A cautionary tale: Mismanagement, Bad Customer Service and a Revelation

Why “a cautionary tale”? Because the business behaviour I will describe, and the ultimate result, should serve as an illustrative lesson on how not to succeed in growing your business…

The story begins some years ago, while my wife and I were living in France during my assignment as Project Manager on a global EDMS (Electronic Document Management System) implementation, using Documentum. Now, France is blessed with a very good road system; it does, however, have some peculiarities (at least to those with non-French sensibilities) when it comes to road signage.

One of these is the liberal use of signs that read “Toutes Directions“, which indicate the road so marked leads to all directions (or more literally, all destinations); these frequently occur at junctions and turnings, exits from autoroutes (highways, freeways or motorways, depending on where you’re from) and the omnipresent ronds-points (roundabouts or traffic circles). And in that paradoxically logical French way, there will often be another sign pointing to a different turning or exit in the same junction or roundabout that reads “Autres Directions” — literally, other directions or destinations.

OK, so you go one way to get to anywhere… and the other way to go everywhere else. In truth, once you get the hang of the peculiar logic, and keep your wits about you while reading the complementary signs indicating the actual destinations and the type of road that you’ll end up on, it’s actually quite an effective system. Mostly. And when it all goes wrong, one can still get lost (horribly so…), even following the most scrupulously researched maps and route planning information — it’s no wonder that the country turns out some spectacular rally drivers; navigating special stages are probably a piece of cake compared to daily driving in some areas.

“So, what exactly” you say, “does this have to do with the cautionary tale.?” It spawned a domain name, that’s what. Actually, a photo in one of the French automotive magazines I used to read had a lot to do with it too: a reader had sent them a photo of a pair of Toutes Directions signs, one above the other — with arrows pointing in opposite directions. At that point in your travels, you may as well just pull over and stop in at the nearest café or bistro for a leisurely drink while you sort out how to get where ever you’re going from where ever you are.

We became enamoured of the concept of Toutes Directions — the idea that you can get to anywhere from where you are, and in particular, how suited it was to be used as the domain name for our personal web page, which we intended to be a starting point to get to all of the widely varying things we are interested in. As a result, we registered the domain toutes-directions.com to use for our very own internet rond-point. You can still see some of those pages using the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive.

Which is where we start to get to the meat of the cautionary tale. I did a bit of searching to find a registrar for the domain, and the one I selected was Domain Direct. Interestingly enough, this is a subsidiary of Tucows — the shareware download site. What was also interesting, at least for us, was the discovery that Tucows, and thus also Domain Direct, is a Canadian company; that wasn’t the deciding factor in choosing them, but it did add a warm, fuzzy feeling to be dealing with One Of Our Own.

My memory on the exact reasons I chose them are lost in the haze of time, but I think they offered — at the time — the best combination of features for the money of all the registrars I researched. So we registered toutes-directions.com with them, and it has remained registered through Domain Direct ever since.

We did eventually use another domain registration company (000domains.com) for parking some other domains, as they offered a better price:feature combination for a parked domain than DD (which is how Domain Direct is often abbreviated) — time had passed and the domain registration marketplace had become quite competitive.

These parked domains were complementary (the .net and .org versions) of a another domain name (modknit.com) we registered with DD; this one was for a web site dedicated to “Modular Knitting” (this is a particular knitting design technique which builds garments, such as scarves or sweaters, up from modular elements; frequently these knitted elements are in the form of “mitred squares” — this is probably waaay more than you want to know, right? If you’re really interested, check out K’s site on modular knitting; it hasn’t been updated for some time, but it’s a good place to start and Google should turn up plenty of other resources).

Again, we stuck with DD for the .com registration as they still seemed to offer a competitive set of features and pricing; there was also a certain amount of “comfort factor” in dealing with them, and we had never experienced any problems with them.

Until… The Great Spam Upgrade Debacle.

This is where we get to the nub of the story. Spam essentially didn’t exist when we first registered a domain; it has, of course, grown exponentially since then to become the pestilential plague we all fight against every day now. In response to the increasing spam traffic, DD implemented spam filtering on the e-mail accounts we had that were hosted with them as part of our full-service domain registrations; they also filtered spam on the e-mail forwarding accounts that went with the parked domains we had since registered with them (their offering for parked domains had become much more competitive, with the features we needed at a price comparable to the other domain registration company where we have other domains parked).

The spam filtering was OK but not perfect (which is about as good as it gets when it comes to spam filtering, although some services work better than others), and the interface to the quarantine was a little clunky but functional. The increasing volume of spam was taking its toll, however, and their e-mail performance (both accessing the quarantine and basic mail sending and retrieving) was suffering.

DD decided that they needed to upgrade the spam filtering system to better serve their customers — “Wait,” you say, “this is supposed to be a cautionary tale about mismanagement and bad customer service… but it sounds like they were managing the problem pro-actively to give good customer service?”

That would certainly seem to have been their intention… but then “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

In fact, what did happen is probably best described as a charlie-foxtrot of the first magnitude. To cut to the chase: the upgrade turned into a sidegrade, then a downgrade and ultimately DD gave up trying to fix it and pulled the plug on the whole spam filtering system.

The most egregious thing was the e-mail DD sent announcing that the spam quarantine would no longer be accessible from a domain’s control panel — it arrived well after they had shut it down on Friday morning. I had been able to access the quarantine first thing in the morning, then later on I couldn’t — at that point, given the woes DD users including us had been experiencing due to the “upgrade” (you can read all about it in various posts on DD’s info blog), I assumed it was just Yet Another Patch Gone Wrong. At least that’s what I thought until the e-mail announcing that this would be done arrived after it had already been done. Thanks a lot, that really helped us to prepare for it.

As it is, I’ve now turned off spam filtering completely (since there is now no way to check the quarantine for false-positives) for the e-mail accounts that go through DD and redirected the messages to our non-DD e-mail addresses that had, over time, become our primary addresses (fortunately, we have addresses provided by our ISP — who, by the way, is a model of good management and customer service; if you’re in their service area I can very highly recommend you check out Execulink Telecom). Execulink uses Postini for spam filtering and it works pretty well — it’s not perfect either, but at least it’s working and I can check the quarantine easily for false-positives.

Now, on to the moral of the story — I’ll explain how this is a cautionary tale for companies who mismanage and provide bad customer service.

You see, the modknit.com domain which was registered through DD was coming up for renewal on the 8th of May and we needed to decide whether to let it lapse, renew it with DD or transfer it to another registration company. And given the nightmare of the Spam Upgrade From Hell, we certainly weren’t inclined to just renew with DD as we had previously.

What to do? Well, this is where the lesson for management starts, so take notes… We have been listening to the Adam Curry (a.k.a. The Podfather) podcast The Daily Source Code on PodShow.com where he is sponsored, in part, by the domain registration company GoDaddy.com

I had some vague awareness of GoDaddy.com prior to hearing Adam Curry shill for them, but since he has both some tech savvy and business smarts I figured he wouldn’t be risking his reputation and business ventures by registering domains (a whois shows that he in fact uses GoDaddy) with a fly-by-night organization. That was enough to make it worth taking a look at them, particularly as they advertise having very low fees (which is of interest at any time, but particularly so when you’re still searching for a job). I did also look at the other domain registration company we had used for parking domains, just to see if they were competitive.

In the end, transferring the modknit.com domain to GoDaddy turned out to be an easy decision. They offer to transfer a .com domain, give you the time remaining on your current registration (not much in this case, as it was about a week before it was to expire) and extend it for a year, all for US$6.95 (plus the US$0.22 ICANN fee) — that was way cheaper than sticking with DD (albeit with a plan that had somewhat more features, but GoDaddy provided everything we actually needed) and at least half of what it would have cost through 000domains.com; a no-brainer, in other words.

I initiated the transfer using GoDaddy’s on-line system (once I had disabled the transfer lock on the domain at DD). It’s a well designed, easy to use system that steps you through the whole process in no time. The control panel you access once the transfer request has been submitted does a great job of telling you what the status of the transfer is, and best of all, it tells you what you need to do next — a very good feature (and is something a lot of designers overlook, since they know the process intimately, they often forget that this may be the first time a user is going through it and needs guidance).

And the next step was to authorize the transfer at DD. Which required them to send an e-mail requesting that we authorize the transfer. Which took some time in arriving. In fact, because of the impending expiry I was a little concerned that they wouldn’t send the authorization request soon enough, so I submitted a support request via the DD website — with great trepidation, as there were a lot of comments on the DD info blog from people who were not getting timely responses to support requests. I also tried calling their support line a couple of times. After waiting on hold for some time on the first call, I left a message when given the opportunity and gave the details of the transfer request.

Still nothing. The next day, I called again and this time just kept waiting on hold (hey, it was their dime — I called the toll-free number) hoping to get through to a real person. This was about 4pm EDT and I took the cordless phone outside with me, put it on speakerphone and listened to the recorded messages alternating with a radio broadcast, while I washed the car. I finished washing and drying the car, went inside and finally gave up after being on hold for an hour.

I was preparing to fax the request to DD, in the hope that it might actually get a response, when lo and behold we finally received the transfer authorization message. I logged in to the website with the authorization codes provided and authorized the transfer. At least this part went smoothly (although this was actually handled through the OpenSRS system, not DD itself) and shortly afterwards when I checked the control panel in GoDaddy, the transfer was no longer pending, it was done — success!

Now, even though the transfer is complete DD still keeps sending us reminder notices that the domain is about to expire and that we need to renew the registration with them. As if.

Once the domain was transferred, setting things up on GoDaddy was easy — URL redirect, e-mail and so on. I am very happy with how it went. And then, to top it all off, on Friday afternoon we got a call from a support person at GoDaddy — they called us! The rep said that they call all new customers to make sure they got everything set up OK once their domain was registered — he confirmed that he could see that I had set everything up already and asked if there was anything else he could help me with. I said there wasn’t anything and thanked him very much for the call before ringing off.

You could have scraped me off the floor with a dustpan… what a difference in customer service, from being on hold for an hour and never getting through to DD, then having GoDaddy call us to make sure everything was taken care of. And at a price that’s just sweet.

So, guess which company is first in line to get any future domain registration business from us… including transferring existing domain registrations, particularly now that I know how easy GoDaddy makes it. The well managed company that knows how to provide good customer service wins, the mismanaged company that gives bad customer service loses.

And my impression from reading the comments in DD’s info blog is that there are others who will be moving their domains too; this then is the lesson to be learned by businesses from my cautionary tale — even loyal customers have their limits, and this level of mismanagement and bad customer service can quickly destroy years of good relationship.

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