Skype will never succeed as a replacement for your home phone…

…so long as they’re happy to just “block” people’s accounts and prevent them from using the service.

Last night I tried calling my wife and I kept getting “call failed”. So I tried from my computer, thinking my Skype phone was screwy. I got the dreaded “account blocked” message.

I rely exclusively on Skype for my phone. I have a San Francisco SkypeIn number, a Brisbane SkypeIn number, a Skype home phone and I also rely on Skype To Go to make international calls from my mobile phone. Aside from my T-mobile bill, they now get all of my telecommunications money.

Regardless of my long-term account which has always been dutifully topped up using their auto-billing, for a reason they never both communicating to me, they have completely blocked any internal or external calls aside from Skype to Skype.

The worst aspects to this are:

  • No notification of the blocking event
  • No explanation for the blocking
  • No customer support to get the account unblocked

I had to file a support ticket requesting they unblock my account.  There are no standard mechanisms for doing this – I had to go to support and select “Other help”.  I emailed a few people at Skype directly, but haven’t heard back from them either.  Other people in the same predicament reported between 4-10 days to get their account unblocked.  In the meantime I am completely without home phone service or international calling.  I am surprised I hadn’t heard of this before it happened to me — I can only imagine as they keep doing this to people they will continue to drive away customers to other VOIP solutions or cell phones.

Update 09/25/08:

Well, first of all I found out there is a dedicate help section for unblocking your account, but it amounts to the same as selecting other help.

Secondly, thank you to Peter in the comments for offering to help out which is very nice indeed.  After filing two tickets, I got in contact with Peeter Mõtsküla who was gracious enough to contact support for me and help resolve the problem.

I also found out the reason my account was blocked.  A couple of months ago I had some fraudulent activity on one of my credit cards.  As such I was issued a new card, but I decided to close the account.  As such when my autobill went through it got rejected and Skype emailed me to let me know that on August 16th.  Either way I think this would have been triggered since the original credit card number was no longer valid.

The weirdest thing is that it wasn’t until September 18th that my account was blocked due to the credit card rejection.  No ‘invalid’ funds had been withdrawn, and everything was fine otherwise.  Pretty frustrating stuff, but good to know Skype has some great people working for them!

How not to run customer support

I just got back from vacation last week.  It was a whirlwind tour of Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the UK.  I had a great time, sampling a lot of beer and seeing a lot of cool places.

At the start of the trip, I was connecting from London Heathrow to Oslo.  Given I had around 5 hours to kill in Terminal 5, I decided to pony up for some airport wifi.  They have several providers in T5, and I went with the brand name I knew, which also had a decent price.  Boingo.

Everything was just peachy when I signed up. Then I tried to log in.  Complete brick wall – everything started timing out, and authentication just wouldn’t happen.  No biggie, I signed up for another provider and sent an email to them letting them know their wifi wasn’t working at that location and if I could get a refund.

Hi there,

I just tried to sign up for Boingo and it worked just fine for taking my credit card details.  However, after this I was unable to surf the internet – the client I downloaded could not authenticate me, nor did the online authentication work.  The online authentication seemed to work momentarily and then sites began timing out.  I tried restarting the computer and reconnecting, but even the unauthenticated pages wouldn’t work.  I had plenty of wireless signal.  I have screenshots of the problems if that helps.

I needed to use the net in a hurry and ended up having to buy access through another wifi provider.  Since Boingo could not provide the service I paid for, could I please get a refund?  My username is <xxx>.


After three days, I hadn’t heard anything.  Hmm, not a good sign.  This time I CCed service as well as support.


I haven’t heard anything back yet, and was hoping someone could help me with this?


This is the response I got (literally the whole email):

Thanks for contacting Boingo Wireless.

What is your username?

Irritating and unhelpful, but nevermind – I can understand that CSRs are usually busy and overworked.

Hi there,

As per my original email, it is <xxx>.


A day later I got another response…

Thanks for contacting Boingo Wireless.

It could be any number of things and your account status is active.

So that we can better trouble shoot you please call when you are at the hotspot location.

I didn’t think they could be serious. This is how you’ve trained your CSRs to help customers?  For a company that is based entirely on wireless hotspots?  You ask your travelling customers to go back to the hotspot they had trouble in and to troubleshoot from there, days after their missed opportunity?

Finally, I requested a refund again:


I was at Heathrow Airport for a period of 5 hours, and needed the service then.  I am in the middle of a trip, and I will not be back at the service location.

This is getting very frustrating – I would really like a refund, otherwise I will need to request a chargeback from my credit card company.


This was the response:

We were unable to locate an account for you, with the info provided below. You should not be charged.

At this point (a week after first requesting the refund), it seems like a customer care supervisor saw our back and forth, and thankfully intervened.  I can happily say I then received the refund:

Dear Tim Cederman-Haysom,

Thanks for contacting Boingo Wireless.

This is to confirm your refund of 5.95 to your credit card and we do apologize for this inconvenience.

If we can be of any additional help, please don’t hesitate to contact our Customer Care team.  We’re available 24/7.

Warm regards,
Brenda Cooper
Online Customer Care

It is safe to say that I stuck to Boingo alternatives for the rest of the trip.  The worst part about providing sub-par support like this is you don’t lose a single customer: you lose the word of mouth from them as well.  I’m still not sure why people skimp on providing excellent customer support when companies like Amazon, Fog Creek and Zappos have used customer support to as a way to get talked about, in a good way, and this word of mouth brings an incredible amount of business.

Incidently I had great service from The Cloud, the alternative I used, and T-mobile wasn’t bad either when my wife used it with her roaming account.

Spamming users

One of the great things about Australia is we have a very strong department in the government called the ACCC.  The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission does a great job of keeping things fair in Australia between businesses and consumers.  While this can be seen as hampering free trade and an open market, they actually do a great job of keeping a “treat people fairly” mentality prevalent, and in practice there is great competition in Australia.

The ACCC help support other branches of government such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority with things like the 2003 Spam Act.  As per the ACCC, “Under the Spam Act it is illegal to send, or cause to be sent, ‘unsolicited commercial electronic messages’ that have an Australian link.”

What this means is even if you have a prior business relationship, if you haven’t explicitly stated “send me emails about stuff”, businesses are in breach of the act if they send you anything to do with a commercial site at all.

Since moving to the US I’ve noticed that on almost every site I use, if I give my email address I can expect to start receiving a decent amount of crap from that company.  For a lot of businesses it ends up losing them income in the long run by alienating power users who would otherwise use word-of-mouth to promote that business.

Lately I’ve noticed something somewhat sinister.  I’ve been trying to unsubscribe from websites and regardless of what I do, I remain on the lists.  Sometimes it’s because the company obfuscates the removal process (hi Mint – by the way, thanks for sending super-confidential details via email without asking me first!  Shame your site is so pretty, so I forgive you), but I’ve seen several examples of late where the unsubscribe is just plain broken.

So let me name and shame some people.

The worst two:

Lee Jeans is a shocker.  Unsubscribe link that does nothing at all.  I had to add them to a deletion filter, as numerous emails to members of staff did nothing to resolve this.  Even mention of the Spam Act did nothing to help.

JobFox.  Ahh, JobFox.  I tried everything I could to unsubscribe from JobFox.  I edited all my preferences, I clicked on links, I emailed the helpdesk, and then I even emailed individual members of their team.  Nothing.  Also added to the deletion queue.

Then there are a whole bunch of smaller sites (Hi DavinciTeam).  Thankfully some startups at least listen when you write to them.  I got a very impressive response from Mixx via the Director of Product Management, Will Kern:

I wanted to let you know that this has been taken care of.  You will no longer receive marketing e-mails from Mixx.  Let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.

Me: Thanks very much – and thanks for letting me know too (and on a Saturday no less!).

Will: You are most welcome!  Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, who keeps track ;-)

Very pleasant and prompt.  You guys are definitely back in my good books!

Workology also had a similar bug, but again, I got a prompt, helpful response which was great.

Finally, I wish I could remember the name of the site who had an unsubscribe link to nowhere.  Checking back a couple of weeks later and there was a page but with no options on it.

Update: Just remembered.  Stumbleupon.  I never did get a reply from your customer service team either, although thankfully the emails stopped.

All of this begs the question, why do so many companies have broken systems?  Is it a deliberate thing?  Is QA behind the ball?  Am I just unlucky?  Inquiring minds wish to know.

All I do know is it really hammers home just how underappreciated the asynchronous user experience is.  Incorrect or poorly timed emails, slow-to-arrive confirmations, sensitive information, spam, and poor control of all of this can have a huge effect on the user experience of the site.  While this part of design for a new application usually comes late in the process, it doesn’t mean it should be treated as an afterthought or not part of the user experience.

The Consumerist should stop giving a voice to the entitled.

I love the Consumerist. Honest I do. But all too often the ‘problem consumers’ are making it their soapbox. I’m all for the little guy getting a leg-up against corporations, but there are people who try to achieve what is right when fighting with businesses, and there is people who try to get what they think they are owed.  In this case, the consumer in question isn’t trying to get a freebie, but basically an Apple store exercises its right to refuse a sale because  they suspect the customer is going to unlock the phone.  The customer responds by having a tantrum.

I still don’t understand the volume of commenters at the Consumerist who side against the consumer, but here is one of the few occasions I will join them:

Now I am about to lose it.

“First off, you have NO right to dictate to me what I do and do not do with a product I purchase. If I pay FULL RETAIL PRICE for something, I can smash it with hammers and throw the pieces off the Grand Canyon if I so choose!”

Purchasing an iPhone at full retail price carries with it no commitment to anything, and to make assumptions to what I plan to do with the phone is complete discrimination. What if I wanted to give it as a gift to my girlfriend and she would be able to activate on her own accord???

I explain all of this, calmly mind you, and then ask them to call their corporate office. Mrs. CSR #1 says “We are corporate”

So now they’ve lowered themselves to LYING to my face. Awesome.

“You’re corporate? I make more money in one day then you make all week Mrs. Corporate

Now THEY’RE really pissed and tell me they are calling security. I tell them go ahead! I’m not stealing, Im not breaking things, Im not wildly running around the store naked & screaming “The iPhones are your demi-god! OBEY!” I am trying to PURCHASE a product and agree to the terms of their contract!!!!!

“We are denying to sell to you”

I fold my arms and wait. Three security guards show up and I take the ‘leader’ aside and explain. He has NO idea what to do. He actually calls the main office, his boss, and asks what to do in this kind of situation. The security boss says the store CAN deny me the sale and asks the security guard to pass along that message to me.

Passengers to start getting fingerprinted at Heathrow

In another life I was an information security tutor. Security is such a fascinating topic, both to teach and learn. I can’t get enough of it, and routinely end up taking part in security decisions at my company, just because it’s a startup, and I can. I have a background in usability and user experience research, and I love trying to solve the problem of the balance between user frustration and protection.

Anyway, I digress. Security theatre is such a problem at the moment, 6.5 years after September 11th. Cory Doctorow from BoingBoing has posted the latest ridiculous element of “security” to be enforced, with some excellent commentary.

Britain’s breaking new ground in the slide into a total surveillance state: as of the end of this month, domestic passengers at the new Heathrow Terminal 5 will be fingerprinted and photographed twice, to “ensure the passenger boarding the aircraft is the same person.”

Well, I suppose that if you’re the kind of lazy suicide bomber who believes in dying for the cause — but not if it means rebooking your ticket or, you know, driving to Stansted or Gatwick or East Midlands or Manchester, this’ll work. And that sounds like a pretty good adversary analysis. We all know how easily dissuaded suicide bombers are.

Virgin America

As a frequent reader of BoingBoing I was sold on their glowing recommendation of Virgin America. I later discovered business relations existed, but it did sound pretty cool. So based on said recommendation I purchased tickets to fly to Seattle in May. Virgin’s website recommended that you buy as soon as possible, as they offer all the cheapest fares first. In fact, the exact quote is:

To cash in on the savings, we encourage you to book as soon as possible so you can get the lowest rate.

So I did. And then the fares promptly went down. And then down some more. The tickets now cost $50 less than when I bought them. I had a similar frustration a few months ago with JetBlue. JetBlue then promptly credited me the difference.

VirginAmerica? Not such good customer service. I’ve so far received three template emails, all telling me I have to pay $40 to get a price difference – and one real one. After the third template email I wrote back to let them know of the JetBlue policy as I had seen it, but asked for a $10 credit based on their policy. The reply I got was:

Please call our Reservations line and they will be able to assist you from there.

I just wanted to give you an update. I just called JetBlue and the $40.00 change fee was implemented a month ago. …Just so you know if you choose to fly them again!

Wow, great way to build customer relations Virgin America! A supremely unhelpful email, and I did like the way you rubbed my nose in it. Kudos.

Fighting for consumer rights

I’m a big fan of The Consumerist (although sometimes the commenters are somewhat rabidly against the consumer – what on Earth are they doing at a site called The Consumerist?), but seeing as they didn’t post my great experience with Netgear, I’ll post it here. The long and the short of it is that when my phone was playing up and regular support wasn’t helpful, a well placed email to the executives at Netgear did wonders. They could have just ignored me, but I can’t praise them enough for listening to a frustrated consumer and going to such lengths to sort out my problem.

I just had an interesting experience with Netgear. I bought a Skype phone (SPH200D) from them a year ago and it’s been somewhat buggy since I got it. I spoke with an engineer soon after getting it about the problems I was having, and this initial contact was a great experience and we resolved things well enough with workarounds.

Fast forward to last month and the phone was having call quality issues as well as the bugs. I tried to contact Netgear to resolve it and went through customer support hell – people not reading my requests properly and sending out template responses that weren’t relevant (my biggest pet hate of customer support), support tickets getting ignored, and on top of that a repair/replacement program that I had to pay for, which would leave me without a home phone for 2 weeks.

Using tips from the Consumerist of emailing the executive team, I sent an email to the Senior VP of Worldwide Sales and Support yesterday, simply stating what had happened. I wasn’t trying to get a “freebie” or “compensation”, I just wanted to let him know there were problems with their support program. Ultimately it ‘worked’ and I was getting a replacement phone but the process was very frustrating and did not get any initial resolvement.

Today I received a call from an engineer at their Santa Clara headquarters. He apologised for the difficulties and discussed all the problems with me. He then organised an immediate replacement, with free shipping directly to him so he could analyse the problems first hand. This is a great response. I didn’t expect anything, so to get priority replacement treatment was nice, but the best part was that they actually listened to my problem and *are trying to fix it*. It’s very rare that companies will pay such close attention to a product a year old. Kudos Netgear.