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March 23, 2005

Growing Pains at Vonage (Continued)

The good news is that Vonage has not had another serious system outage like the one I blogged about two weeks ago.  The bad news is that customer support as a whole is still dismal although the individual support people, if you can reach one, are pretty good.

From my own observations, reports by Vonage, and the collective uncensored experiences of the people who post on the Vonage forum, the service has been stable and, right now at least, the Vonage technical systems are handling their rapid growth.  Vonage said – belatedly – that the outage was due to problems with an upgrade.  There is no basic technical reason why a VoIP system can’t scale to almost any size.  Like the Internet itself, voice over the Internet can be designed with almost no central bottlenecks.  This is very different from traditional telephony where long experience was required in order to achieve scale.

[Full disclosure:  I don’t know how the Vonage system IS designed so am only talking theoretically.]

There is near-unanimous agreement on the Vonage forum that hold times for support are generally over an hour and that email requests for support are rarely answered except by robots.  There is a three-sided debate, though, over what should be done about this poor support.

  • Rabid enthusiasts say that poor support is a necessary consequence of cheap service and that users should suck it up and stop complaining.

  • Extreme detractors say that the FCC should force Vonage to provide better service and support.

  • In the middle are those, including me, who hope that Vonage will quickly train the many new support people it says it has in its pipeline and/or cutback on ads for new signups until there are enough support people to handle them.

Let’s take the easy one first: there is no need for help from the FCC.  No one has to use Vonage.  It has VoIP competitors; it has traditional competitors; it has no monopoly of any kind.  If users don’t think Vonage is a good value, they shouldn’t use it.  Some do leave; some stay.  It’s their choice as it should be.

But I don’t agree with the suck-it-up school either.  I think Vonage growth will stop abruptly if customer support doesn’t improve soon.  The early-adopter pool for VoIP is exhausted.  There aren’t enough prospects left who will move to a new technology if they can’t easily get help over the bumps.  It is really dumb not to answer email requests for help – they are less expensive to deal with than phone calls.  Good email support would reduce the phone queues by itself.  Moreover, Vonage says it has email support so it has obligated itself to answer these messages.

Emails are answered by robots with a note saying to reply if the answer is not satisfactory.  I have no problem with this as a screening process.  But I responded to two robot replies two weeks ago and have yet to hear back on those.  I did get one complete and intelligible answer to one of two replies to robots that I made last week so things may be getting better.  However, I suspect that this particular question may have gone to sales and not to customer support.

It is only fair to point out that I have had terrible support experiences with both Verizon and Verizon Wireless in the last month.  They are almost impossible to deal with by email and don’t always respond either.  They do answer their phones promptly and the people couldn’t be nicer.  However, as you’ll see in a subsequent post, their systems don’t let them do a good job.

So then why am I picking on Vonage if poor customer support is a telephony tradition?  One reason is that VoIP is a break from the telephony tradition of overpriced service; there is no reason for it to follow the tradition of unresponsiveness – especially when a VoIP provider can assume that its users have email.  The second reason is that a new technology has to overcome the fear of change.  That fear can turn to panic when good support is not available.  A bunch of frightened prospects aren’t going to take VoIP over the chasm to mass adoption.

However, I am confident that these are industry growing pains.  My earlier prediction (1997) that traditional telephony will be gone by 2010 is, if anything, too conservative.

I blogged that the owners of broadband access networks won’t be able to defeat the VoIP vendors by playing dirty.  Also blogged on the features which now distinguish VoIP from traditional telephony.

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