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March 07, 2005

Growing Pains at Vonage

Last Friday afternoon VoIP provider Vonage had an outage for about an hour.  Subscribers couldn’t send or receive calls.  The company’s web site including subscriber voicemail was inaccessible.  When the web site came back up, it had this message:

Customers may be experiencing an issue with receiving inbound calls and placing outbound calls due to a network issue. This problem is also impacting availability of our web site.

Our engineers are aware of the issue and are working to resolve it as quickly as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience.

I’m a subscriber to and a fan of Vonage.  I’ve blogged about their wealth of features, web-centric self provisioning, and virtual phone numbers.  But I’m not a happy subscriber right now.  Outages of at least the web site seem to have become more frequent lately.  Customer service is not responding to email and phone wait times are more than an hour.  The web site has reported that there are quality problems in some regions which the engineers are also “aware of and working to resolve.”

Later on Friday the message on the web site was changed to say:

Due to a software upgrade in process, some customers may be experiencing sporadic difficulty placing or receiving calls at this time.

Customers experiencing difficulty can expect the problem to improve throughout the evening.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

The system seems to have stabilized on Friday night but we’re traveling so not monitoring it as closely as we would be if we were at home.  There are some reports of outages on the web but apparently not widespread.

This all seems particularly ironic since we’re in Seattle this weekend where every one of the many busses has a clever Vonage ad.  Clearly, Vonage, already the market leader in US consumer VoIP, is swinging for the fences as it should be.  It would be a shame if their growth is slowed by poor service; even worse if VoIP were to be once more disparaged as unreliable service not ready for prime time because of what I hope are just growing pains at Vonage.

I don’t expect Vonage to be perfect.  I’ve blogged that you can’t innovate flawlessly.  The price of “flawless” is much higher than most people want to pay for telephone service, particularly now that most users of services like Vonage – which requires broadband access as a prerequisite – also have cell phones.  Nevertheless, I think Vonage could do a better job than it has been doing lately.  If it can’t, then I’m confident that one of its many VoIP competitors will.

There is no excuse for support not returning emails and not answering the phone until after an extended wait.  Vonage is advertising heavily for new subscribers; new subscribers are notoriously huge users of support.  Support is easy to outsource.  They should have had enough support people in place to handle the results of an advertising campaign.  Failing that, they should cut back on the ads temporarily until they can once more deal with new subscribers.

New subscribers who need support in order to get up and running are not going to ever become long-term subscribers unless they get that support. Vonage rightly doesn’t require a commitment.  Old subscribers like me will stick around because we have had some positive experience and because it is a pain in the neck to switch.  But there are plenty of competitors to switch to if the time comes.  One list of consumer VoIP companies is at VoIPAction; another at VoIPChoices.  You can also Google “VoIP providers” and get both ads and links.  Haven’t found a Consumer Reports yet, though.

www.vonage-forum.com is an excellent forum of Vonage users and prospective users which is clearly supported by Vonage but doesn’t appear to be censored by them in any way.  There is lots of good user-to-user support here.  Since this site didn’t go down during the outage, it was the first place I could find that my network problems weren’t just problems with my equipment or my ISP.  It is also a substitute for the tech support that is so hard to reach at Vonage.  We nerds like to swap war stories and show that we’re smarter than the vendor and each other.  But self help isn’t going to substitute for real support by the provider as VoIP crosses the chasm.  The masses yearning to be free of over-priced, feature-poor traditional phone companies are not going to lurk in user groups in hope that someone will help them solve their problem in making phone calls.  They expect their phones to work and they expect the provider to help them when they have a problem.

Many of the participants in the forum are Vonage fans who’ve recommended Vonage to their friends.  Others are affiliates who make some money selling Vonage to their customers.  From the chatter in the forum, these crucial early adopters are discouraged and alarmed by the complaints they are receiving from their friends and customers.  And they are appalled by the poor customer service.

I lived through and took responsibility for a 36 hour email outage in the early days of AT&T WorldNet Service.  With hindsight, there is never a good excuse for an outage like this but they do happen.  We offered customers a partial rebate for the month of the outage just to make clear that we did not consider it acceptable.  I’m not sure Vonage needs to go this far but it does need to improve customer service in a hurry.  As much as I’ve blogged about things AT&T did wrong, there are lessons in customer service that VoIP companies can learn from their now-obsolete competitors.

So, bottom-line, if you’re thinking of making the big move to VoIP to get the rich feature set and reasonable call rates, should you do it?  Is VoIP ready?  Emphatically yes.  But I wouldn’t move to Vonage in the next week; they need to get their growing pains under control.  I’ll report back on that in a week.  I’d like to recommend a couple of other providers as an alternative but can’t because I haven’t tried any.  However, I’d be happy to have those with that experience comment here or on their own blogs with testimonials or criticisms.  Vonage and its competitors are also welcome to post any performance and reliability statistics here – no matter how self-serving.

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