Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Failing Gracefully

2085 words

Things can go wrong. And that’s hard to avoid once systems or organisations grow beyond a certain size. But what makes all the difference is how those failures are handled. Even more so with faceless internet services where you don’t even have some person to talk to but usually nothing but a web form which is hard to judge from the outside. I find that usually the way requests to those forms are handled reflect the general customer service attitude of the organisation involved quite accurately. A few recent examples I experienced follow.

The Worst: Paypal

There’s no doubt about PayPal being crooks. After all they’re sort of a bank. But they manage to be even slower than normal banks are (when it comes to actually converting the bits and bytes in your account into real money) and they don’t even provide cash machines. The only thing that’s relatively easy with PayPal is spending money. Which probably makes sense for them as they make their money that way. And everything else downright sucks. You don’t get any interest for the money you borrow them. Any transfer to a real bank takes many days, their website ranges all the way from inconvenient to useless for things like getting a usable overview of your transfers. But that’s just how they are. It’s normal. And it’s not significantly worse than a real bank, I guess.

But then, recently, I magically got a message that I need to provide some identity information to them because the transfers exceeded a certain amount and they’re required to do that because of anti money-laundering laws. OK, totally reasonable laws, I suppose, I don’t mind that. But the way they handle the situation is just atrocious.

The bad: iTMS

As I noted before, the idea of iTMS sounds sweet but once you factor the technical and ideological problems of the service in, the advantages soon stop playing a role. Over the years I got around a hundred songs from iTMS. That’s 8 to 10 CDs in more material terms. In the same time I bought significantly more music in old fashioned formats like CDs or LPs, both in physical record stores and in places like amazon.

Of course I chatted to the people working in the record stores. They might know about release dates, the extortionate prices of some record labels or the music currently playing there. But, oddly, whenever I decided to buy some music with them, that just worked™. In the physical stores I could even pay cash and didn’t need some form of identification. And never, never, did I just get some stupid error number when passing an LP or CD across the counter which resulted in me not being able to purchase the item. But in the same time, iTMS managed to throw such problems at me a handful of times.

And each time I had to go through the agonising waiting game known as Apple’s German customer service. Filling out some stupid web form, then waiting the obligatory 2-7 days until they manage to pull their proverbial thumbs out of their butts and do their job.

My recent point of agony is the album a friend ‘gifted’ to me last year. As I already own that album there’s no reason to get another copy. I took great care to not click the link in that gift voucher as iTunes probably invalidates it the first step and doesn’t give me the option to simply exchange it, you know, to a different album or to just refund my friend his money as any record store would do with an unopened CD.

As I couldn’t do anything with it, I had that gift voucher sitting around, so I recently tried to just pass it on to a friend. Now he got some strange error number from iTunes when trying to use it. So off to iTMS support it was once more. And the talk about resetting accounts started again. And I’m just friggin fed up by this. It’s a stupid gift voucher. I don’t want to discuss anything about it with ‘customer service’, I don’t care about resetting accounts, particularly not my friends’. It should be a single click and there you go. That’s how it works for CDs, for LPs and even friggin’ tapes. It’s really quite simple.

The tolerable: amazon

I think amazon are quite good. It’s mostly easy to find stuff on their site, they’ll give you free shipping if you order for more than €20. And they frequently manage to deliver stuff in less than 24 hours to where I live. Even with the free shipping they give you a tracking number these days. I.e. it’s quick and there are no surprises.

In the past eight years or so, I had three things going wrong with their service. The first was a wrong CD being delivered (there were two variants of a CD single…), which they resolved by promptly sending me the correct one, which turned out to be the wrong one again, which then turned out to the record company having only released one of the two variants and the proper CD not existing. All this was handled promptly and in a friendly way. After all the back and forth they even let me keep the second wrong CD.

The second case was when my parents bought a multi-volume work and it turned out to have one of the volumes in there twice while another one was missing. I guess the publishers were to blame for that and it was promptly exchanged. Although – a bit inconveniently one had to send back the whole set of volumes rather than just the wrong one.

The third case was when in addition to the order I placed, I once received a second parcel with a book about ornithology or so. Now that was surprising. It turned out that they had mis-sent it and they asked me to send it back. Not great but not a huge problem.

Recently I discovered a problem with their site: Normally you can enter multiple search queries and separate them by the | character to get combined results for all those searches. I frequently use that when writing about films and putting a link to amazon for referral fees and the reader’s convenience at at the bottom. With the | operator I can easily cover the title of the films in several languages without needing to set up different queries. It’s very convenient. But that stopped working a while ago. And finally I thought I should just ask why they disabled that feature.

I didn’t have particularly high expectations on that because this isn’t directly related to me buying stuff from them, but more a convenience thing. But at least they got back to me quickly telling me that they received the message and that they’d need to check with the database people on what’s going on. While that didn’t really help me, just knowing that someone, a real person who knows where to pass things on to, had read it gave me a good enough feeling. The message also contained a warning that it may take up to a week to get the answer. While things taking a while aren’t perfect, it seems a good idea to apologise for this in advance and give a concrete time frame. This way I know what to expect and I get the impression that they are commited to looking into this rather than just forgetting about it.

And after a few days I really received a reply. Which said that according to their database people this query style is certainly supposed to work and asking for examples where I saw things go wrong. As I am seeing the problem with pretty much any such query, I suspected that they simply didn’t try it, but I still provided some examples. After a short while I was informed that the examples have been passed on and that it may take a week again for things to be figured out.

Right, my problem still isn’t solved, but I have the impression that the people I have been dealing with are actually intelligent human beings and that they are working on the issue. I am somewhat optimistic that things might just start working again at some stage.

Just compare that to the communication delivered by PayPal…

April 29, 2008, 0:31


Comment by Dave2: User icon

Paypal is NOT a bank. They are not even LIKE a bank. Which is very convenient for them, because they don’t have to adhere to banking laws. In other words, after they STOLE MY MONEY by reversing a transaction I received in my store, they had no obligation… NONE… to give me an explanation. I contacted the customer and they never reported any fraud. I called the customer’s bank and they have no idea why. Nobody knows anything except Paypal, and they won’t tell me anything. Nor do they legally have to. They desperately need to be investigated for fraud, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been.

I don’t know that I agree that a “gifted” item in the iTMS is a “gift voucher.” It’s really not. It’s a gift of a specific item that has no physical presence. The electronic alternative to giving you an actual CD without a receipt. Though I do agree it’s pretty stupid that they take so long to respond to things like this. Once I bought an album that was advertised as having a digital booklet included in the download. When I downloaded it, I found out it DIDN’T have a digital booklet. I wrote for a refund, because I wanted to booklet and would just buy the CD. It took a WEEK to get this resolved… though they did give me a refund. A WEEK?? Why? That’s not customer service.

April 29, 2008, 3:13

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Received data seems to be invalid. The wanted file does probably not exist or the guys at last.fm changed something.