In the past few months, we’ve heard of Zynga acquire DrawSomething, and more recently, Facebook acquiring Instagram for huge sums of money. Both Zynga and Facebook might be doing it for the user base acquisition. Or they might simply be doing it to "nip it in the bud."
What attracts these huge businesses to the userbase? Sales in terms of ads? Probably. It’s still mind-boggling to think that the circle of folks I’ve known over the past 6 years (who have all been using those ad-blocking plugins on browsers and have probably clicked ads only by accident) are the minority. Most people are constantly being lied to (through marketing) over radios, televisions, and billboards (Sao Paulo is an exception) out in the streets while they’re stuck in traffic.
What differentiates these from the internet is that they lack ad-filters. And yet, internet-based businesses that serve ads make it big.
Sidebar: It should be noticeable by now how tech stocks have been underwritten in the past few years (with entities like certain powerful investment banks out there).
So, what we have today is a huge internet userbase made by businesses that offer questionably silly services that are later turned into yet another ad market. Why? Because a lot of people still click ads.
The NYTimes maybe operating for over a 100 years and may be valued well under a billion. Many may not even know what the Tesla corp does. Big dreaming tech companies are getting rarer by the day.
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing customer service first-hand as a customer over the past year with multiple service providers — consumer banking, internet, mobile, and online/offline retail. In this post, I’ll describe my experiences and point some fingers.
Back in early 2011, ICICI’s netbanking barely worked during the day. One had to use it early morning or late at night. It’s come a long way now and the customer service has been quite satisfactory.
Since late 2011, I’ve had to deal with HDFC bank. Enabling a taken-for-granted service such as paying bills through its netbanking portal requires one to submit applications manually. Netbanking (third-party transfer, specifically) didn’t work for me on a couple of occasions and when I vented out on twitter (that’s normal right?) somebody from HDFC spotted that and got in touch from me.
That was a pleasant surprise. It appears there’s a dedicated department that proactively scours the internet and tries to mend the damage caused (if any) called "HDFC-talktous <firstname.lastname@example.org>."
The second point of comparison is the over-the-phone customer service. While ICICI can be annoying with their long-winded IVR process, HDFC bank gets you in touch with a real person quite quickly. But the quality differs (that’s probably a tradeoff: automate and use few good people or don’t automate and use a lot of not-so-good people; perhaps different target audiences too). Couple of the HDFC folks I spoke to over the phone had trouble comprehending and were just too quick to a "I understand, sir." Fortunately, the email@example.com folk are quite open to listening to you.
While on phone with the customer service, it takes a couple of hops with ICICI to reach a person who knows his stuff (example: 4-digit CVV codes of Amex vs. 3-digit Mastercard/VISA) whereas in the case of HDFC, the hop hasn’t happened the first time and always through the talktous@ folks.
I’ve posted about this extensively in the past. To quickly summarise, Airtel has been a disappointment. Reliance has turned out to be quite reliable — in fact, so reliable that I haven’t had to call their customer service up since I got a connection from them back in September.
I’ve been with Vodafone for nearly 8 years now. They’re the ones who used a dog in their TV adverts while every other mobile service provider used some movie actor or a sports champ. Their ads were simple, modest, and most of all, not annoying.
After procuring an iPhone 4S, I had to get a micro-SIM. Walked into a Vodafone outlet at Koramangala on a Saturday evening. Got a queue-token from the token vending machine, gave a 5-second description of what I wanted, got a light-looking, large-fonted form with limited fields to enter details into that I managed to fill in under 20-seconds, went over to the other counter and got a micro-SIM right there (for free), submitted the stamped form back to the person who gave me the form and was told that my number would move onto the new in an hour’s time. And it did.
A friend’s friend had experienced weird issues with the 4S and other service providers’ networks, my experience with Vodafone’s so far has been smooth. (Too bad they tie up with Airtel for 3G in B’lore, but that’s another story.)
My respect for Vodafone has only increased with time.
Flipkart has been a growing name over the past few years and I’ve made several purchases. I’ve had no complains except for one case where the steam iron had a scratch on the ironing surface. Wasn’t so bad that it had to be replaced but I expected at least a QC pass. There are multiple online retailers cropping up now. Naturally, in the sea of mediocrity and poor service, I expect only the best to survive (is that too obvious?)
Some of the household names such a BigBazaar when they first arrived stocked up all sorts of stuff. With time, the range has definitely come down. There are newer brands of supermarkets that crop up here and there, they all face a similar challenge. I don’t have much to say here.
Shoppers’ Stop provides these cards where whatever you shop – regardless of the branch – gets accounted into a central database. To relate an experience, I purchased a trackpant at the Koramangala branch, noticed a stitch-issue couple of days later, took it to the Bannerghatta road branch and produced my card so they could confirm that this was bought by me (I wasn’t carrying the bill with me) and got it mended there for no additional cost. Experiences like these are pleasant (and a new thing) to many in these parts of the world.
Back at college, the prof. who spoke about competition in the organisational psychology class was right about many things. What we have here is a large population where providing good services makes it profitable only when there are multiple competitors. Had there been just One Internet Service Provider or One Big Bazaar this definitely wouldn’t have been the case.
A typical use-case is when we have a couple (or more) web servers independent of each other (say, webmail web servers: webmail.mydomain.com), I’d add multiple A records for the same domain so that DNS resolution happens in a round-robin manner at the client’s end. i.e.,
dig +short webmail.mydomain.com 184.xx.yy.154 184.xx.yy.155
The client uses the first IP it gets during resolution and as the number of clients that are resolving your domain (and making HTTP requests) grow, you’ll start seeing a more or less equitable distribution of HTTP requests hitting each of your hosts.
These IPs are meant to float and be handled by your spread/wackamole tools. (i.e., they’re not hard-configured into network config files like permanent configs: i.e. /etc/sysconfig/networking/ifcfg-*). Say, the .154 IP was on host A and .155 on host B, host B goes down, spread daemon on host A detects that host B isn’t responding to "are you alive?" requests and instructs wackamole daemon on host A to take over the IP that host B had (.155). Sometimes – depending on the router in your environment – one might have to send a gratuitous ARP packet to the router and hook this up with wackamole’s "post-up" action.
This post is about how I couldn’t find usable RPMs for spread/wackamole (and was in a time crunch to shave that yak) and looked for an alternative.
Pacemaker and Keepalived are known entities in the market. So is UCARP (as userland implementation of BSD’s CARP for Linux). Being on a time crunch and noticing how the former options seemed a little complex at first sight, I settled on deploying UCARP.
The configurations on the Internet typically show how one IP is floated around between two hosts. Now this doesn’t let me have DNS-based round-robin’d "load" balanced incoming requests. So here’s how I configured UCARP on host A (assuming you have installed from EPEL repo as `yum install ucarp’):
[root@web02-dal07 nvenkateshappa]# cat /etc/ucarp/vip-001.conf # Virtual IP configuration file for UCARP # The number (from 001 to 255) in the name of the file is the identifier # In the simple scenario, you want a single virtual IP address from the _same_ # network to be taken over by one of the routers. ID="001" VIP_ADDRESS="184.xx.yy.154" PASSWORD="love" BIND_INTERFACE="eth1" SOURCE_ADDRESS="184.xx.yy.179" # In more complex scenarios, check the "vip-common" file for values to override # and how to add options.
And on host B:
[root@web01-dal07 nvenkateshappa]# cat /etc/ucarp/vip-001.conf # Virtual IP configuration file for UCARP # The number (from 001 to 255) in the name of the file is the identifier # In the simple scenario, you want a single virtual IP address from the _same_ # network to be taken over by one of the routers. ID="001" VIP_ADDRESS="184.xx.yy.154" PASSWORD="love" BIND_INTERFACE="eth1" SOURCE_ADDRESS="184.xx.yy.180" OPTIONS="--shutdown --preempt --advskew=10" # In more complex scenarios, check the "vip-common" file for values to override # and how to add options.
The above vip-001.conf on the two hosts is for managing the first floating IP, and the following are for the second: vip-002.conf
Copy over the same configs on each host, change ID to 002, VIP_ADDRESS to 184.xx.yy.155 and swap the OPTIONS line.
The –advskew option (advertisement skew) is what gives a sense of affinity for your virtual IPs.
Let me know in what other interesting use-cases you’ve used UCARP in.
Those of you who’ve tried building RPMs for c5 on a c6 machine might’ve faced the symptoms described in http://samixblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/yum-errno-3-error-performing-checksum.html
The cause seems to involve a couple of things: 1. c6 having adopted a stronger file digest algorithm (sha256 as opposed to md5 in c5) and 2. compressing the payload with xz (as opposed to nothing in c5).
This is easily remedied by passing relevant options to `rpmbuild’ and `createrepo’.
--rpm-rpmbuild-define '_source_filedigest_algorithm md5' \ --rpm-rpmbuild-define '_binary_filedigest_algorithm md5' \ --rpm-rpmbuild-define '_source_payload nil' \ --rpm-rpmbuild-define '_binary_payload nil' \
And invoke createrepo as `createrepo -d -s sha1 –update /path/to/rpms/for/c5′
fpm now supports quick shortcuts to the above:
% fpm --help [...] --rpm-digest sha512|md5|sha384|sha256|sha1 (rpm only) Select a digest algorithm. md5 works on the most platforms. (default: "md5") --rpm-compression xz|gzip|bzip2 (rpm only) Select a compression method. gzip works on the most platforms. (default: "gzip")
Recently at $work, I came across a situation where: a. public DNS records are served off of a GoDaddy account and b. a couple of domain names needed a office network-wide override pointing it to IPs in the local network.
dig +short @184.108.40.206 qa.example.com
<returns public IP>
dig +short qa.example.com
<returns private IP>
If there aren’t too many consumers for this name resolution, we could’ve done with putting in entries into /etc/hosts on each consumer host. But our consumer hosts included a lot of android phones. And we didn’t want to root them all to be able to modify their /etc/hosts.
If we were running our own DNS server in our DMZ, we could’ve configured the infamous split-DNS setup through BIND or tinydns. (Un)fortunately, we didn’t.
The first "workaround" to this was to maintain a duplicate zone for example.com on our local DNS server (the one served by our DHCP server) and override the records as required. This would soon start to suck.
A colleague of mine – who didn’t take my word that the above two methods are our only options available – persevered through the PowerDNS docs and found an option where it could serve off the host’s /etc/hosts file. Now what was brilliant about this was, adding a ‘192.168.1.223 qa.example.com’ into /etc/hosts effectively solved the problem we had!
We didn’t really needed a full-fledged DNS server like PowerDNS and I looked if dnsmasq could solve the same problem – and it does.
[root@blr-vbox1 ~]# egrep -v ‘^#|^\B+’ /etc/dnsmasq.conf
Our ISP’s DNS servers go into /etc/resolv.conf.isp
Ensure that the host that’s running dnsmasq has only ‘nameserver 127.0.0.1’ in /etc/resolv.conf and put in all your entries to be served into /etc/hosts.
Public transport that is fast, reliable is still a far-sighted goal in these parts of the world. The local government has probably lost its chance to increase the number of buses or other forms of public transport because if they do it now, there’s simply not enough road space for them anymore. There are as many cars these days as there were two wheelers in the 90s. But, no, the road space hasn’t increased.
Ever since I got back to B’lore last November, I’ve been commuting to work on a car. It’s a 2006-07 Hyundai Getz and still works quite well. What makes it an unpleasant and at times depressing ride is when one is stuck inside it in B’lore peak hour traffic. One can’t hit the second gear for an hour or more. So much wasted time sitting idle on a seat waiting on slow minds – who don’t realise how traffic rules are meant to help them be efficient on the road – to make way. Oh, but the rules themselves are harebrained in certain scenarios: for instance, traffic lights in a junction that turn green in a round-robin fashion with equal time intervals for all roads on that junction.
Last week I acquired a Trek 7.1 FX. It’s a hybrid that’s supposed to roll well on city roads. I took it out for a test spin to work on Saturday to test the waters: to see if the goal of riding nearly 12 kilometers is doable at all without sweating too much. Turns out that it’s possible.
Two years ago, at around the same time, I had acquired a Hercules ACT104. It’s supposed to be an MTB. But I didn’t know at that time that good MTBs don’t come that cheap at all. That cycle was a deadweight to ride with. The weekend before last, I had taken the ACT104 out in an attempt to see if I could ride all the way to office. I had to give up at one-third the distance. It was too heavy or just didn’t roll well. Previously at college, I was a proud owner of a BSA Mach III. I could literally glide on it at times. All this made me start looking at cycles with narrower tires.
My ride to work is nearly 11 kilometers and the ride back is almost 18 kilometers (I ride to NGV/Koramangala and then toward home). I’m not sure how tired I am as I write this, but being just the first day, I’m looking forward to improvements.
P.S. The Trek cost me my 6 month petrol bill (assuming the petrol price doesn’t increase in the next 6 months)
P.P.S. The Nissan Leaf isn’t available here. The Prius is twice the amount it costs in the US.
UPDATE on 22nd:
Some of you might be looking for details such as:
- I wear a dry-fit jersey while I ride and carry a casual t-shirt (which I change into while at office) in my backpack along with my laptop. I don’t sweat as much thanks to the awesome weather of BLR and I don’t have a shower at work. (Among the metros in India, I believe only BLR has this weather advantage.)
- The time to commute on bike almost equals that of the car. Varies a bit now and then depending on the traffic. At least with a bike one can pull it off onto the footpath and walk it up until there’s road to ride.
- I park the bike at the basement at work. I use a coil-like lock and lock it to something.
- Being the second day now, I think goggles for eye protection and a decent pollution mask are necessary.
One of the reasons a South Korean or a Japanese person would quote to you when asked “Why is it that in your country Internet speeds are quite high compared to the rest?” is “We’re quite densely populated and real estate is costly so homes tend to be much closer to each other which made it a good idea at that time to install fiber optic cables everywhere rather than CAT5” and they’re reaping the benefits of a well-networked country with high Internet speeds.
India is quite densely populated too – at least in the metros – and yet we’re stuck decades behind countries like Romania (which recently surpassed the USA as having a better average Internet speed). I wonder if this is a general trend in tropical countries. The lack of long-sightedness or long-term thoughts or decision-making. Maybe we’re all too comfortable around here (compared to Scandinavia or Siberia, for instance).
The concept of a “good service” is poorly understood in nations with high population densities. It’s a matter of numbers you see. Having been close to one of the largest online service providers (for canned commodities such as web or mail hosting), I’m all too familiar with the sort of attitude an Indian businessman possesses when he markets a service. You’re not important. You’re just another node in the huge graph. If I lose you as a customer, there’ll be another. I can go on losing a customer per day because I’m used to the fact that there’s always another customer (or two) who’ll take your place. So why are you special again?
This is applicable to practically everything around these parts in the mid-sector. What I mean by mid-sector is: the sector that addresses the mass. The middle-class.
A middle-class-style lunch house or restaurant would not have the sort of waiters who’d even recite the menu politely to you. You’ll have to put in extra efforts to get attention. You’re just another customer (of the numerous that go in and out each day).
Oh, and hygiene. Since you’re replaceable or not too important as an individual. I wouldn’t take extra care when it comes to hygiene or even fresh food ingredients (especially the non-vegetarian processed foods). Don’t expect that chicken salami sandwich to be fresh all the time, they will not get rid of it by themselves. And forget about expiry dates on them.
Same applies to roads. Nobody seems to have put in a long-term vision and taken the stand to take the initial losses in order to gain the long-term profits. There was an estimate someone had put out stating the astronomical losses India faces per year solely due to lack of decent roads. Day to day commutes to work and back home is quite taxing – both mentally and physically.
Oops. Let me get back to the Internet service provider issue now.
So, FTTH is still quite costly around here. Sure, there are cables laid around here and there. (And by nature, the first telecom entity that bids and gets fiber optics laid out is always the loss-maker. But someone’s gotta do it). I don’t know if the likes of BSNL are sitting on their butts waiting for people to finally give in to the insane prices or just underprice the damn thing (and take the initial – short term – losses) and reap the long term benefits of increased subscription-base.
Sure, this doesn’t always work: Volkswagon Polo, for instance, underpriced their 10L factory costing car to 6-7L but still haven’t gained the sort of traction the Hyundais or Swifts do. But it’s worth a try – especially in an increasingly net-savvy metropolitans.
Where I live, it seems only Airtel and BSNL are the only ISPs around. We did have BSNL earlier and not knowing that it had better speed plans, I took the plunge of getting rid of them and signing up for Airtel (whom I’ve had a good experience with while I was at Mumbai last year). The 4mbps connection is what I had and was quite happy with it until this August. When the rains began pouring in Bangalore.
The signal-to-noise ratio would deteriorate quite badly whenever it rained. The issue was quite obvious – anybody with half-a-brain would attribute this to poor sheathing of the copper cable – which isn’t in my home – out there anywhere between the CO and my home.
Half of August (beginning late July) had near to no connectivity and almost everyday I had to call up the Airtel customer service (a. annoying ringtone and b. poor internal communication). I resorted to trying to get in touch with their “social” faces: @Airtel_Presence and the airtelpresence email contact.
I got a call on two occasions from two different people (Airtel_Presence), the first time, I had to explain how this wasn’t an issues that requires modem reinstallations or any of the usual circus the technicians tend to do (especially around these parts, you know “Dell Support, how can I help you?”) and the second time, I had to report back saying “nope, hasn’t been fixed”.
I ran out of patience, signed up for BSNL somewhere in early August and placed a cancellation request with Airtel. Someone calls me up again (and again) asking me why I was going to cancel the connection and I regurgitate the same set of sentences and so did they “Sir, I assure you that this will be fixed”. Which rarely does.
It seems that they finally figured what the real issue was. Perhaps a lot of complains from around this locality might’ve hinted at the root cause. And soon enough, the connection started faring better since mid-August. But on one bad day in late August, the issue resurfaced. And I raised a cancellation request again. The next day things were back to normal so I got the cancellation request cancelled. Or so I thought. Until last Wednesday.
The Airtel Presence folks mailed me back:
Thank you for writing to Airtel.
This is with reference to your e-mail, where in; you requested regarding
the cancellation of services towards your Airtel landline connection
However; later you confirmed us that you would like to continue your
patronage with Airtel. Please be informed that we are glad to have you
with us and look forward to an opportunity of offering you the best of
our world class products and technology in the times to come.
It is our privilege to have you as our valued customer and would like to
thank you for your continued support. We look forward to a warm and
fruitful long-term association with you.
Should you wish to take a landline/DSL connection with Airtel in future,
kindly contact the undersigned at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Airtel Presence (Airtel Customer Service Team)
Bharti Airtel Ltd
I was somewhat impressed at this point. “Man, Indian service providers are finally taking things like Twitter and customer service seriously”. I guess I was happy too soon.
Last Wednesday, my line goes dead because someone de-activated my connection due to some miscommunication (or so they claim).
I reply back (5 days ago):
Looks like there’s been a miscommunication on your side. Airtel has
discontinued my connection without any intimation. As a person working
in the IT field and relying on being able to connect to corporate VPNs
at odd times, this is very a very unwelcome experience. Please
re-enable my connection ASAP.
and got no reply. I call up the customer service each night after work, hoping for a positive response and on day one, support executive A listens to the issue, but forgets to log a request (I have no request number with me). Day two, I re-explain the situation to another support executive B and get a request number who says that “the issue would be fixed” (standard phrase around these parts) by 23rd September and gives me another request number. So I don’t call them on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
There goes another night of unproductive work. Honestly, why is it so
hard for an Indian company to take service seriously. Does it always
have to be the likes of an Amazon?
I call them up on Monday morning to see what the status with the previous request is. And support executive C has no information regarding this request number. So she takes a fresh request and gives me yet another request number and states that “the issue would be fixed” (what did I tell you?) by 5:30pm the same day. I sighed a breath a relief. “Finally I’d get my Internet back” and go out. I reach back home with great expectations by 8pm only to be disappointed again.
I call up the service line again, speak to support executive D, who puts me on hold but the call got cut.
I call up again, speak to support executive E, told him that the previous call got cut – “could you please check request number xyz which I got this morning.” Puts me on hold, call gets cut again.
I call up again, speak to support executive F, requested him not to cut the call and check my request number xyz – which he claims didn’t exist. He puts me on hold and the call got cut again.
I call up yet again, speak to support executive G, told him how three calls of mine were cut; so he escalates to his senior (or so he claimed) and I speak to person H who couldn’t find anything regarding request number xyz (so I was under a false hope all day… expecting “the issue to be fixed” by 5:30pm. I explain the whole situation again explaining how all of this has been a giant miscommunication and that I didn’t had to have my connection de-activated and requested him to contact a backend team person immediately and flip that switch which gets me my connection back (all the hardware apparatus is here BTW, even the “Link” LED is blinking just fine – barring the “Data” LED).
Support executive H has given me yet another request number and claims that “the issue would be fixed” by 22nd September. And that I should expect a call from the backend team soon.
I plan to call them up again and quote the latest request number I have to see if their CRM if fucked in head. Because it has eaten up two request numbers of mine already, it’d sure be a hat-trick if this one gets eaten to.
So that, gentlemen, is a primer on Service Providers in India.
Despite your phone calls and promises on Tuesday that the “issue would
be fixed” in two days, on calling up the customer service today I
found out that the comments were added in the wrong category and
tickets were closed leaving no traces of the grievance I’ve been
facing since last Wednesday – been more than a week now.
I have no words to describe this situation at the moment. I seriously
hope things will improve – at least in terms of available alternatives
to the horrible levels of service you seem to provide.
I am in no state to receive a call from you ever again only to tell me
“issue would be fixed” in yet-another-two days. Save it. Don’t call if
you can’t get this resolved ASAP.
Yet-another-new-request number issued: 4543080 (I hope this isn’t fake)
Nope. Hasn’t been fixed yet.