Rant: Stupid Email Formatting

I just booked a flight online. I printed the confirmation email and it went 16 pages, mostly full of HTML garbage, before I stopped it.

When all email was plain text messages could be read by any email software. The widespread move to HTML formatting has been a step backward. In exchange for nice formatting we get software-compatibility issues, spam and occasional malicious code. People like me who prefer plain-text email clients have to be careful when we print messages. Forwarding or replying to HTML email involves extra editing to delete the HTML code. (If you don’t delete it, any exchange of more than a couple of messages becomes difficult to read and the message file balloons in size.) Popular email software uses HTML formatting by default; asking correspondents to deactivate it is an exercise in futility.

Increasingly I am using webmail interfaces to screen my mail. Let someone else’s server deal with the HTML crap, image-attached spam and viruses. I still use a 1995 version of Eudora Light to download the email that I actually want, but I feel like a Luddite. Email used to be plain, easy and smart. Now it is often pretty, complex and stupid. I can live without this kind of progress.

More Adventures in Customer Service

Adventure 1: Buying hard drives!

-OfficeMax has appropriate HD on sale at good price w/2 rebates!

-BUT online ordering system fails to credit me for one of the rebates and phone-support person will not acknowledge the problem, so. . .

-CompUSA has adequate HD on sale at great price w/2 rebates!

-BUT online ordering system won’t let me check out, even though I attempt to place order multiple times over two days, using two different browsers. Can’t get a human being on the phone. Remembering wasted time from OfficeMax experience, it’s time to. . .

-ABANDON SHIP. Now I will wait for an Office Depot sale or buy from Old (relatively) Reliable.

Adventure 2: Camera repair!

-Find name of local repair guy recommended by someone in online discussion forum. Excellent! A trustworthy local craftsman! Call him up => no answer. Repeat for about a week. Consider visiting his shop (about five miles away). . .

-BUT with traffic this would take an hour and he might not be there => not worth it.

-Return to online discussion group, find name of highly recommended repair person 3k miles away. I email query, she replies promptly with answers and a price quote. I drive ten minutes to FedEx office and ship camera (which will be shipped back directly to my address, negating any need for me to pick it up).

-Outcome pending.

Customer Service: The New Paradigm

In chronological order:

1 Need backup hard drive.

2 Order HD with free delivery. Get it in a couple of days. Easy!

3 Order HD enclosure from popular high-speed/low-drag online retailer.

4 Install HD in enclosure. Plug into computer. Computer doesn’t recognize. Plug into second computer, with same result. WTF?

5 Driver conflict? Attempt to contact tech support at enclosure mfr. Phone number goes to answering machine. Send email query. They answer in a couple of days: “We will upload the driver to www.rosewill.com, please check the site in few days and down load the driver.” OK.

6 Call retailer. Much time on hold. Customer-svc rep can’t help, says only option: send back for refund, pay restocking fee — hassle, and still need an enclosure. Decide to wait a while: maybe mfr will upload driver soon? That will solve all problems! Yes.

7 Waiting for drivers to be uploaded. Two weeks pass. Nothing. Retailer’s time limit for refund expires.

8 Annoyed. Finally dawns that there is no driver. Mfr was blowing smoke, or smoking blow, or something. Go to retailer’s website and complete online RMA request to return enclosure. Append testy note demanding refund. Fedex enclosure back to retailer.

9 Still need a HD enclosure. Still curious why enclosure didn’t work. Check out customer reviews of returned enclosure at retailer’s site. Hmm. Latest review, added since I purchased enclosure, says:

The only thing that had me struggling for a while is that the drive was brand new and XP Pro will not recognize the unit unless the disk is partitioned. That would have been nice to know 2 hours ago. Also, the jumper setting on the disk drive has to be “Master (Single)” and NOT the factory default of “Cable select”.

10 I’m using a brand new, unpartitioned disk. Do you think. . .

11 Partition HD using another enclosure. Takes 1 minute.

12 Receive replacement enclosure, identical to first, from retailer who completely ignored note attached to RMA request.

13 Install HD and test. Works immediately. Perform computer backup.

14 Total time: 7 weeks.

BellSouth Update

A report of problems with BellSouth’s Internet service prompted me to check whether BellSouth fixed a privacy problem that I reported earlier. Sure enough, the problem appears to have been corrected. That’s good news.

My impression of BellSouth’s Internet operation is that they are competent technically but have bad customer-service. When I used their “business” DSL service I had a lot of difficulty getting connected and configured, but once set up everything worked reliably.

However, in the beginning, when I needed help, I found that almost every interaction with their sales and support people was a time-consuming ordeal. The sales person promised a grossly unrealistic installation date, and my subsequent calls for technical assistance required me to escalate almost every conversation through a hierarchy of incompetent reps until I reached someone who could actually help me.

It wasn’t difficult to infer that the main problem was the way BellSouth measured its employees’ performance for compensation purposes. In hindsight it seems obvious that the sales rep who misled me about my installation date was being paid in part based on how many new customers she signed up. She probably had an incentive to do whatever it took to convince me to become one of her statistics, even at the possible price of my later dissatisfaction. Since getting new DSL service from any ISP was, at the time, a matter of at least a month, one of the easiest ways to sway prospective customers would have been to promise, on a Friday afternoon, installation by the following Tuesday. And so she did.

Similarly, the tech-support people invariably asked me, formulaically at the conclusion of every phone interaction, whether I was satisfied that they had provided “excellent service.” In almost every case I was not, but the timing and manner of presentation of the question was so loaded as to make it difficult to say anything other than “yes.” By that time I wanted mainly to get off the phone, and the unspoken promise of the tech person’s boilerplate question was that a negative or ambiguous answer would elicit additional questions, maybe some time on hold while one waited for a supervisor, perhaps a burdensome online questionnaire, etc. (Not to mention that the deliberate, almost sullen tone in which the question was asked gave just a hint that a “no” answer would get the rep fired and his children would starve.) I eventually figured out how to game the support system and get the help I needed quickly, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth, especially given that I was forced to pay premium rates under BellSouth’s business plan merely to get static IP. So when I decided to drop one of my ISPs it wasn’t difficult to decide which one to cancel.

Some of BellSouth’s deficiencies were caused by inadequately trained service people, but I think the main problem was bad management. By using the wrong customer-service metrics they created incentives for employees to waste customers’ time rather than solve problems quickly. At least that’s what I think was going on. Does anyone have a better explanation?

Captive-Audience “Customer Service” vs. Real Service

(I wrote most of this post last June but never completed it. Today’s announcement that JetBlue will offer, at no additional charge to all passengers, XM satellite radio — in addition to satellite TV which they already offer — reminded me that my original post was still topical.)


A while ago I bought a cheap wallet from a retailer of modestly priced leather goods. Ten bucks on sale at one of the company’s airport shops. When the wallet’s money clip broke, I went to the company’s website, found a 24/7 phone number, called and was directed to a local store. I dropped by and they cheerfully replaced the clip and refused payment. That’s great service: not only is it pleasant to shop in their stores, but I can do so without risk because they stand behind their products.

Contrast the leather store’s attitude with that of the typical airport concessionaire. He has you by the short hairs, especially if he sells food and you are hungry. You get charged $3 for a stale pretzel or a multiple of that for a crummy sandwich. And why not? Repeat business isn’t a factor, there’s little or no competition at the airport and you can’t go elsewhere. You pay up.

National chains that don’t operate exclusively in airports, like Starbucks and the aforementioned leather shop, tend not to follow this pattern. Perhaps they realize that charging what the market will bear can in some circumstances alienate customers, and isn’t always worth it in the long run. Or maybe these firms see opportunity in providing reasonably-priced service to customers who are accustomed to being overcharged at places like airports.

One of the problems with the major airlines — and I think it’s one of the reasons they are doing poorly — is that their attitude toward customers tends to resemble that of airport pretzel venders. They are willing to compete for business, up to a point, but want to treat customers as captives after tickets are purchased.

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