I’ve had trouble with the hosting of this site lately. As you may have noticed if you visit via the site instead of a feed reader, page load times had slowed to a crawl and sometimes the site was actually down. The hosting company, hostmonster, has provided me with good service over the last couple of years, both in terms of quality of hosting and responsiveness. I expected this to be no different a few days ago.
I called the first time I noticed substantial slowness, and I was told that it was some kind of aberration and everything was fine. A few days later, there was a problem again, and this time the source, I was told, was that there was a node down somewhere between me as a client and my site. Between these two incidents, my site had been slow. I shrugged it off and then noticed the next day that, yet again, my site was pretty much non-functional. Hoping for quicker turn-around and to see if anyone else was having issues, I mentioned this on Twitter and was quickly replied to by the Hostmonster help account with this message: “We see our admins quickly fixed an issue that came up on your server. It is already running now again.”
The only problem was that, in their hurry to congratulate themselves, they’d forgotten to see whether the problem had been fixed. It hadn’t. I called again and was told that everything looked fine to them, at which point I took to Twitter to solicit suggestions for alternative hosting options. A couple of days and a number of phone calls later, Hostmonster did work with me and the issue appears to be resolved. Apparently, a user sharing a physical machine with my site had been infested with some kind of SPAM or something and was causing resource thrashing and throttling of my site. They eventually migrated me to another machine. I haven’t yet decided what to do about hosting. I’m weighing the annoyance of my site being unresponsive for a few days against the hassle of migrating and the fact that there were some very helpful people there that I eventually got to deal with after the first few had told me what a great job they’d done at fixing my imaginary problem.
But pulling back from my experience and looking a little more critically, I think the point at which my reaction as a user went from “annoyed but understanding” to “pissed” holds some lessons for consultants or anyone who deals with end users in a support capacity. I base this on examining the situation and discovering what I found galling.
- Don’t publicly declare a user’s problem fixed without confirming the user’s agreement.
- Avoid minimizing the user’s problems with words like “little” to describe the scope of the problem or, as in my case, “[quick]” to describe the downtime.
- Make every reasonable attempt to reproduce a user’s problem and prove to them that you’re doing so.
I know that there’s a balance to be struck between avoiding unfair blame (i.e. marketing and spinning your product/service in the best light) and between providing your users with solutions. I also know that there is no shortage of user error to go around. But I think it’s really important to understand and empathize with users when they’re frustrated. Go on Twitter or some other public forum and read the really negative comments about software or technology services, and, at the core, you’ll see extremely frustrated users.
You’ll see users whose websites have been down for two days and who don’t know when they’ll be back up. You’ll see users who have been struggling for hours to figure out how to get “hello world” out of the stupid thing. You’ll see users who just needed to get some work done for a deadline when your horrible update rendered their software non-functional and caused them to catch flak at a meeting. And the list goes on. These are the people you’re dealing with. They’re not malicious or looking to drag your name through the mud; rather, they’re looking to vent. And that’s your opportunity to be a sympathetic ear and to turn an incensed customer into a loyal one.
How’s that, you ask? Well, as much as people hate it when they’re frustrated, they can be mollified by the sense that you see that they’re having a problem, you understand it, you can fix it, and that you’re sorry that it happened to them. “Geez, I’m really sorry that update made you miss your meeting–I’d be mad too.” I bet that’d take the edge off of most people’s anger. Probably more so than “that update ran fine for me here, and check out that awesome new font it gave you–you’re welcome!”
I’m going to make it a point to try to harness the memory of these experiences as a user to make me better and more conscientious as a software provider. I’d rather be remembered for the kind things that users say about me than the flattering things I say about myself when others are within earshot.
(I’m still weighing my options for the hosting situation and running tests to confirm the response times continue to be better than they were, but my thanks to Daniel and Bradyn at Hostmonster who were actually quite helpful following my initial period of frustration.)