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My Earthlink nightmare

Customer service helps get small businesses through the tough times.

The fourth quarter of 2000 was tough on business, especially in the tech sector. Apple had its first loss in several years; Compaq didn’t meet expectations. Dell and Gateway suffered. Yet some companies managed to meet expectations and weather the storm. When times are as tough as they have been lately, you have to scratch your head and wonder how they did it.

As I edited our annual Small Business Computing edition, it struck me that this information is just what our readers need this month. I’m no business genius, but I do know that anybody can make money when the economy is booming like it was in the first quarter of 2000. The true test of a solid business is whether it can continue to grow when the market is soft. Few businesses have such mettle, and those that do pay attention to business fundamentals–chief among them good customer service. If you don’t have good customer service, you’re going to feel the tough times.

Consider my recent experience with Earthlink. PC makers aren’t the only ones who have felt the pain of late. ISPs are consolidating at record levels, and even the big guns are having trouble with their business models, which depend on new subscribers in a shrinking dial-up access market.

I’d been looking to get an ISP that I can use on the road without long-distance charges. An Earthlink setup came with my iMac, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I chose my handle and followed the procedure to register with the service. The software dialed an Earthlink 800 number, and my modem linked up. Twice I got an error message stating that my handle had been taken and I had to start the process over from scratch. A half-hour later, I got through with an unused handle, and the software said I had successfully registered.

But when I tried to use the service, the local dial-up system kept giving me the “authentication failed” error message. So I called customer support. Because there is no support number anywhere in the software, I looked it up in my local White Pages. When I dialed the number, I got a now-familiar message:

“All Earthlink sales lines are currently busy; please hold the line and a representative will be with you in 20 minutes.”

I waited on hold, hoping the message was wrong and listening to crappy music interspersed with ads for Earthlink services. When I finally got a live person, he said I had dialed the wrong number and asked what number I had dialed. I asked why this was important. “Just give me the number you dialed,” he said curtly (this was a sales guy). I dug back through my White Pages and read off the number. “OK, the White Pages are wrong. I’ll transfer you to customer support.” He transferred me before I had a chance to object.

“All Earthlink customer support lines are currently busy; please hold the line and your call will be answered in 18 minutes.”

Well, I really wanted to get this thing working, so I waited through more crappy music and ads. This time around I also had to put up with the voice of someone urging me to hold the line because my call was “very important.” When I finally got a live customer-support person, I read off all my information, and he said my data were not in the system, but he could transfer me to customer service. Before I had a chance to respond, he transferred me.

“All Earthlink customer service lines are currently busy; please hold the line and your call will be answered in 23 minutes,” followed by more hold music interspersed with ads and that mocking voice telling me that my call is important.

Finally, I got a live customer-service representative who asked for more personal information, including credit-card numbers. He too could not find my information on his database. “Would you like to be transferred to sales?” he asked. “It says there’s only an eight-minute wait.”

“OK,” I said reluctantly, hoping the nightmare would soon be over.

“All Earthlink sales lines are currently busy; please hold the line and your call will be answered in 22 minutes.”


This was on a Saturday afternoon. I shudder to think what it’s like at peak times. It’s no wonder Earthlink has trouble making its sign-up goals in tough economic times when it treats customers and prospective customers this way.

In contrast, consider this example. As I said, the American PC market has softened and shows little promise of improving in the near term. The companies that have been hit the hardest by this market downturn are small custom builders, resellers, and systems integrators. We know how bad it is when three or four hardware advertisers in each of our local print markets goes out of business.

Yet, in my market (Minneapolis) we have an advertiser that keeps going strong and whose business continues to grow–General NanoSystems. The reason? The owner has not deviated from his business philosophy since day one: Don’t just sell computers, make good on a promise to support them.

While I have not purchased from General NanoSystems, I have a friend who is a loyal customer. He says every time he goes into its store, there is a live person helping someone with a machine and other customers happily waiting their turn and offering suggestions to the customer support person. It’s like a coffee shop that happens to sell PCs instead of scones.

Customer service is such a Business 101 thing. No one would deliberately offer bad service, especially not small-business folks, who often compete with the big boys on the basis of their support. Most companies that know they have sub-par customer service feel helpless to improve, however, because the talent market in IT is so tight. And our studies show that most openings are on the help desk.

Bad customer service is mostly a matter of not being able to find people to staff the lines. But you can help this situation by investing in back-end support systems–call tracking, integrated voice-over IP, and so on–that enable your short-staffed help desk avoid situations like my Earthlink experience. And you can instill in your help desk an understanding that they are not the bottom rung of the organization, but the part of the business that helps get it through the tough times.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser.

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