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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site

All I wanted was to watch a few movies.

I had been spreading myself pretty thin and I needed a break, so I decided to spend a week or two just loafing, catching up on my reading and generally entertaining myself. And I had this new DVD player, so, naturally I was looking forward to something of a mini-film festival, too.

"Eyes Wide Shut" and "The Sixth Sense" were both about to be released on DVD -- "The Sixth Sense" in a special extended version with extra footage and a somewhat different ending -- and I wanted to see both movies. Then there was the director's cut of "Aliens" -- a version I've never seen -- and a half-dozen or so other flicks near the top of my must-see queue and, well, let's just say that I was pretty much asking the world for another practical example of Murphy's Law.

Obligingly enough, the world provided me with Netflix.com.

The Good Guys -- from whom I purchased my DVD player -- had given me a certificate to "Get up to 18* FREE DVD Movie Rentals" (their capitalization and emphasis) "from Netflix.com when you purchase a DVD player form The Good Guys." The asterisk was connected to fine print that guaranteed a minimum of 8 movie rentals -- about as many as I'd have time for -- and inside was a redemption number to use on Netflix's Web site.

And right next to it was the notation, "Promotion valid 8/20/99 - 3/31/00".

So I pointed my browser at www.netflix.com and entered my little redemption code in the space provided and presto! No Good Guys special offer.

Instead, the only choice I was given was to try their so-called "Marquee" program for a month. If I liked it -- meaning "if I forgot to cancel it" -- they'd charge my credit card a mere $19.95 a month for unlimited DVD rentals.

There was absolutely no special deal involved. Any first-time customer was eligible for the 30-day Marquee trial. And frankly, that kind of irked me. What was worse, this "free" offer -- and the word "free" on the not-at-all-special offer from The Good Guys and Netflix was not only in all caps, it and the number 18 were in red ink, while all the other type was in black ink -- was going to cost me some $5.31 in "initial shipping costs."

And that actually pissed me off.

Even so, despite my misgivings, I went ahead and entered my credit card information. Then I set up a to-do list item to cancel my membership within 30 days.

See, I was already on vacation -- mentally, if not physically -- and wasting valuable recreation time being angry wasn't in my game plan. I was after good vibes, not bad ones; fun, not frustration; relaxation, not rage.

Silly me.

Within minutes, I had received two email messages from Netflix. The first one, welcoming me to Netflix and my unwanted Marquee trial, was clearly script-generated. So was the second one, informing me that they had been "unable to process" my credit card number and requesting that I supply a new card number and expiration date.

Now, I'm merely human, so I knew it was not beyond the realm of possibility that I had mis-entered the card number or something. However, I also knew that a backhoe had cut a major fiber-optic bundle in San Jose a couple of days earlier and that businesses all over the South Bay had been experiencing major problems with credit card verification -- not to mention voice and data services -- ever since.

That and the way I'd been forced into the Marquee program trial made me hesitate to simply comply with Netflix's request for a substitute credit card. Something just felt wrong.

So I once again pointed my browser at Netflix and began my search for contact information.

There wasn't much. On the press contact page, there was an email address, service@netflix.com, a postal address and a pointer to their press representative, Missy Davy at PR firm Bender/Helper Impact. Otherwise, there was just a CGI form to submit email to their customer service department.

I settled for the latter. My email explained that I felt their forcing me into the Marquee trial was an example of bait-and-switch tactics -- and that I thought the California Attorney General might agree with my viewpoint. I also told them that I felt uncomfortable supplying them with a new credit card number without first verifying whether I had correctly entered the information for the first one and stated I thought the problem was theirs to resolve.

Then I logged off the computer for the day -- I was supposed to be on vacation, remember -- and turned my attention to matters of greater immediate import. Which is to say, I spent the rest of the evening playing guitar and reading comic books.

That was March 16th.

When I checked my email the following day, I found I had recieved two more automated email messages from Netflix. The first one informed me that they had suspended delivery of my first order -- the one that included "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Aliens" -- until I supplied them with new credit card information. The second informed me that "due to an overwhelming response to our new Marquee program, customer service action on your email may take 3-4 days."

That long a delay wasn't going to work for me. I figured that I'd originally had around 10 days in which to do all the vacating I was likely to do for another six months. One of those days was already kaput. Could I afford to wait four more for a response, then another two or three days for my first order to arrive?

I could not.

I decided that the only solution was to send email to Missy Davy, Netflix's PR rep. In it, I mentioned my misgivings about how her client had forced me into its Marquee trial and suggested that I was leaning toward writing a column about my experiences. I closed by saying, "I'm willing to be persuaded that what I have experienced of Netflix thus far is an anomaly -- and that I ought to choose some other topic for my column -- but that persuasion is going to have to be pretty convincing and fairly immediate, in order to be effective."

That was March 17th.

Time passed.

On March 23rd, I received yet another automated reminder from Netflix that they wanted a new credit card number.

On March 29 -- 13 days after my initial contact with Netflix -- I got another robot-generated email. This one informed me that, because I hadn't given them replacement credit card information, they were cancelling my order.

Finally, on Monday, April 3rd -- more than two-and-a-half weeks after my original contact with Netflix (and more than a week after my little vacation ended) -- I first received a response from a human being.

The note -- from a customer service rep named Megan -- began by divulging the telephone number for Netflix's customer service. (It's 888-638-3549, btw.) Megan invited me to call to verify my credit card information, then went on to apologize for "any confusion" about the Good Guys' offer. She explained that I must have had an old coupon, since Netflix had switched over strictly to Marquee the previous October.

Unfortunately, I had just finished pulling an all-nighter and was deeply engrossed in a close study of the inside of my eyelids by the time Megan's message went out. Running deferred errands and attending to civic responsibilities ate my entire Tuesday, and it was Wednesday, April 5th before I actually received and read her email.

At 4:30pm PDT, I called Netflix's customer service number. It rang once, then it connected me to an announcement explaining "all our service representatives are currently helping other customers. Your call will be answered in the order it was received."

A Netflix rep picked up my call within no more than 20 seconds after I was placed on hold.

Now, on the surface, this might sound like a Good Thing. After all, 20 seconds is pretty snappy service for a customer service line -- especially one with an 888 phone number. The problem is, to get that number in the first place, I had had to wait 18 days for an email response from these same folks. If they could pick up my call in 20 seconds, it was only because they'd been keeping that telephone number a deep, dark secret.

Not good.

Also not good was the response I got from the fellow that first answered my call. From the way he stumbled over his greeting and the way he kept asking me to repeat myself, I suspected it must be his first day on the job. I asked to speak to his supervisor.

Her name was Monica. She asked what she could do for me, so I told her my story -- much as I've related it to you.

Monica was polite, endlessly apologetic for my inconvenience and eager to do whatever was necessary to make sure that I go away with a positive impression of Netflix. The thing is though, from my perspective, the problem had changed.

Had I gotten a response to my original email within a reasonable time -- say 48 hours or so -- I'd've probably grumbled a little, but I'd also likely have simply verified my credit card info and gotten on with life. By April 5th, however, I was long since done with my vacation and unlikely to have a chance for another one for half a year or more.

And for Netflix to take 18 days to generate a reply from a human being was a completely, utterly, totally unacceptable level of customer service.

Monica agreed. Once again, she apologized profusely and asked what she could do to turn the situation around.

I told her that I had a column due in two days and that I intended to write about my experience with her employer. I suggested that, if Netflix wanted to avoid being characterized in that column as an example of how to do customer service the wrong way, it would need to convince me that it had a viable strategy to reduce its human response time to a maximum of 48 hours -- and that that would require escalating the problem to the executive level.

Monica promised to do her best. I thanked her for her time and we parted company.

I was somewhat reassured by my conversation with Monica. She had seemed to take my call seriously and seemed, too, to be fairly intelligent. She certainly sounded like she intended to follow through on her promise. I even had some faint hope that Netflix's executives might at least acknowledge their customer service problem and agree to do something about it.

I should have known better.

At 12:08pm the next day, April 6, while I was watching the noon news, the phone rang. On the other end was a young man named Matt. It didn't take long to establish that he was a customer service supervisor with Netflix -- just like Monica had been.

In just under 20 hours, I had gotten exactly nowhere. The problem hadn't been escalated at all -- or, if it had, it had been kicked back downstairs.

To say that I was unhappy would be putting it mildly. When Matt asked how he could help me, I told him that he probably couldn't, and that I wanted to speak to his supervisor.

He didn't like that and he swiftly turned antagonistic.

"That's not going to happen," he said. "The buck stops here. As far as you're concerned, I'm the end of the line."

Matt may well have read Dave McClure's April Boardwatch article on "problem" customers -- a piece I, personally, thought was profoundly wrongheaded -- because he tried a bunch of its most irksomely passive-aggressive verbal baiting techniques on me. It took me 10 minutes to get him to shut up, quit threatening to hang up, stop complaining about my "tone" and simply listen to my story.

I finally managed to get his attention after he revealed that our conversation was being tape-recorded.

"Good!" I responded. "In fact, great! Wonderful! I can't tell you how glad I am that there's a verbatim record of this call -- and here's why:

"In California, the law requires that, before you record any telephone call, you first inform the person you intend to record and obtain that person's verbal consent to being recorded. You failed to do either one -- and we've been talking for 10 minutes now. If I'm not mistaken, that's a felony, Matt.

"Now, if you'll just be quiet and let me tell you my story, I think you'll come to understand just why I don't think there's anything you can do to help me."

And he was and I did. Just as I had for Monica, the day before. And, by the time I finished, Matt's attitude had undergone a remarkable change. The hostility and the hectoring tone were gone. He had become, instead, polite, apologetic and concerned -- even a little worried.

He offered to validate my credit card number.

"Sorry, Matt. It's too late for that. I won't have time to watch movies again for months."

"I can set it up to be real low-maintenance," he offered.

I sighed.

I know a bribe when I'm offered one. Netflix only offers Marquee service these days -- at $19.95 a month.

"As a member of the computer trade press," I told him, "I'm used to vendors and manufacturers giving me special treatment in some respects. It's a mutally-symbiotic relationship, for the most part. They're always eager to get their products into my hands and, if they're not too buggy or broken, I sometimes even say nice things about them.

"The thing is, when it comes to accepting services that aren't available to the general public, well, I kind of have an ethical problem with that. You understand."

"I guess so," he responded. He definitely sounded worried now. "Is there anything that I can do for you, Mr. Stark?"

"I doubt it, Matt. But, if you want to try, I'd suggest you escalate this to the VP of Operations or COO -- and impress on him or her that he has until noon, tomorrow, to convince me that he's prepared to address these issues in a substantive way."

"And that would be what, Mr. Stark?"

"At a minimum? He or she would have to convince me that you -- and by 'you', I mean 'Netflix as a company' -- have a viable strategy to reduce your human response time to a maximum of 48 hours within 30 days. And you'd have to post an offer to refund the $5.31 shipping fee to everyone who came to your Web site with an offer code for something else, but got forced into your Marquee program instead.

"Otherwise, Matt, I'm going to use my bully pulpit to hammer you -- because that's what I do."

"Here's what I'm going to do," he replied. "As soon as we hang up, I'm going to go to my supervisor, Jesus Lopez, and together we're going to compose a memo to the chief operating officer about this. What will happen from there, I can't tell you."

And that's where we left it.

It's now coming up hard on noon, Monday, April 10. This column is now a week overdue, but, in good conscience, I had to give Netflix every opportunity to redeem themselves, before I used this space to take them to task.

Strictly wasted effort, of course. I haven't heard a single peep out of Netflix in the past four days.

So here's what I think:

I think for a Web-based service business to take 18 days to respond to a customer service request is inexcusable. The Netflix reps I talked to both mentioned the unexpectedly high volume of email they'd received since the switch to the all-Marquee policy as an excuse for the long response time.

That's horse hockey. By the beginning of April, 2000, the Marquee-only policy had been in place for over six months.

Netflix might be excused for failing to anticipate high mail volumes for the first couple of weeks -- perhaps even the first month or so -- but it has permitted this problem to persist for half a year or more without making any noticable progress toward solving it. At best, this represents a staggering level of incompetence that is suspiciously out of keeping with its high level of proficiency at tracking orders, shipping and handling videotapes and at billing and tracking customers.

It seems more reasonable to conclude that the true explanation is less innocent.

In point of fact, I believe that Netflix's chronic Sisyphean email backlog is a product of a corporate policy of deliberate neglect. I think customers HATE the Marquee program's high monthly maintenance fee and the lack of any alternative and they've been bombarding Netflix with criticism about it ever since October.

I also think Netflix is trapped. I think its original business model proved unworkable -- and that the mandatory Marquee model it's been imposing on its customers as a substitute is an absolute failure. I think it's been a nightmare for Netflix.

And I don't think it's going to survive, even if it manages to escape getting slapped with a class-action suit for bait-and-switch tactics.

It's hemorrhaging money, customers and good will at a horrific rate. Soon it'll bleed out entirely. Then the vultures will pick off its bones what little meat is left and eventually there'll be nothing left of Netflix but the memory of another horrible example of how not to run a Web-based service business.

And, next time I need a break, I'll be renting my DVD movies from somebody else.

(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)