ISP Customer Service a Dead Art Form?

from the lets-hope-nobody-notices-our-screw-up dept

The e-mail and connection reliability of major ISPs frequently leaves plenty to be desired. MIA e-mail is most frequently thanks to botched spam fighting efforts, such as when Verizon customers suddenly stopped getting e-mail from outside the country. Or more recently when BellSouth’s spam fighting system was so poorly implemented, people weren’t getting any e-mail, forcing them to revert to their previous spam fighting solution. Huge outages thanks to network upgrades or transfers is also a concern, as many of the customers caught in the Adelphia, Comcast, and Time Warner cable switcharoo can attest.

PBS’s Bob Cringely laments that there really are no consumer protections for these kinds of outages, and that ISPs are increasingly willing to bumble their way through botched network upgrades or capacity issues while hoping impacted customers don’t notice. Users seem increasingly willing to click through mouse-print EULAs that leave them with no room to complain if their service stinks. One obvious solution would be to upgrade to a business line with some kind of reliability guarantee – but if the best solution is to upgrade to a more expensive business line, isn’t this just encouraging ISPs to make their consumer lines worse and worse in order to convince everyone to upgrade?

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Comments on “ISP Customer Service a Dead Art Form?”

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DittoBox (user link) says:

Local is better

We have a DSL line through qwest, and ISP service through a local company called Infinity Internet.

We rarely have problems, in fact in the last 2 years of having just DSL through them today was the first time I’ve ever had any issues with them. A 30 minute phone call (15 minute wait time) and a helpful (albeit not exactly friendly) person on the end got me running again. The problem was on their end.

Except for the fact that they block outgoing mail ports (with good reason I suppose, spam bots and all) I’m pretty dang happy with them. Their prices are decent too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Fiber is better

I sure wish someone would offer me a real alternative…

I have my local cable co as my ISP. Not only does customer service stink, but so does my connection. On a good day, the speed is GREAT and the ping is low. On a bad day, I’ll get dropped from WoW every 10 minutes…

I would drop them like a dirty sock… if only there was an actual alternative. DSL is too damn slow, and FiOS still isnt available here yet…

Would be nice if at least my city would do the muni-fiber thing. Alas, my city has no plans to even consider it. Sigh.

Anonymous Coward says:

“as many of the customers caught in the Adelphia, Comcast, and Time Warner cable switcharoo can attest.”

From your link:
…Time Warner Cable, which previously had only 350,000 cable subscribers in that market, inherited 1.1 million customers as part of its Adelphia buyout and another 500,000 through a related system swap with Comcast. As a result, its cable market share has jumped from a mere 15 percent to a commanding 75 percent

wow! just wow!!

Kate says:

Now wait just one damn second...

While theoretically e-mail delivery isn’t that hard of a task, people don’t seem to understand that sheer amount of e-mail that most ISPs process on a daily basis. The company that I work for process 2.3 BILLION messages DAILY. Not weekly, not monthly, over 2 BILLION messages every signle day of the week. Our spam filtration methods outwardly reject more than 30 million messages before they even hit our mail servers. Again, that figure is daily.

Neither QMAIL nor POSTFIX were ever meant to handle that kind of e-mail density. Furthermore it doesn’t necessarily help that e-mail USERS are partly to blame for all of this nonsense. Customer’s who feel it is vital to save every single message on their ISP’s server, causing their spool files to become bloated cause severe issues for the mail servers trying to process these messages. I might also add that e-mail is NOT teleporation, most users consider their e-mail to be down if it takes more than 2 minutes to process a message.

Fact of the matter is, everyone wants dedicated mail processing without having to pay for dedicated server service. If you must have your e-mail omfgrightthisverysecond suck it up and pay for dedicated mail hosting. E-Mail is NOT, I repeat NOT instant messaging. It’s really easy to blame the ISP when you know positively nothing about the service you are paying for or how the process works.

Jack Brown says:

Re: Now wait just one damn second...

I disagree with a post that basically amounts to “it’s the stupid users own fault”.

First, I am not clueless. I provide spam filtering and mail relay services (and firewall, and WAN, etc.) for a major outsource provider. The systems I personally manage only process about 4 million messages a month. Slight compared to major providers. So what.

Users pay for email delivery. And email storage. And Internet access. And reasonably reliable service.

The point is users PAY MONEY for a service. DELIVER or else. If it costs more to deliver than you thought, well maybe there are some cost issues – more likely I think management issues at that company.

The expectation isn’t that the ISP should feel free to drop service to customers at a whim- or as a result of crappy support or project planning at your company. Customer knowledge has nothing to do with that, something most help desk weenies always forget.

Luci (profile) says:

Re: Re: Now wait just one damn second...

Users pay for email delivery. And email storage. And Internet access. And reasonably reliable service.

Actually, users are paying for connectivity. Email and instant messaging are extras. MOST ISPs are not content providers, and whichever way you slice it? Email is content. I have worked the costumer service side of things (hurrah for AT&T broadband — yes, sarcasm), and when the service agreement states that you need to NOT store your mail on the server, and you do and lose it, when does it become the company’s fault?

In almost 3 years I had TWO customers ask me how to archive their mail because it was so important to them. In contrast I have had dozens scream at me that they lost their email, and it was bloody important, and it’s my fault it’s gone.

Do I feel bad about poor customer service? Yes, because that is the responsibility of the company. Do I feel bad about customers who have the ‘GimmieGimmieI’mMoreImportantThanAnything’ syndrome? Not a chance, and this is at least 90% of the calls a service center gets.

My heart bleeds says:

Re: Now wait just one damn second...

Oh come on. The ISPs sell us things like “unlimited bandwidth”, “blazing fast speeds”, or “guaranteed uptime”, and when we pay for those services, we get hidden bandwidth caps, timeout errors, latency, and servers that are not up. I have no sympathy for the poor ISP who is overcharging me to not provide me with the service they sold me if they can’t keep their servers up or handle their own spam filtering.

If Qmail or Postfix can’t do the job, then I expect that the large amounts of money that I and all their other subscribers are sending them will buy them the programs that will.

You are right, though, that we all want dedicated mail processing, at least insofar as we want to be able to get our mail when we want to. If that requires that the ISP buy more servers or different ones, then so be it. They have already told us that we are getting a reliable email service. All I want is for them to give it to us.

Kate says:

Re: Re: Now wait just one damn second...

Once last little caveat before I bow out of this discussion completely… but you are right, we do offer unlimited bandwidth, however you don’t get at all at once. You can stream as many of your mp3s and .wmv files as you want but you can’t stream 6000 of them simultaneously. Unlimited bandwidth means that we cap you at around 5 – 10 gigs at a time and we don’t charge you if you exceed your monthly limit. That doesn’t mean that you can use a terabyte of bandwidth all at once, just that we don’t slam you with bandwidth charges on the 30th.

David says:

Re: Re: Re: Now wait just one damn second...

“Unlimited” and “cap” have pretty much exclusive meanings. You can’t have unlimited with a cap, Kate. If I can’t take 10 gigs all in a shot, then my bandwidth really isn’t unlimited, is it? Unlimited means I get no limits on how much I can download and upload in the speed grade that I pay for. If your company can’t deal with that, don’t advertise the service as unlimited. It’s really that simple.

Pizon says:

Re: Now wait just one damn second...

Amen! I used to own a small rural ISP and I know exactly what you are talking about as far as delivery and processing time for e-mail. I was fortunate to only have to deal with about one million e-mails a day but that still caused delays due to processing. I got out of the business mainly because I was tired of the blanket accusations people would make. If it wasn’t the cost, which was more than fair, it was that their 56K modem would only connect at 26K because they were six miles from town in an area with ancient telephone infrastructure. People don’t want service, they want magic. They also don’t want to listen to people that know what they’re talking about. That isn’t the consumer’s fault though, it’s the “consumer advocates” who like to write about how all of those bad, evil corporations are ripping them off. I’ve got news for them, if all of the evil corporations go away where will people go for employment? I should have opened a restaurant…

One of the screwed says:

Bend over, they'll service you

Right now I’ve got Cox cable internet (and boy do they mean Cox, bend on over). I’m essentially paying $40/month extra for them to _not_ block ports while I get dramatically slower speeds than residential. Tried talking to Bell, an they amount to the same thing. I guess that’s what they consider service. Great “competitive” system we’ve got here (along with most of the U.S.). I’ll tell them both to meet me in hell the moment a viable alternative comes along.

Kate says:

Re: Bend over, they'll service you

You do realize that the reason that ISPs like Cox and Bellsouth block ports (such as port 25) is because of the people who run SpamCop and SpamHauss right? They do this so that they can impose their own outbound filterning and prevent ‘spam’ from being sent from their IP addresses. This really isn’t about profiteering, which is QUITE illegal despite what you may think, it’s about maintaining basic e-mail functionality.

If it weren’t for the port blocks, you’d be complaining about your messages getting bounced. The reason why you’d have to pay more for them to unblock ports is because you could potentially be detrimental to other users. If you don’t like the way your mail service is handled, you could always build a Debian box and setup postfix….

Unabashed Critic says:

Re: Re: Bend over, they'll service you

I second what Kate said. The port blocking is absolutely necessary due to the widespread existence of mailbots on unsuspecting/clueless customers’ machines. These could get an ISP’s entire domain blacklisted in very short order.

Building a debian box and setting up postfix might not be a valid alternative, however, depending on your T&C/AUP from your provider. Very likely, you are prohibited from running a server on your connection, due to the same reasoning for the port-blocking and the possible upstream traffic limitations on your connection (actually, in many cases these traffic limitations are imposed in order to prevent mass outbound traffic such as mailbot activity.)


Unabashed Critic says:

I must be doing something wrong...

I run a fairly small, ISP with both dialup and terrestrial wireless broadband services.

What I find hard to comprehend is that my customers freak out when their service has ANY kind of difficulty for more than about 10 minutes, (we usually have it fixed rather quickly.)

From what I read here, many ISP customers go days or weeks with problems. Are my customers more high-strung than everyone else’s, or do they simply have unrealistic expectations? If I could only get them to realize how bad it is with other providers, maybe my life wouldn’t get so stressful when the mail server or a hilltop radio unit hiccups for a few minutes.

Any advice?

Kate says:

Re: Sorry Kate . . .

I’m sorry, ‘pay good money’? You mean the 11.99 that these people pay for their e-mail plan? As I said earlier, if you were paying the $110 – $300 a month for dedicated hosting or for a lower-density mail server, you are completely correct, but most people don’t understand the nature of their shared environment.

That’s like me going to a dealer and buying a Geo Metro and then compalin that I can only go 35 MPH. Everyone always wants platnum services while only having to pay copper pieces. In the end you get what you pay for; you don’t like the e-mail service your ISP provides, you could always purchase a static IP and T1 connection and run your own damn mail server.

My heart bleeds says:

Re: Re: Sorry Kate . . .

If you go to a car dealership and buy a Geo Metro, there is a printout that they give you showing the mileage, max speed, acceleration, and other such things. If you see that the sign says that this car has a max speed of 35 MPH, and you still complain, then you are an asshat. If the slimy car dealer tells you that you can outrace a Ferrari, and they you find that you are capped at 35, you have a right to complain.

To bring us back to the ISPs, they are the ones setting the prices. If 11.99 is not enough to cover the equipment and infrastructure, then they need to raise the price. If they are not going to guarantee that someone who is paying for email service can get into their email, then they are just dishonest.

You keep going on about how people don’t understand how the email works in a shared environment, but that is because the ISP doesn’t tell us that. They send out brocures and emails saying that their service is great and then, once things fall apart, fall back on tired lines like that, then tell folks that they need to pay $100 more a month.

Right On says:

ISP Customer Service

Unabashed + Marty – Amen – brothas – I cant freaking stand ungreatfull extortionists. Trash my customer service abilities and my company because stupid users cant understand that Outlook can not handle a 5 Gigibyte PST on a Celeron PC without crashing every 10 minutes.

Or those who have to keep every single email from 1998 in the mailbox / spool file and then wonder why they get duplicate messages downloaded to their machines.

Unabashed – I end up dumping these customers. You end up loosing big time in the long run.

J says:


I work for a mid-sized ISP. I have exactly the same problem Carole does. I live too far out for the local Teleco to put in DSL. That is the core of the problem. ALL DSL is controlled by the Telephone company. If they do not put in the capabilities then we the ISPs cannot offier it. It isn’t that we don’t want to, or can’t afford to, it is the big-F*-monopoly that decides where it is available. On top of this there are several smaller, _rural_, telephone companies around here that won’t even let us into their networks so that we can offer DSL. They don’t have to. They are protected by the FCC.

We process several thousand email messages per minute over several server machines. We spam block, using several methods. All email will have one of 3 outcomes… 1) delivered normally, 2) delivered to the spam folder on our server, or 3) returned to sender. ALL email that hits 3, is stopped at the initial SMTP connection. That means the sedning server has to bounce it, not us. I still have users how cannot grasp this simple trio of outcomes for email. They want all the mail to reach them. Then they call to complain that they get too much spam.

Jack Brown says:

Cost cutting is gutting big providers, go with loc

Having been in IT for about 20 years, I can say I’ve seen every side of this argument- and the trend of lower support quality coming from way back.

Big corporations are run by accountants who only look at how much they can cut. Ship all the jobs overseas (“we don’t have a choice” they say). Run projects, like major network upgrades, with junior personnel or India grads and do what should have taken 3 months planning in 1 month. Well, guess what happens! The accountants don’t care about the results or your customer satisfaction (their strategy was just fine, it was the IT execution that failed). Yeah right. Welcome to IT Service in the 21st century. Get used to it, it won’t get better.

Mindspring had good support generally, for many years. Earthlink got worse and worse, until I dumped them for a smaller, local provider that has their act together. Local, english-speaking techs who actually know what they are talking about – works wonders. Service is up for 6 months or more without any hiccup- that is what most people paying MONEY for the service want. Go, you guys rock.

As for stupid users. Yep, the exist. Been dealing with ’em for years. But you know what? They gave you their money. So deliver the service and help then when they need it. And learn how to deal with unhappy and yes sometimes even unreasonable customers- it’s a skill many technical people don’t have but is considered NECESSARY in most of the rest of the business world. Welcome the the real world. Do a better job – or watch your job go to SE Asia.

Fire your big ISP if they interrupt service more than twice a month. Find a small or local provider that does a good job (that their local is no guarantee so do your homework – gee, another lesson from the real world).

redhammy says:

Great business owners on here

Nice. Gotta love hearing ISP owners on here bash their customers for being too “stupid” to use their service. Do you have a website with instructions for getting the best service? A FAQ and some common dos and don’ts? Does your tech support staff educate callers or just fix their problem and not tell them how to prevent it.

I used to work tech support for a small-town ISP and while there were certainly some customers who had no business using a computer, most of them just needed to have the situation explained to them once and they would rarely call back. Further, what most of my coworkers thought were “those stupid customers calling all the time” was really just a lot of new customers calling once.

Change your attitude about your customers and they might just change their attitude about you.

supporticus (user link) says:

Yeah, yeah, yeah....

We have plenty of money-losing customers, we tend to be nicer to them than they deserve, and YES we have FAQs, online resources, all kinds of ways for customers to educate themselves.

Few take advantage of them, and we CANNOT, because of our 24/7/365 availability, free support and toll-free number, undertake support and education that should rightly be performed by Microsoft, Symantec or Adobe.

All that high-minded “customer is always right” claptrap goes right out the window if you’re losing money on them.

Laughable says:


email is a pain> who uses email anymore? it full of crap, I only use IM, I don’t even own a phone, if you can’t send me an IM then I don’t want to hear from you, but customer service? I had Timewarner and it took them 6 months and 15 trips to my house to find out the local node was dropping packets like rainfall (which I told them the 1st service visit) and I paid 150$ a month but could only get 5 seconds continous “blazing speed” even at 3 am, I was given all of 50$ in credit, so I had to go to slower wireless, and it went out less then seven days later for a wind storm, I guess no one ever thought weather could be bad, and I live in Texas, I’d rather go back to charter, I never had lost connectivity longer then one hour and that was in the winter, in a blizzard,to bad we can’t buy the service we want

Paul says:

The Problem

The problem stems from not enough competition in the broadband market. At most there are 2 options in an area for residential use, DSL and Cable.

In places where there is only one provider then the issue is obvious, the company has no incentive to be better since there is no alternative and people are very unlikely to go back to dialup after having broadband.

ISPtech says:

form my view

I do the tech support you get when you call your ISP. I am as friendly as possible with everyone who calls. Unfortunately a lot of people just want to yell, it is more of a complaint dept than it is tech support. 90% of the people who call do not understand whatthey are talking about just what “their neighbor” said. We work with very limited information, that is when something is not working correctly the only one’s who tell us is the one’s who call in not the bosses.

People tend to feel tough when they are are the phone probably because they are wimpy, pathetic people in real life. Do you not realize you just gave the person you are calling a worthless piece of shit all of your information??? You should be very happy the ISP’s, at least mine does extensive employee screening. You are not supposed to take it personally but when someone is berates you it is very hard not too. At that point we could really care less. just try to remember you catch more flies with honey.

And if you are one of those people who like to scream on the phone then FUCK YOU!

B says:

3rd Party Email...

Throughout all my experience, I would have to say third party email services such as GMail, MSN, Yahoo!, etc… are a far better choice for your email then your ISP. With many 3rd party options, you can control your Spam filters and still view your spam mail in case you believe a message wandered there by accident.
I barely trust my ISP with my internet (unfortunately they’re my only option), why would I trust them with my personal messages?

Mark Neumann (user link) says:

Local is Better

Dittobox is right. Local is better. I’ve been employed at various ISP’s in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and if there was only one thing that keeps bringing local ISP’s new business, it’s the customer service. The ISP I work for, Implex, which is has service in the Minneapolis / St. Paul area, has customers that obtain access through our own fiber, as well as customers that piggy back via a telco or a cable company. We do pride ourselves in our customer service and support departments. Hey, if our customers give us praise daily, why can’t we brag a bit. 😉

Scott (profile) says:


I ran a small ISP for several years, we had 5 people in tech support, so we could not afford to fuck around with whinny people who paid 15 bux a month, and expected it to be comparable to a SLA you would get with a DS3 from a major carrier. In the last year I owned the company, we started telling people to use hotmail or yahoo and leave us alone!!!

zeroJJ says:

#35- actually, in alot of cases, users are paying for all of the above, not JUST connectivity. If a service is advertised as a package then you should be getting that package.

If I buy a car with seatbelts that only work sometimes, will I have a Ford rep that says, well you are just paying for transportation from point A to B. The seatbelts are extra?

#37 – you guys are nitpicking about unlimited. There are two numbers in play. Max bandwidth at any one time (say 2mbps [mb PER SECOND] download speed) and overall bandwidth period (transfer per month – aka monthly bandwidth)

Yes, the problem usually isnt with the advertised bandwidth rate, it’s with the “invisible” monthly caps that are advertised as Unlimited that cause all the problems.

not a tech rep anymore says:

I used to work as a technical support rep for a “local” compay. The bottom line is whether it’s local or a conglomerate company you must realize that at some point your access is shared and caps and limits are not just set by the local providers. Technology can only go so far and handle so much so the bandwidth limits are set on cascading levels. If you want uncapped service, you HAVE to go to a T1 line otherwise your uncapped service guarantees all your neighbors locally and on cyberspace suffer for your “gimmee”.

Same thing goes for email. If you want to ensure the mail is yours once it’s downloaded, make sure your saving it on your machine (and backing up) and not on the server. If the server dumps…your outta luck, period. If the communication is important, require return receipts and keep a hard copy of your message on your machine! If you are relying on equipment that can frequently break down and you KNOW it take the time to ensure that your life will not be interrupted by unreliable equipment.

So far as education for the customer is concerned, I tried to handle this for ALL of my customers but while there are many out there who will patiently listen and some even took notes, you would be surprised (or maybe you are one of them) who become abusive and threatening over the phone. I was threatened by a male customer and had to be escorted to my car for a week after being told that he was going to come to the parking lot and wait for me to come out (I am a woman). This kind of behavior is all too common among those who work for an ISP and it makes it very hard to put on a cheerful voice to the next person in line when you worry if the guy you just talked to is serious or not!

Bottom line is being an educated consumer does solve a lot of problems, but maintaining an attitude of “not everyone understands everything you do” will also help you go far!


claire rand says:

one chance.

having told my phone compant to foxtrot oscar last friday… for reasons that are 100% customer service based.

they screwed up an installation order (probably cus tier one didn’t speak english) the engineer was good, and got it sorted. then i’m told by tier one again that my phone isn’t switched on yet… like duh I’m using it..

then i’ve had three dates my boradband was due to switch on, only to be told on the third day (when it still didn’t work) that no order had been placed, and would i like to place one..

BT, gotta love em. come the new year I’ll try someone else. get the service right and the fact they are not cheap wouldn’t have mattered.

pity NTL are just as bad.

I’d go local if there was anyone, thinking talk-talk.. cheap, customer service is probably crap.. but they are all crap.

one chance to make a good first impression.

Dan says:

It's the Monopoly, Stupid!

In a truly competitive environment there would be no need for “consumer protection” laws regarding these companies performance. However, since most of them have a defacto monopoly in the market they serve there isn’t any incentive for them to provide a reasonably acceptable level of service.

The solution is make it easier for competitors to enter the market, or to further regulate existing providers. I would much prefer they go with solution A– make it easier for competitors to enter the market.

Roger says:

Re: "email can take 24 hours"

OK, and so this morning Bellsouth returned an email I sent last Wednesday to a user, saying it could not contact for 3 days… is that reasonable? Meanwhile my latency tests to my own Yahoo! account through Bellsouth on Thursday and Friday get there right away? I know Bellsouth has many servers… if it’s got a few sick ones, they need fixing, not excuses.

If they take my money for a service, I should reasonably expect that service to work correctly. Random malfunctions that never get fixed for months are a sign of a really bad ISP. (And Bellsouth has been randomly messing up email for months)

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