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GEEKNOTE: Not So Super Service

Dealing with a large company trips up one of our customers.

GEEKNOTE: Quite a few of my Geeknotes are inspired by my customers. Some of my customers have served as the inspiration for multiple Geeknotes. This week's Geeknote is a special request from a local lawyer named Rich, who coincidentally learned this lesson the hard way last week.

Regular readers know that I have a generally low opinion of the ability of large companies to do anything that requires fixing problems on a timely basis. It isn't that small companies don't make mistakes. We do. The difference is that small companies can fix problems a lot faster than large ones.

Several years ago, Rich signed up with a yellow page provider to handle both his yellow page advertising and his company's domain and website. Having used us for years for email, he told them to point the MX records at us and let us continue to handle his email. This arrangement worked well up until a little over a week ago. That Saturday night, his domain and website disappeared and his email quit working.

It seems that his yellow page contract renewal had gotten lost somewhere in the vast bureaucracy that is the yellow page company. With no notice, they took down his website and nuked the domain service (DNS) for his domain, effectively killing his company's email.

His assistant was knocking on my door bright and early Monday morning to let me know that they weren't getting any email. I did a quick check of our server and everything looked fine. I checked the domain and realized things were definitely NOT fine. I advised her that they needed to contact their yellow page company.

Repeated calls to their yellow page rep went unreturned. Rich finally got through to a supervisor and the supervisor figured out what had gone wrong and got the website back up Thursday. Unfortunately, the yellow page company put in some generic mail (MX) records in the DNS that weren't correct.

Rich noted that their email was still not working and he came over late Thursday with the name and number for the supervisor and asked me to help get the email working again. I immediately called and got voicemail. I called again bright and early Friday and got voicemail again, so I called yellow pages' main number and had worked my way to their tech department when Rich walked in to get a status report. I put the call on speaker so Rich could participate and give them enough information to validate that I had authorization to have them make the necessary changes. Within an hour, we had their email back up.

What should have been a 10-minute fix took a week, all because Rich was dealing with a large company where nobody sees the whole picture and nobody is responsible for making sure that things work.

What makes this story so compelling is that, as of September 1st, lawyers in our area are going to be required to do all their filings over the Internet. Without a functioning email address, they might as well lock the doors and send everybody home.

The problem boils down to having a single point of failure controlled by a slow moving bureaucracy. 

We've solved Rich's longer-term problem by setting up an emergency address using one of our domains and configured that address to forward to his regular mailbox. Even if his domain winks out again, he will still be able to get email using the emergency address.  His emergency address is hosted on a different mail server than his primary address, so even a server failure doesn't leave him high and dry.

Redundancy is a good thing. Another customer we have is an insurance agency.  They can't afford to be without email if/when the big one hits here, so we have things set up so that a server in California gets a copy of all their email and acts as a "hot spare" for their email in the event of a disaster. We figure that the odds of a Cat 5 storm hitting Florida at the exact same time "the big one" hits and California drops into the Pacific Ocean are pretty long. Just in case though, we have arrangements in place to put them on a Kentucky server in the event of a dual disaster.

We use the same yellow page company that Rich does, but we don't trust that company with our domain name, primary website, or email.  (We use multiple yellow page companies, because oddly enough in this Internet age, the yellow page books actually get us new customers).

The moral of the story once again is that you are almost invariably better off to deal with a local company and real people who you can talk to directly if you have a problem. This is true for computers, websites, email, cars, air conditioners, and any number of other products that I could name.

Feel free to drop me a note or leave a comment here if you have any questions about your computer or your office network.

Rob Marlowe, Senior Geek, Gulfcoast Networking, Inc.

http://www.gulfcoastnetworking.com

(Rob also serves as deputy mayor of the City of New Port Richey. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of the city.)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Sean Fleeman July 30, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Great article Rob! Smaller companies are more nimble and able to fix problems much faster than the big guys. It holds true in any sector of business - the headaches I had just getting a refrigerator delivered from one of those big guys last week speaks volumes to that. I even sent an overnight UPS letter to their customer service department last week, I still have not heard anything. Problem is that the big companies are great at one thing... putting the small ones out of business. :(
Jason Defant July 30, 2012 at 09:40 PM
You make some valid points, however it sounds like the personal experience of you and a few people. Many of us have had no problems dealing with large IT companies, large retailers and large companies of any kind. As a developer and IT guy myself, the first thing we do with any client when we discuss hosting, domains, etc, etc. is to make sure they have the right pieces in place so it doesn't come down to that call at 11pm on Saturday with the site or email going down. These are issues that have simple fixes with proper planning and deployment of the necessary services. On another note, and no disrespect meant here, but sometimes a company can be too small as well. A quick glance at your website tells me you probably haven't updated it since the 1990s. This would be a concern for anyone out there seeking a new IT guy or consultant. Small companies can be great, but when a website gives off the impression of there being some guy working out of his spare bedroom or basement, you're not giving the viewer the confidence that you can handle the job. These days there are plenty of great free templates on WordPress that allow you to whip together your website in no time at all, or very low cost $30-50, and you'll have a website that looks like 2012, not 1995. This goes a long way in presenting your image and your abilities to handle the customer's problems.
Rob Marlowe July 30, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Jason, Thanks for your comments. More than a few folks have found dealing with large companies difficult at best. The first problem in dealing with a large corporation is finding someone who actually has the authority to make things happen. There are good big companies. FedEx and Blue Cross of Florida both monitor social media and work to solve problems quickly. I'd rate them right up at the top. There are some excellent domain registrars and I've got a direct phone number to the CEO of one of them. If something goes awry, I call. On the other had, there are a couple of registrars that seem to go out of their way to be difficult. Even AOL recognizes the need for a local touch, which is why we both have the opportunity to enjoy the local editions of patch.com. I appreciate your comment about Wordpress. It is indeed an excellent platform and I've been using it for a number of customer websites in the past year. Our company website is NOT built with Wordpress, primarily because I wanted to try out another platform when I did the last full makeover of the site. The last updates were earlier this month (eg. the link to our July newsletter on the main page) and a number of new pages are scheduled to go live this week. On our site, I've been more concerned with content rather than features. I'll likely use Wordpress the next time around so I can take advantage of the blogging features...that is unless something better comes along first.
Rob Marlowe July 31, 2012 at 12:42 AM
Sean, Smaller companies HAVE to be more nimble, or the elephants will tromp all over them.
Michael D. August 03, 2012 at 01:35 PM
As an IT professional (software/process development) with both Masters in both IT and Business I found that a business regardless of size needs to have balance. The problem isn't in the size, it is the culture. In the 1980/90s, the culture of IT was very find a solution. Then fit the process into that solution. Now the culture is to make a solution and a processes that works as one. Some large companies are just as responsive as smaller companies. Some small companies are just a slow as some large companies. It is up to the business man to find what is comfortable to them. And the most effective way of contacting them. Example, when I'm helping freinds with their Bright House service, I go straight to twitter. There customer service phone line gives horrible service and in most cases will ask me to do things I have already done, then hang up. Or in the past they have directly lied to me to get me off the phone (it sucked for them I recorded the call and replayed it back to them when they told me that is not what was said). There twitter account is very fast, responsive, and effective. Rob I like your articles and though I agree with some and disagree with other point I do thing at least it gets people talking. Jason makes a good point on bigger busineses can be responsive and how steps needed to be taken by any IT Process weither System Design or Software Development.
Rob Marlowe August 04, 2012 at 11:22 AM
Michael, Thanks for the comments. If my articles get folks thinking, my time writing has been well spent. It sounds like we aren't all that different in educational background as I also have an MBA. I don't write software anymore, but I like to break things, so I have been beta testing one thing or another for the last 20 years. You make an excellent point: Some big companies have the right culture. As I mentioned in my comment to Jason, FedEx "gets it" and I'm glad to hear that Brighthouse joins Florida Blue Cross in watching social media. That is a huge step in the right direction. I have a personal friend at the VP level in Brighthouse, so I call and get her to connect me to the right supervisor if their telephone support can't solve a problem. Access to real people makes all the difference in the world. The typical big company seems to do everything it can to insulate the company CEO from unhappy customers. That often includes making it difficult or impossible for someone to call the company switchboard and get through to the executive offices. If you can get through to a heartbeat in the executive suite, they can usually make things happen. Large companies can get away with being non-responsive, at least to some extent (eg. the telephone technical support you mentioned). Small companies don't have that luxury. Especially in today's economy, they are responsive, or they don't survive for long

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