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Thursday, October 22, 2009

How To Lose a Customer

I visited the web site of a major domain registry this afternoon, logged in, and saw that ICPSR had zero domains registered with them.

I smiled.

It wasn't always this way. Just a few months ago I registered seven new domains with this company to support our project to build and host a National Science Digital Library Pathway for quantitative social science. These seven domains - teachingwithdata.net is one - joined dozens of others I had registered with them over the years. We were a pretty good customer.

Now, the domain registration game has always seemed like a scam to me. Why it costs $20 or more per year for someone to take information that I enter into a web form, and hand it off to other registraries and DNS root operators, I cannot fathom. Surely this is a business where the profit margins are unconscionably high. And yet I was OK with giving them hundreds of dollars every year for the privilege of entering registry information into their web site.

But then they broke their end of the promise.

They may not have known it, but by charging me these hundreds of dollars and forcing me to use their web site to manage my information, they were establishing a de facto promise: "We will take your money, we will give you poor tools, but in return, we will cause you no harm."

And then they did.

A software developer on my team noticed that the recently registered NSDL domains weren't working. Instead of the root DNS servers delegating the domains to us, they were still listed with the registry's DNS servers. At first I thought that I had screwed up. The tools are pretty bad, and it was certainly possible that as I was attempting to avoid all of the "upgrades" I was being offered ("Private registrations!"), I neglected to click the right series of icons and links to delegate the domains. And so I went back to them and delegated the domains again.

But, by the next morning, my changes had been discarded. Silently.

I tried again. And again, my changes appeared to work, but later were discarded without notice.

I opened up a trouble ticket. I received an auto-reply, and then a follow-up that (1) closed the ticket, and (2) gave me the URL of a web site that I could use to open a trouble ticket. Nice.

And so I did what any reasonable consumer would do: I changed vendors.

To their credit, the registry performed at their very best as I transferred domains away. Sure, the tools were still just as poor, but when they didn't work, they helped me out. No valid Administrative Contact listed in WHOIS despite one being listed with the registry? No apparent way to fix it? No problem, the registry solved the problem in three days. Within a week or two I had transferred away all of our domains.

My new registry is the University of Michigan, which acts as a front-end for Tucows. UMich doesn't make me use any awful web forms, and they even answer the phone when I call. And they don't charge any more than the former registry.

It's enough to make me smile again.

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