Sunday 19 July 2009

Misadventures with Customer "Service": With Service like This, Why Bother?

Doing a job search using various Websites became really popular about ten years ago as an easy way for candidates and companies to find each other without any (visibly obvious) middlemen directly involved. I understand that in some geographic and employment areas, it's still a useful tool. I've had myself registered on fewer than half a dozen for several years, even though my last 6 jobs were all found through other means.

Job sites aren't typical consumer Websites in that they're really trying to target two distinct groups of customers: companies with jobs on offer (who generally pay the bills) and jobseekers (who generally don't). Even though jobseekers don't have any up-front money dangling in front of the site operator, wise (or experienced) operators of such systems know that they should "take care" of these site users well, since:

  • Companies will be less likely to pay to advertise on general-audience sites with few users, and
  • Users who have negative experiences (on any site) are often motivated to "spread the word".
Any business which is heavily dependent on its Website for revenue or for customer service knows (or quickly learns) that locking actual or potential customers out of their site through defective, easily-correctable site implementation has a direct and negative impact. The pathologically clueless operators don't seem to know or care why this happens; they just notice their monthly traffic figures dwindling over time, with revenues to match.

This even applies, although to a lesser extent, when the market being served by the site encourages a lack of competition. This is the case quite often here in South Asia, and notably in Singapore. Only two media companies serve the English-language market here, both with apparent Government ties. Broadcast television and radio are similarly throttled. This becomes apparent to anyone who spends more than a few days here. Individuals are engaged in frenetic, all-consuming competition with each other, while favoured companies and industries don't (visibly) engage in such grubbiness.

All of this went through my mind again over the last few days, after I'd had a series of consistently unpleasant experiences with one particular Website operator. Necessary background: I have been essentially Windows-free (and thus virus-free and botnet-free) for some five years now, initially using Linux systems like Ubuntu and then the Apple Mac. What has made this change practical, for me and for tens of millions of other people, has been the emergence of open standards in desktop computing, particularly with regard to open data formats. A classic example with which anyone reading this is familiar is HTTP. Any device, from large mainframes to appliances to mobile phones, can be used to produce or access information via HTTP, most commonly in the form of Web pages. Other "standards", like MP3 for audio or Microsoft Office document formats, are proprietary to a company or organisation but widely implemented by competing or collaborating systems. This reliance on actual or de facto standards, as much as any other single factor, is what has enabled much of modern technology, particularly the Internet (which many think of as synonymous with the World Wide Web).

Not everybody has always "played fair" with these standards, however. Microsoft, in particular, have been infamous for their commonly-used practice of "embrace, extend and extinguish" has led to several instances where they support an existing standard (such as HTML for Web pages or Kerberos for network authentication) and either introduce incompatible features or defective versions of standard features into their implementation. This has the effect of "locking in" users who support Microsoft's implementation rather than the actual standard. These usees, as they are often called, face significant actual or perceived costs and difficulties were they to switch away from their now-Microsoft-specific infrastructure. Microsoft have by no means been the only ones to do this sort of thing; they are, however, often quite brazen about it — and their usees don't always have an accurate understanding of the true costs of their "investment."

In particular, during the "dark ages" of Web development in the mid- to late 1990s, it was common for sites to have text on each page proclaiming "Best viewed with Microsoft Internet Explorer"; the tools which they were using to create the Web pages (often Microsoft FrontPage), did not always (or easily) generate valid HTML, CSS or standard JavaScript — all of which are needed to make interactive, "dynamic" Web sites work. As the relevant standards have become better-known to amateur and semiprofessional Web developers, the tools used by professional developers mature, and those using Web browsers become more aware of the importance of these standards, we have seen an increasing Web "Enlightenment", where once again, anybody (or anything, like a Google search crawler) can access all content for a site.

There are exceptions to this, however, just as there are trailing-edge sluggards in any social or technical change. These can give excuses about lack of resources, perceived lack of need ("We're doing fine the way things are") and so on — which quite often attempt to mask either ignorance of the issues involved or, at a fundamental level, disrespect for their current and actual customers. When a well-equipped, motivated (outside) organisation is in a position to gain from that ignorance or contempt — as Microsoft for so long was with regard to Web development and standards — those "sluggards" will continue to pat themselves on the back for their "prudence" and "conservatism" — right up to and often past the point at which the business dies.

One such organization appears to be the company which owns and operates the group of employment Web sites. With "specialised" sites for Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and other countries, and an apparently large advertising and promotion budget, it's safe to speculate that millions of people have at least seen their advertisements, if not actually made use of their site. Those who actually do try to browse for a job there, however, can face significant problems — if they're using anything other than Internet Explorer on Windows as their browser. (And the message seems to be finally getting through to many users — Microsoft Internet Explorer and Windows itself cause numerous security and stability problems that are comparatively unheard of on any other system.)

I browsed, the Singapore-themed version of their online job service. I got as far as entering my details in an application form for a position, when I ran into insurmountable difficulties. Numerous pages display poorly in any of the browsers I tried. "Obviously using archaic design," I thought, "but as long as the function isn't too badly broken, I can still deal with this." I eventually got to the a page with a form to be filled in by those wishing to apply for a specific job (at SingTel) and ran into fatal problems. I clicked on the link to report a problem with the site, and included the following description:

SingTel application page misbehaves horribly with Safari 4.0.2/Mac. An ASP alert box, (URL omitted for this blog post), is displayed in a new tab, taking the entire browser window; the message "Please correct the field(s) with red exclamation mark(s) (!). You can click on the exclamation mark for instruction and input relevant information." indicates that there was an error on the initial page (which is still open in its original tab), but no red exclamation marks appear.

Very 1998ish.

Sixteen hours after filing the initial report, and getting an auto-generated email indicating that it had been received and entered into their ticketing system, I get the following email from ""):

Dear Sir / Madam,

Please clear the cache of your browser by deleting the cookies and temporary internet files, enable the java and javascript, disable the popup blocker, open a new browser and try from there.

Otherwise, please try other browsers like firefox or Internet Explorer 6.0 & above to access the Career Portal and verify that your Internet Settings are configured correctly against Then open a new browser and submit from there.

Best Regards, Customer Service

Absolutely no problem-specific content whatsoever. This could easily have been (and in my opinion probably was) an automatically-generated message that was sent when no relevant response would be forthcoming within 24 hours after filing the problem (the '16:44' in the timestamp, or 4:45 PM local time, sounds suspiciously like "it's the end of the day, nobody got to this, blow him off and hope he goes away.") There continues to be an explicit assumption within the fluff mail that I'm using Internet Exploder; even though the second paragraph mentions "firefox" (sic), the PDF link supplied says that it relates to IE.

I'm getting used to companies, particularly the all-pervasive oligopolies, here in Singapore treating the customer with contempt. Knowing that no living human would probably ever read it, however, I did send one last complaint email.

Dear Customer “Service”,

Did you actually read the report I filed? Here are a few Statistically Improbable Phrases to clue you in:

  • “standards-compliant (non-IE) browsers”. I tested your site with ten different browsers on four different operating systems. In no case did it operate correctly. By the way, Microsoft does not make a version of Internet Exploder for non-Windows systems.
  • “Safari” — Safari is the standard, comes-with-the-system browser for Macs and iPhones, and is available for those wishing to upgrade their Internet experience on Windows as well.
  • “an ASP alert displayed in a new tab” — obviously not what was intended by the coder; however, competent JS wouldn’t do this.
I am a Web developer with nearly 15 years experience. I have been teaching Web development for ten years. If a student of mine from my very first class, back in 1999, had submitted work with such grossly defective JavaScript, he would have been required to redo it. You see, even since the early days of the World Wide Web, there have been standards that even Microsoft can comply with – though they also “support” their own proprietary, non-standard version of HTML and JavaScript and have encouraged careless or inexperienced “developers” to lock themselves in, breaking sites for anyone using a non-IE browser. That includes half the smartphones on the planet, every single non-Windows desktop or laptop system, and search engines like Google.

You should take as a gentle but firm recommendation.


No, I don't expect a relevant reply. Yes, I do feel better. No, I won't be using JobsDB or any related site, and will happily explain to any who ask my opinion precisely why.

A final note: There is a nice little site called which offers a nice set of network (Internet) diagnostic and information tools. One page on the site,, does what's called a "reverse IP address lookup". I used this page to find out what other sites are hosted by the same server as Try it yourself; the results included apparently all "country-specific" sites — as well as the site for Target, an American retailer. Interesting.

Not that I expect it, but if any of the parties mentioned here were to reply to what I've written here, I'd be happy to publish their response.

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