A Lesson in (failed) Vendor Relationship Management

I've allowed myself the appropriate cooling off period before posting this piece. Never post in the heat of frustration – it only feeds the flamewars.

So now that I've slept on this particular topic for a couple of nights, it still strikes me as a frustrating and disappointing customer service experience, and still something I want to post.

What follows is a description and transcript (with annotations) of a recent, fairly lengthy email exchange with the founder of a company providing web-based services to the PR industry. It's a long post and probably of only marginal interest to most regular readers - but I needed the cathartic release of posting it.

I haven't edited the email exchanges at all, except to obscure the names of the company and individual concerned. On reflection, I've realised I have no particular interest in picking a fight with the specific company involved here, so I've chosen not to call them out by name.

What I think you'll get from this thread was that there was – somewhere – a major failure to communicate. I guess I might be partly at fault in the exchange, but at the time it sure felt like I was just getting bloody-minded and unhelpful service from someone who was trying to sell me their product. Consider my notes and colour commentary, then, as an honest attempt at Vendor Relationship Management.

The truth is – the service I was being pitched is something I would genuinely have been interested in trying out. Alas, it seems that I will never get the chance to evaluate their product, given how this thing unfolded. Judge for yourself...

Last Friday, at around 09:30, I received an email note inviting me to try out a new online service for PR folk. Let’s call it "Potentially Interesting New PR Service" or PinPRs.com for short.

This service looked like it might be of real potential value, so I was inclined to ignore the fact that they got my name wrong (everyone does it) and explore the service a little further.

Noticing that the contact person had a Boston-based phone number, I fired back a quick question to clarify whether the service covered the specific needs of Canadian practitioners.

Later that day, sitting on hold for a conference call at around 3:00pm, I clicked through on the link in the original message where it said: "I encourage you to register at www.pinprs.com". Noticing a prominent invitation on the website to sign up for a free trial, I duly filled in my details and then clicked out again as my conference call got going, without actually digging into the service at all.

Note: at no time in the original invitation or in any of the registration screens was there any description of the terms or time limit of the trial period.

I finished up my work for the week and headed home. On Saturday afternoon, I happened to notice that my question about Canadian coverage had been answered directly in an email from the founder of the service, who again encouraged me to register at the site. There was one key difference, though. His message said: "...You can take a free two day trial at www.pinprs.com" (my italics).

I didn't really think twice about this at the time – I'd already clicked through to the "Free Trial" registration on Friday afternoon. Figured I'd check it out properly when I had time. I didn't respond to the founder’s message at the weekend because... well, frankly because it was the weekend and I was kind of busy repainting Lily's bedroom and one of the bathrooms.

Back in the office on Monday morning, I discovered a new message (sent at 3:01am) with the subject line: Account expiry message from PinPRs.

Er…what? Oh. Oh well.

So I replied to the Saturday-afternoon invitation message from the founder (lets call him "Derek"), as follows:
Hmm... thanks Derek, but it doesn't look like I'll be getting to experiment after all. Just had a message from your automated system saying simply:

Hi, Your trial account has expired. Subscribe to PinPRs using this link http://www.pinprs.com/payment/OrderProcessing.jsp

Guess that two day trial wasn't just two business days. I'm afraid no matter how fabulous your service is, I really wasn't in an enormous rush to try it out over the weekend. This is one of the reasons why time-based trials don't work, btw. Would be better to anchor the trial conditions around number of logins or number of searches - or something like that.

Never mind. Looked kind of interesting, but I guess I'll never know.
"Derek" responded within a matter of minutes, saying:

I can extend your trial for another day if you wish.

Now I know I had something of a paint fume-induced headache on Monday morning, which may have been colouring my judgement and is perhaps why this innocuous message rattled my cage a little. Whatever the reason, I'm willing to admit that my immediate response to Derek might have been a bit mean:
Perhaps, Derek - but I think that kind of misses the point.

I have 5 meetings in my calendar for tomorrow, taking up 6 hours of a standard work day, followed by a business event in the evening that will last another 4 hours. In between times, I have a mass of client writing to do and other general workday administrivia. I would venture to suggest that this pattern of busy-ness is not too different from the lot of the average vice president at an agency. Some of my junior staff are, if anything, even busier.

So you'll see that the offer to extend the trial by another day doesn't really address the problem. And it's your problem, btw, not mine.

To explain:

1. I am your target market, by definition;
2. I'm assuming you want me to test out PinPRs and have a positive first experience in using it;
3. But you're restricting my ability to enjoy a trial of your product by forcing the trial to fit within your schedule, not mine, meaning;
4. I'm not likely to have the time to take up the offer of a free trial and, therefore, unlikely to want to subscribe (as I won't have had any chance to play with the service).

Remember: you're asking potential clients to volunteer an hour or so of billable time to experiment with your product. That's something which, if I choose to do it at all, I'm only going to be able to do on my schedule - not necessarily within some artificial and entirely arbitrary timeframe that is only of benefit to you.

In other words - PinPRs still looks like it might be kind of interesting - possibly even valuable. But I don't think your approach to giving potential customers the chance to evaluate it makes much sense.
Snotty? Perhaps – but the idea of a 2-day trial that first of all failed to tell me it was time-limited and then counted two inactive, elapsed weekend days as the trial period – well, that just seemed silly.

Derek responded:

Thanks for you feedback and I get the point you are trying to make. As you point out, we are all very busy in our schedules that is why we give you the ability to try it out when you are ready. Not when we dictate.

Best of luck in the future,



Again – perhaps it's just me, but that "Best of luck in the future" seemed a lot like a brush-off. I was getting ticked.
Thanks Derek - but in truth I don't believe you are offering "the ability to try it out when you are ready" at all. That's what I'm getting at. I was invited last Friday. Duly signed up, but didn't have time to evaluate the service even in the most superficial way. By Monday morning - still having had no time to assess the value of the service - I'm told that my trial has expired. I know that's not a timeline I dictated.

I'm sorry, Derek, if I'm coming across as overly cranky, but here's the thing: there's a real possibility that what you've built could be of considerable value to me and my colleagues. I don't want to make a snap judgement about it and dismiss it out of hand, but nor will I spring for a $560 subscription for something I've had no time to test. If I had a reasonable amount of time to assess the benefits of your product, on my schedule, I might be interested enough to become a client. It seems, however, that that is not to be.

My response here was the verbose equivalent of something I've been prompted to do on a couple of occasions in big box stores. Have you ever had that experience where you walk in to a store or up to a counter, ready to buy and knowing pretty much exactly what you want, only to stand around for what feels like an age, completely ignored by the sullen, seemingly-idle sales staff?

I've been known to stand there with a credit card held on high, hoping desperately to attract the attention of someone who might be interested in taking my money (yes – crass as it sounds, I'm ashamed to admit I have actually done this). I've also been known to walk away in disgust.

Thing is, I am trying to give this guy a chance to keep me on his prospect list, but it's not working.

Back to "Derek":

I'm up for a good philosophical debate as the next guy on how best to offer an online product. I have been in business for 20 years and selling online solutions for over 8 years and realize no matter how we handle our business somebody out there will not be happy...such is life.

From your replies, I understand you are passionate about this subject. So, I am going to just leave it as we agree to disagree. Should you change your mind and wish to try out the service at a time convenient to you please drop me a line at this email or call my cell at 617-XXX-XXXX and I will set it up.

Thanks again for your feedback and time,
OK. This is just way too much like hard work. I was tempted to point out that I too have been in business for over 20 years, and ran worldwide marketing for a company in the Software 100 – but at this point it's just turning into a pissing contest. I give in.
I was tempted. Thought I was trying to make that clear. Sorry I failed. On reflection, perhaps I'll just blog about the whole thing and write it off as an interesting experience.
To his credit, "Derek" took this last in good part and tied a polite knot on the whole thing.
I would love to read your post and have an open discussion about our trial policy. I'm always open to new ideas and suggestions.
So. I'm hoping he does indeed read this. And perhaps even respond.

One last attempt to make the point I thought I was making:
  • I like the idea of the service his company has built.
  • I might even have wanted to pay for a subscription to it.
  • But there's no way I’m subscribing to something brand new without the opportunity for a proper trial.
And quite apart from anything else, getting snippy with a potential client before they've even had a chance to evaluate your product strikes me as just a really, really bad idea.

UPDATE: I've had a continuing email dialogue with the founder of this service. Good news - in a message earlier today, he said:
After discussion with my business partner, we have decided to lift the 2 day trial limitation in favor of a limited number of searches. So, all trial users will be given 10 searches with a limit of 25 results per search. By doing so, we hope to avoid the same issue you ran into with our trial.

Thanks again for your direct and honest feedback. As I wrote before, we are open to new ideas and we will see if this improves the user experience.

Yay! That's a very positive and happy result. I'll be trying out the service in the near future. Looking forward to it.