The rep checks back with me every so often and finally says that I’m holding for no real reason since the supervisor isn’t going to help me either and that no complaints can be taken over the phone.  I must send all my complaints to  I’m assured the CEO reads them himself.  I then ask to be transferred to the billing department, but instead I end up talking to a sales rep who is outraged that someone dumped me on him.  Again, I’m told to send a complaint. 

Absolutely no one will give me an ETA when my accounts will be returned to full working order.

I spent 20 minutes today backing up old emails from restored OST files for both accounts and researching a new Exchange Hosting provider.  Nods to my Mirra Server that kept several previous copies of the OST files since at one point the system synced my account and removed all my data since the temporary mailbox didn’t have anything in it.

In stark contrast to this abysmal example of customer service I have two shining examples of how service is really done.

Example 1: Server Intellect

Server Intellect provides hosting for CINNUG.  Yesterday I was updating the site to use Community Server 2007.1.  I entered a ticket to take a zip file I had FTPed to the server and use the contents to update the site.  A short time later (I don’t know how long given the fact I was on hold with 1and1) I received an email informing me that Server Intellect support had completed my request, but after they did so they had tested the site and got an error.  I hadn’t performed the database updates so the error was expected, but the fact that the technician took the extra time to actually hit the site after they performed the request was just icing on the cake.

Example 2: Larosas

Larosas, for those of you not local, is a Cincinnati based pizza chain.  I use them at home and for the pizza for CINNUG every month.  The pizza is great and they have a specialty item, the stuffed pizza pie, that really works well to feed my family.  The pizza pie comes with 3 dipping sauces, which when I order over the phone can tell them to use Montgomery Inn BBQ sauce (also a local chain) rather than the three choices they normally have.  When I ordered online tonight I could not find a way to change the sauce over to the BBQ without ordering the BBQ on the side (and thus costing extra).  After I entered my order I sent a feedback email to them through their site requesting that this be added as an option to the online ordering system (along with the ability to order plates, utensils, servers, etc. which I need for the CINNUG meetings, also available by phone only).

When my pizza arrived I was surprised to see that there were 3 Montgomery Inn BBQ sauces in the box.  What the?!  After dinner I noticed I had received an email (not through my exchange account obviously) in response to my feedback.  Less than 10 minutes after I had sent the feedback!  They found my order in the system, called the store it had been dispatched to and had them add the BBQ sauce.  They also forwarded my request on to the Internet Sales department to be considered for addition to the system.  That, dear readers, is service.

Real customer service isn’t about making the customer happy.  Many times there just isn’t anything you can do to make them happy.  Real customer service is being attentive to the requests of the customer, seeing if there really is anything you can do about it, and then acting if you can.  Oh, then following up afterwards to make sure the customer knows where things stand.

In my opinion, here is how 1and1 (or any hosting company for that matter) could improve customer service:

  • Have a web page with system notifications.  This could be part of the client control panel they seem to all have.  Even when my web site or exchange account is down the control panel seems to be accessible.  This page should indicate if your server is having problems, planned corrections, planned outages, and gasp even estimates of downtime.
  • Have a web page with the downtime statistics of your service.  If you boast 99.99% uptime then you better be able to back that up and not be afraid to let your customers see when your slipping.  They paid for that SLA, so make sure they know what they are getting.  1and1 reps could not furnish me with the downtime statistics for the exchange server I was on over the last year.  That is unacceptable.
  • Improve communications.  This again could be supplied through a web page related to system health.  For example, the updates that one of the 1and1 reps finally read to me about the status of the server and restoring attempts was something that should have been sent to ALL customers or shared when they called in.  Instead the rep came across that he was sharing corporate secrets with me.  If I had an in-house exchange team you’d bet they would be giving me notifications on the status of the recovery and projected ETAs. 
  • Have a system to accept complaints over the phone, Internet, Snail Mail, Fax or singing telegram.  For each method you have of purchasing a service or contacting a sales rep, you should be able to file a complaint the same way.  1and1 used the excuse that they only accepted complaints via the one email address because they wanted them tracked.  Hmmm, I’m pretty sure that they were typing information into my ticket/account as I was talking to them.  They could have tracked it that way to.

So, what about how this relates to .Net or the software industry?  Well, as a consultant I’m on the front lines of dealing out customer service for my company.  I try to take that to heart.  Issues like the service I got from 1and1 make me stop and think about what kind of customer service I’m giving my clients.  Do I take that extra step and double-check what I did for them?  Do I put in that little extra effort to make sure they know I understood what they said and verify that they are well informed?  I like to think that I do, but there is always room for improvement.  It does take just a little bit of extra effort, but the outcome is so much better for everyone involved, even if the customer isn’t completely happy in the end.