Customer support that doesn’t suck

By Alex Barrera on September 13th, 2012

For years, we laughed at people with utopian ideas of what customer service should be like. Until Zappos. Whether you love or hate the company, it’s hard to deny that Tony Hsieh has done something unique. Stories about employees who talked with customers for eight hours straight raised eyebrows at the time, but the company hauled itself into the black and got bought by Amazon.

In a globalised world that brings competitors from the four corners of the earth, there is one thing that will make your company stand out when you’re operating in a mature and highly competitive space, and that is customer support. Users are tired of fighting with strangers on the phone that not only don’t want to listen, but hang up on you, ignore you or are based on another continent.

In the cloud computing industry, though, such customer support has been neglected for some time. A while back, I decided to switch from Amazon to Rackspace. I was a tired of paying for servers I was under-utilising. Despite suggestions to Amazon evangelists about the need to restructure their server costs, they never delivered or delivered late. So I got tired and decided to move.

I’d heard wonderful stories about Rackspace’s service and their pricing structure fitted my needs. It’s hard not to notice something when you have Scoble raving about it every hour. Knowing Robert and his enthusiasm about what he loves, I decided to give them a shot. Signing up was incredible easy and the process finished with someone calling my home to validate my account and asking me if I needed any more help.

I was a bit surprised. Rackspace is in Texas; I live in Madrid, Spain. It’s not that usual to get a call from an American company to ask you how are you. From that moment on, I felt I had become part of this family called Rackspace. Every week I would get a newsletter with news, surveys asking how to make the service better, emails asking what else I needed. I realised these guys were dead serious about what they call “Fanatical Support”.

At that point I had only experienced the proactive support. Then, a few weeks ago, a $1,300 invoice hit my inbox. It was nicely co-ordinated with my birthday, so it totally crashed my mojo. I went online and checked the billing for my cloud servers and was shocked to see that one of my machines had been serving data at an alarming rate (8TB of data in 2 weeks). Needless to say, that server had close to zero traffic as it’s only used for maintenance. It looked like the box had been breached.

I took a look, reset a couple of things, checked for intrusion signs but couldn’t find anything. Desperate, I opened a chat with the live Rackspace customer support team, which quickly prompted me to open a ticket. 20 minutes later, I already had an answer. I exchanged several messages with the tech team until they elevated the issue to one of their managers.

The manager double-checked the traffic spike and agreed with me that it had been weird behavior and, as such, they were willing to return the money. I was stunned. I’ve been working with cloud infrastructure long enough to know that, at least normally, if a cloud server you own gets hacked, you and only you are responsible for that. That means that, in theory, I knew that Rackspace could make me pay for it. They didn’t.

There’s more to this story: after sharing my appreciation on Twitter, I was contacted by the Rackspace team again, who said they were glad my issue had been resolved and asked if I wanted a t-shirt. It sounds daft, but it’s difficult to underestimate the effects of this small expenditure on their behalf and the goodwill it has generated. Rackspace and Zappos are showing other companies how to behave in the new era of social media.

Let’s hope the banks and utility companies catch up soon.