John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Promising much but delivering little

(Disclaimer: As with all my blog posts, these are just my personal views. I'm not speaking on behalf of any organisation that I work for.)

As I mentioned in my previous post (International commerce) there are sometimes reasons to import goods from foreign countries. One potential reason is when homegrown companies do a crappy job. Here are a few examples that I've dealt with recently.


I've seen a lot of their adverts recently, both in computer magazines and on TV. They might offer a good service to home users, but any businesses should steer well clear of them.

A couple of years ago, I needed to transfer a website from one company to another. It would still be hosted at 1&1, so I just wanted to update the account information, e.g. billing and domain registration. In a situation like this, it's perfectly reasonable for them to want some kind of paper trail, e.g. a signed letter on company letterhead. However, they insisted that I should send them a photocopy of my passport or driving licence, i.e. they wanted to see my personal photo ID. This is stupid for a couple of reasons:

1) They never met me in person, so they don't know whether the photo I sent them actually looks like me.
2) They shouldn't need any personal information from me, since I'm acting on behalf of an organisation. Giving them this information would expose me personally to the risk of identity theft.

In the end, I went along with it: the organisation needed this website transferred, so I see it as my job to make that happen, even if it's inconvenient. However, I was very happy to close down that account a few months later, because 1&1 promised to destroy their copy of my ID at that point. (Pro tip: it's unwise to give your customers an incentive to ditch you.)

More recently, I've been working with a web developer who explicitly asked me to set up a 1&1 account. (Our existing web host don't support MoveableType.) So, I gritted my teeth, and went through the sign-up process on their website, but I hit a couple of snags.

Firstly, it asked for a password. I used PassGen to generate a strong password, but the website rejected it, saying that it contained invalid characters. One of the characters was a " (double quote), so I wonder whether this was a clumsy attempt to avoid SQL injection; when I removed that character, the website accepted the password, but I don't know whether it would object to all punctuation.

The website then asked for my name and contact details; I assumed that this was for the "technical contact", so I filled in that info. When it got to the billing stage, there were only three payment methods available: Direct Debit, credit card, or PayPal. Direct Debit would be best, but the organisation likes to keep a copy of the signed authorisation forms rather than just typing stuff into a website. I phoned 1&1 and asked them to send us a form but they flat-out refused, on the basis that they don't need a signature. So, I went back to the website and put in the account number/sort code. I was then quite surprised when it showed my name as the account name, with no way to edit it. I'm not a signatory for the organisation's bank account, so I can't authorise that. The website doesn't have a "Back" option, so I cancelled the whole order to start again. It then still remembered my name!

At that point I gave up on the website and phoned them again. We went through the order process, and I asked their sales guy about password policies.
Me: "Which characters am I allowed to enter?"
Him: "Upper case, lower case, digits, whatever you like."
Me: "No, the website wouldn't let me enter a punctuation mark, so clearly I can't choose whatever I like. What are your rules?"
Him: "When we've created your account, you can log into the account page and the website will tell you."
He chose an account for me: a dictionary word followed by "123". Ah yes, clearly this is a company who understand security principles.

Moving on, he asked for my name, and I told him several times that I'm not a signatory for the organisation's bank account; he said that was fine. After we'd created the account, I got an automated email confirming the Direct Debit, and this showed my name as the account name. (They'd also got the address wrong, even though I spelt it out over the phone.)

I logged into their website to change the address, and I looked for password information while I was there. It says: "Always use a combination of letters, digits, and any special characters that are allowed by the system." However, it doesn't say which special characters are allowed, so I think they've just copied some generic advice rather than displaying any awareness of their own system.

I then phoned back to get the bank details changed. The next person I spoke to said that this was deliberate: they don't accept Direct Debits for business accounts, only for personal accounts. My instinctive response was to ask "Are you taking the piss, or what?" However, I bit my tongue and instead I just asked "Do you not have many business customers? How do they handle this?" The woman just mumbled something about passing this feature request along. The only way we could have payments coming out of the bank account would be to set up a PayPal account for the organisation.

Between the photo ID and the payment info, this tells me that they're used to dealing with individuals rather than organisations. I've persuaded the web developer that I can find a better webhost, and I took great satisfaction in phoning 1&1 back to cancel the account.


My mobile phone has been playing up recently: text messages are ok, but voice conversations are very broken. In fairness, it's a cheap PAYG phone (Samsung B130) which cost me £10 in November 2008, so I think I've got my money's worth out of it. I've been building up a phone fund from my top-ups, so I decided that it was about time I cashed that in. Unfortunately, their website doesn't work very well.

I chose a phone, and tried to select the delivery options:


1p for delivery before 10:30 the following day sounded very reasonable, so I clicked that radio button. However, each time I clicked it, the selection reverted back to the top left option (free, anytime between 09:00 and 17:30). The same applied if I chose any other option, or if I tried to select "collect in store". I tried this in IE9 and Firefox 10, just in case it was a browser problem, but the same thing happened each time. So, I phoned up instead.

When I spoke to the sales guy, he said that the 1p deal only applied to contract phones, not PAYG: the courier company charge Orange for the premium options (e.g. early morning or weekend) and they have to pass that cost on to the customer. Similarly, "collect in store" only applies to contract phones, although I assume that I could go to a store in person to buy whatever PAYG handsets they have in stock.

If that's their business policy then fair enough: it's inconvenient for me, but I'm taking the cheapskate option so I'm not an important customer. However, from a technical point of view this is a really bad way to deploy those new business rules. The front-end and back-end have apparently got out of synch; if their webmonkeys can't handle a simultaneous update then they should do the front-end first. That way, nobody can access the unwanted functionality of the back-end unless they hack around with a custom browser, which seems like a fairly low risk.

On the plus side, the guy on the phone said that he could arrange for free delivery to my workplace.


The following day (Wed 8th Feb), UKMail turned up to deliver my new phone. Unfortunately, I wasn't around at the time, and they refused to let anyone else sign for it. They left a card, saying "We will re-attempt tomorrow". The following day, nobody turned up. In fact, I checked their website several times over the following week, and I could see that there was only one delivery attempt. I tried to phone them several times, but I gave up when nobody answered the phone after 20 rings. I finally got through to them today, and they said that they'd given up on me and returned the phone to Orange.

I phoned Orange again (a 25 minute call!), and they said that they'd cancel my order: it will take up to seven working days to put the refund into my phone fund and bank account, i.e. I could be waiting until next Saturday (25th Feb). The sales guy asked whether I wanted to put in a new order, but I declined; I'll just walk to the shop instead. I only ordered online because I was worried about missing calls and I didn't want to wait until the weekend, but I've now lost an extra two weeks.

Tags: customer service, phone, rant, security, ui

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