How not to handle product problems

Let’s say you have an application or service you have rolled out to hundreds or thousands of people and you discover a serious problem.

Not a show stopper that forces you into action, but something that affects how the software performs and potentially complicates life for users.

This is a situation that faces enterprises, software vendors, software-as-a-service purveyors and Web application services providers with monotonous regularity, and one that is unlikely to go away much before the end of the universe. The question is, what do you do when this happens in your organization?

There are two schools of thought: First, you ‘fess up, make certain that all users and all tech support know what the problem is, how it will affect the product, what can be done about it, and to the extent you are legally liable and ethically responsible, compensate the users. That’s the sophisticated, big boy approach.

The alternative is to not tell your users or even all of the tech support staff, add the problem to the list of stuff to be fixed and hope that not many users discover the problem. Should they do so, you treat it as if it were a minor problem, minimize the user’s concerns, tell them it will be fixed in the next release and hope they go away. That’s the weenie approach.

I’ve been thinking about this because the latter is far more common and, indeed, just happened to me courtesy of Network Solutions, a company I have chastised in previous Backspin columns over the problems with its e-commerce offering.

Here’s what happened: My wife’s company, which uses the Netsol shopping cart, decided it needed to provide overseas sales and shipping due to the number of overseas inquiries it was getting for its apparel. For U.S. and Canada orders, the company provides free shipping, but shipping overseas is expensive.

So I changed the shopping cart to charge for foreign shipping, tested it with a couple of addresses in England, and thought nothing more of it. Until the first overseas order came in from a town in Victoria, Australia. The system said the shipping was free when in reality it would have cost $117 via UPS.

I called Netsol support and went through my shipping logic setup with the tech who agreed it looked correct. He put me on hold and then came back five minutes later to tell me it was a known bug. If there was any text in the state field for international orders then the shipping logic behaved as if the order was domestic.

The tech also told me the problem had been known about for two weeks, and when I asked what I could do he told me I needed to add text to the order page to tell international customers to not put anything in the state field. How lame is that? To say I was unimpressed is an understatement.

I called a senior guy I know at Netsol to get his take, and after he investigated he told me the company expects to have the problem fixed in two weeks. Two bleeping weeks!

So, let’s sum this up: The system had a serious bug, Network Solutions knew about the bug, it didn’t tell its customers, didn’t tell its tech support staff, had no workaround, and had no plans to fix it for a total of one month.

What would you have done if you were Network Solutions? Would you have felt obligated to be public about the issue? Would you have accelerated the release of a fix? Or would you sweep it under the carpet like Network Solution did and hope that the fix would be implemented before too many people had problems?


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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