Saturday, July 15, 2006

Another Disappointing Customer-Service Tale, Courtesy of Party Poker

Loyal readers (and thanks, all of you, for visiting) might remember that several weeks ago this newsblog featured an examination of the India-based customer-service call center as practiced by that McDonald's of the online poker scene, Party Poker. I'm back with another Party tale today, born of consternation and frustration with the strictured behemoth that Party is. There are times when Party is wholly impersonal, even imperious; there are rarer moments when they actually recognize that there might be something wrong and they seek to make good. I often find Party customer service to be just more of that "customer no-service" practiced by online mega-corporations everywhere, where they grab a chunk of possibly-related form text from some obscure page, slap it into a reply e-mail and send you on your way.

This is a tale of personal frustration with Party, but to their [small] credit, they've taken some steps to try to make good, including unexpected return phone calls. Unsatisfactory and misdirected steps, but at least they give it the old college try, at least as dictated by their customer-response callback quotas. That said, there are several really good reasons to play at Party:

1) Utterly safe bankroll, due to Party Gaming's enormous size;
2) Huge player base, offering competition of most types at any time of day;
3) Perpetual stream of new, inexperienced players, resulting in game toughness that, well, is seldom truly tough.

Onward, now, with appropriate framing.

A teacher I had once described the Army's famed "A-B-C" method of determining what paperwork had priority. "A" is important, "C" is unimportant, and the "B" stuff (to be determined) is shuffled back down to the bottom of its own pile for later consideration, when it eventually becomes "A" (more important) or is discarded over to the rest of the to-be-ignored "C"-pile detritus. That's how generic-designed online service/response systems work, too; almost everything is determined to be unimportant or delayable until it's importance has been demonstrated, because lots of times, problems aren't, or go away by themselves. These are reactive-response systems, taken to simplistic, annoying, financially-calculatable perfection.

Blah, of course to all, that --- the primary problem with the world's customer service networks is that reactive remedies are both fiscally self-justified and overused, when proactive measures would be much more efficient and pleasing to the customers. It's a suboptimal, minimax solution.

That's the framework; now on to the specifics.

The late-Friday/early-Saturday midnight hours often find me at the computers, playing a few tournaments, writing and researching stories, reading blogs and e-mail, with the TV on in the background to keep my senses even more occupied. Mindless multitasking. Last night was no exception, and I had the almost-live chip-count updates of the WSOP H.O.R.S.E. Championship final table, available at Card Player, to check on as well, plus tourneys at Party and

For me it was a down day, with little sign of getting better; I crashed out of a another $22 7-card stud tourney on Party; bubbled in four straight small SNGs, did the usual grumbling at the screen. Not that I'm worried; I wasn't in the mood to play any higher-value events, anyway. Around midnight I registered for one of those $6-entry, $1,000-added fixed-limit events, because, yes, I play fixed-limit too, dinosaur that I am. Thus the stage is set.

The FL tourney starts, and it's more of the same. Not much for cards, though I connect on a couple of smallish garbage hands and hang around as the original field of 1000-plus entrants dwindles. 700... 500... 300.. and I finally double through when my first big pocket pair holds, and as we get under 200 players I'm still a bit under par, but with at least a chance of cashing or doing better.

Down we are, to 166 players (with 120 cashing), and I'm about to lose a fifth of my stack to the next round of blinds when... the tournament freezes up. Just like Stephen King's classic imagery of a dead rat in a lucite block, the game goes motionless, except it's only the actual play that's affected. The chat goes on, the main-menu functions work, but no cards are being dealt. It's easy enough to see that the gaming-engine server has crashed or has otherwise been disconnected from the remainder of the Party system.

So we wait, more or less patiently, cracking jokes about the gerbils not being fed and verifying that all players are affected, and not just us. Two minutes become five, five becomes ten, and one of the players notes that he'd just had it happen recently in another Party event, and it'd taken a half-hour to resume play. It's not good to hear but it's not unexpected, given the nature of system rebooting and re-coordination of servers. Indeed, after about 15 minutes, one of those "Captain Obvious" messages pops up in a center-table box: "This tournament has been paused. Play will resume shortly."

Well, you know how "shortly" is often defined, and we caught the longish end of the spectrum. 20 minutes... 25... then 30 and more, still with no signs of resumption.

Mind you, this is now at something after 3:00 a.m., my time, and most of the other players are in nearby time zones. The bed's looking more enticing all the time. But then it occurs to me --- the chat is fully operational, and in fact, Party is continuing to spew the occasional promotional chat text at us, reminding us of the Party Million, the last-chance WSOP qualifiers, and the like. Do you think they'd be using their own system to tell us what to expect?

Well, it didn't seem likely. I typed up a quick e-mail on the other machine, sent it off to, knowing that there was no way in hell I'd receive a timely response but being interested in what generic pap I'd receive when they did get around to the reply.

Just moments after I sent it off, a text message appeared. (Coincidence, of course.) The message advised us that play was about to resume.

Cool enough.

Ha-ha. Joke's on us. Nothing happened. The 40-minute barrier passed, as did 50, 60, and then 70. And they sent off messages every ten minutes or so telling us to "Please stay logged in. Play is about to resume."

So we waited, since, after all, there hadn't been much of a choice. But my ire was rising, since they were using the chat window to send out generic pap, but not offering any specific information.

And about 75 minutes after play froze, all of a sudden a message appears: "This table is being closed." They even repeat the thing. No mention of the tourney being cancelled, no referral to any web page which might offer more information --- they just close the tables down, and the tourney-leader screen then vanishes into the ether.

Now I'm peed. I send off a second, more sharply worded e-mail (this time to, and I vent on them. I'm not mad about the server crashing and play freezing up; I'm mad because they have a communications network at hand, and abuse our time investiture by booting us off the system and not offering a shred of a followup or explanation.

They could have informed us that due to the extended delay, they cancelled the tournament, and they could have referred us to their page on tourney cancellations.

But they didn't do that.

They could have left the basic tournament in the board, with a note or status field saying "Cancelled," as happens with other events.

But they didn't do that, either. The tourney was gone from the main menu as though it never existed.

They could have made a simple database query and sent a letter of explanation to all the remaining players.

Get serious --- you think they did that one? That would be quality customer-service, and this was about dropping the mess and picking up the pieces later. A vast chasm of difference exists between the two.

It's almost 4:30 a.m. by this time, and I'm tired and cranky and not happy with Party. But it can wait until morning --- and in fact it has to, because I've got two e-mails already floating in their system.

* zzz * zzz * * * zzz-zz *

Oy, morning already? I wonder what the e-mailman brings, and it turns out to be the expected two replies from Party Poker. Both, however, are the type of non-explanatory, generic pap I expected anyway, so I make a call on the 1-800 "Party" line, because I'd received no information about resolution of the cancellation. "If your call is regarding poker, please press one." I get a polite customer rep, am finally able to get directed to the page explaining cancellation policies, but still have received zero feedback on what really irked me, Party's cavalier attitude toward their dis-serviced players. And I start to write a different version of this post.

I had to change the intro, because out of the blue my phone rings, and there's a Party supervisor named Mahesh on the other end. Mahesh has the practiced "effusive apology" routine down to a tee, confirms the factual portions of what I'd been able to noodle out of the situation, and promises me --- as I'm in the middle of sending a longer e-mail further clarifying my frustration --- that he'll pass my concerns up the proverbial line.

Again, system crashes happen; no biggee. But leaving your customers hanging in the ether, then dumping them unceremoniously when you've indicated the opposite, and --- finally --- failing to communicate any sort of explanation or followup, well this was lousy service. I sent the later e-mail, and Mahesh dutifully replied a couple of hours later. His reply included the following:

"Haley, regarding the message being posted at the table, I am sorry to
inform you that we would not be able to do so, because certain times we
are not sure as to how much time it will take to resume the game."

Polite nonsense. I asked for a posting (or explanation of the lack thereof) that the tournament was officially cancelled, not that it would be necessarily be resumed. One is indeterminate, while the other is not. And of course, Mahesh's response was exactly the sort of low-level-managerial misdirection I've come to expect from Party's customer-service reps, and when I sent off one last reply to Mahesh, I told him this... and I thanked him for the quote.

In departing from the dregs of the usual lousy Party Poker service, I note how typical it is for market leaders to use such a lowest-common-denominator approach. Like a McDonald's, a Wal-Mart, or virtually any other large "baseline" brand, one observes a marked skew --- towards mass advertising and away from individualized customer service. What this does is generate lots of new customers, but also a high departure rate. The fancy term is "(customer) turnover ratio," but most often it's just called the churn-'n'-burn.

I suspect Party's churn numbers are the highest in the industry, not that they'd ever tell us.

As for followup, Party is still sending me out occasional generic e-mails, but there's no information contained therein. Another feature of these quantized customer-service departments is that arbitary, nonsensical service requirements are often included, such as the dictum that e-mails must be responded to, barring blatantly abusive language. I might just keep replying to their replies, not that it does anything but redistribute headaches.

But do you think that Party would ever consider putting a clause in their cancellation policy, stating that after a pause of a certain duration --- say, 40 minutes --- a tournament is automatically cancelled?

I didn't think so. Still, there's worse windmills at which to tilt.

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