I’ve used a small web hosting firm called Sonnet Hosting for about five years, primarily as an email provider. Whilst something like Hotmail might be more reliable, I prefer to pay a small monthly sum to get some control over how my email works. Firstly, I prefer to use email on my own domain names, and secondly, I like to set up valiases routing rules so that different recipients see a different domain alias. The latter is a great anti-spam mechanism, especially when used in conjunction with the multiple identity feature in Horde:Imp (I found out about the play.com data leak using this simple approach).
In theory, paying a hosting company gives the customer a greater right to complain, and better access to customer support. But my experience with Sonnet, which started out well, has been really patchy for a long while, and my tribulations give valuable insight into how web-only support should be conducted. As it stands, I have several unanswered queries (non-urgent items back in May and Oct 2010, and now a more important item a couple of days old). This problem isn’t new either, as I was receiving apologies from the firm for poor support way back in 2006!
1. Minimise the number of contact points
Sonnet have several websites, variously for new business and support: sonnetuk.net, sonnethosting.co.uk, sonnetdesign.co.uk and sonnetuk.info. Each of these have various sub-domains for server statuses, announcements and so forth, and so knowing where to go for a support query can be tricky. This plethora of sites is a fine example of a provider giving themselves more unnecessary work to do.
In terms of getting in touch, one can email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or complete the web-based form – phew! True, it is often useful for firm themselves to direct different kinds of email traffic to different kinds of staff, but if support breaks down (as it has here, and not for the first or second time) users will start emailing several in one go (as I sometimes do, perhaps with an affecting dash of naive optimism).
2. Ensure all customer-facing systems are kept up-to-date
A wonderful new ‘Cerberus’ helpdesk system was promised in 2006, and never materialised; meanwhile the helpdesk subdomain looks somewhat forlorn, featuring an ancient apology that has gathered dust. The “knowledge base”, which I’ve never used, is presently offering visitors a lovely 500 Server Error. There is a billing portal too, but the SSL cert expired 44 days ago – a common problem with this host.
The announcements page was last updated nearly two years ago; meanwhile, a support forum at sonnetforums.com, still recommended by the contact page, sits on an expired domain, and currently risks being purchased by any cheesed-off customer wanting to garner support staff attention that he or she has paid for. The uptime monitor also sits strangely empty at the time of writing, and the “Spring offers” graphics on the home-page are for 2009, not 2011.
Ah, you say, this is simply a web host going out of business; it happens all the time, and you need to grab your data in a nice big tarball and go to another host before it all goes pop! Well, not so fast, grasshopper: the status page has been recently updated, and not only that: I received a real, honest-to-goodness human-written announcement this month, proudly announcing that SonnetUK is rebranding as “Pixel Source” in Spring 2011, and that they “look forward to continuing to serve you in the future under our new name” (insert your preference of canned laughter here, from either Open All Hours or Fawlty Towers).
Edit: I nearly forgot. The main reason I think the host is still alive is that my service still works, and, of course, they’re still taking monthly payments.
3. Test your contact points
As above, several times it has seemed that my efforts to contact have been sent straight to /dev/null, whether they are by email or contact form (one suspects that the contact form just generates an email anyway, which is likely also sending electrons into the recycler). The first rule of running a helpdesk, of course, is to install helpdesk software; this is so critical that I’d take a tip from Chuck Palahniuk and make it my second rule as well. There’s no reason why this can’t manage all incoming email and contact forms, and email the customer automatically with a reference number. I’ve seen tiny one-person hosts do this – and do it effectively – so size is no excuse.
Once contact points are suitably managed, they should be tested. Regularly, often, and better still, on an automated basis. If email/web was the lifeline of my business, you can be sure I’d set up cron to send an email, at random times, to random aliases, to test for support software failure, mail server bounces, dns issues and delete-happy or grumpy support staff. I reckon it’d take a couple of hours to set up a simple version, and incremental improvements could be added as time goes on.
Right, off to try another support channel now! 😮