TL;DR Aussie Broadband GOOD, Telstra BAD. Treat departing customers just as well as (or ideally better than) you would current and prospective customers.

Recently I've gone through the experience of cancelling broadband services with two providers.

The first was Aussie Broadband. This was amazingly straightforward.

I called, spoke to a friendly fellow who asked why I was cancelling -- I'm on HFC NBN which is notoriously flaky so thought I'd give Vodafone NBN a try as they offer a free 3G/4G backup -- and he was very sympathetic, acknowledging the aforementioned HFC flakiness. The exchange came across very much as a "we're just asking to make sure you're making a sensible decision for your situation" which is appreciated.

The call took all of 3 minutes (including no wait time) and there was nothing further to do. He informed me that my service was paid up until and so I had another week or so to maximise my fees already paid as they don't pro-rate refunds. I was happy to waive that.

Contrast this to Telstra.

I cancelled my HFC service of almost 8 years on 26 April. I was told I'd receive a final bill on 28 May which was odd. I also received a bill on 28 April for the period 26 April to 23 May which I queried. I was told that's just how their system operates (pay in advance... even if it was a service they knew they'd never deliver to me!), and I would receive the final bill on 28 May refunding those fees. Okay...

28 May rolls around and my account is now in credit as expected. I go on Telstra Live Chat hoping it will be a simple request to get the credit refunded to the credit card they already have on file and am told it can only be done via phone.

"Just call 132200 and say Billing" he says.

I ask why he can't process my request electronically as I hate phone conversations as they make things difficult to follow up when something goes wrong.

He says they need to get my details securely so they can arrange the refund.

I ask why he can't just refund to the same credit card they've had on file for over 2 years and he says he doesn't have access to the systems required.

Hello Telstra! Why are your internal demarcation issues visible to the customer? You're a $45 billion dollar business.

I give in and call 132200 and say "billing". I don't want a payment extension. I don't want a copy of my bill. I don't need someone to explain my bill to me. I get bounced through 3 levels of IVR, none of which offer me the option of requesting a refund.

Silence turns out to be the best option as the system eventually gives up and puts me through to a queue with an 8 minute wait. The final rep is very helpful, and indeed refunds my money to the same credit card already on file. "We don't need any more details", she says. What a revelation.

Why is this a problem?

Contrast the outcome of the two experiences.

I would (and likely will) become an Aussie Broadband customer in future because I now know that it's so easy to leave. I know that when they offer month to month services with no lock-in they really mean it -- no painful exit processes to discourage you from leaving.

But I will almost never become a Telstra customer again given how painful it is to leave. This was their final chance to leave a good impression and this is the best they could come up with.

Games, gambling, and kids

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This post was motivated by the following article: Counter-Strike skins gambling: Australian teens risking thousands through video game.

It raises an issue that I have been pondering for several years, without conclusion.

Background: Valve Corporation is the company that created CS:GO and Team Fortress 2. Valve also runs a platform called Steam which you can think of as being similar to Apple's App Store or Google's Play Store, but for PC games. Virtual items can also be traded within Steam, i.e. players can buy items from other players for dollar denominations.

Besides what this article reports, there's a more fundamental gambling related issue in CS:GO, and another Valve title, Team Fortress 2.

When you play these games you are randomly given "weapon cases" (CS:GO) and "crates" (TF2). These are virtual gift boxes that you need a key to open. The keys cost US$2.50.

Inside these boxes are a predefined list of possible items. These items have varying appeal to gamers which is what ultimately affects their price. Items can be resold both on Valve's Steam platform, and via 3rd party sites -- this is worth noting since without tradability the value of the unboxed items would be limited and the appeal of opening cases/crates would be significantly diminished.

Essentially the design of this system is no different to that of a lottery. You pay US$2.50 for each lottery ticket which grants you a chance to win any of a predefined* list of prizes.

*- There is one difference to regulated lotteries: the payout ratio is undefined. Probabilities of the prizes are not stated and have only been empirically estimated from community collated data (i.e. players report what they got, and how many boxes they opened).

My issue with the system is that players (read: children and teenagers) are regularly encouraged to participate in this lottery system. Players are frequently given cases/crates, acting as a constant reminder of the prizes that await them should they wish to spend US$2.50.

Furthermore, despite the article's mention of parents' credit cards, that is not actually a barrier to participation.

Steam gift cards are readily available for cash purchase in major retailers like Coles, Woolworths, JB Hi-Fi, EB Games, and service stations. For readers outside Australia, these are our major supermarkets, electronics and games retailers.

The question in my mind: if we don't allow kids to buy lottery tickets, why do we allow them to gamble online?

This is no different to a kid walking into a newsagent and asking for an Instant Scratch-It. Actually, it's even worse. It's like a kid going into a newsagent and having the proprietor say "hey kiddo, wanna win $25k?".

Now to argue against myself because, on further consideration, resolution is not straightforward.

As a kid I bought basketball cards. Other kids bought footy cards.

If you think about it, those are no different to the virtual cases/crates of CS:GO and TF2 -- you paid a few bucks in the hope that the pack you opened would contain that rare card of your favourite player, or maybe some other rare card that you could trade.

And it's not just sports cards -- card games like Magic: The Gathering are built on the same system.

That makes it really tricky to draw the line.

I do believe there is value in kids learning to trade, and learning within a context that they care about. People learn best when they practice in a context that they enjoy.

Perhaps then the goal should be to keep as much of those positive aspects whilst avoiding mechanisms that are known to be addictive, especially for games aimed at kids, or that we know kids will be drawn to.

In the specific case of CS:GO and TF2, I'd argue that their case/crate systems serve no purpose except to hook players into an addiction based system that has no core gameplay purpose (the items in CS:GO and TF2 are all cosmetic or stat-tracking, i.e. you killed X with this gun).

I understand why Valve chose this model as it is extremely profitable for them. But surely there is some responsibility then to limit participation by minors.

At this stage my thinking is not for regulation, primarily because it's unclear to me how we could clearly define what's acceptable and what's not.

However, it is interesting to note that for CS:GO neither the Australian classification (MA 15+) nor the ESRB (M 17+) mention anything about gambling.

I've had my Yahoo! account since late 2000 when I signed up in order to learn something, anything, about Yahoo!'s services prior to my job interview at Yahoo!.

Inertia meant that even after I was laid off in October 2008 I kept using Yahoo! Calendar.

Over the past few months I noticed that Yahoo! Calendar was no longer sending email reminders consistently. I couldn't figure out why and kept checking the calendar entries -- indeed the email reminders were ticked for every item.

It appears that the Calendar UI shows email reminders as ticked but this is not reflected in the backend. I say this because when I exported all of my calendar entries as a giant ICS blob all of the calender entries from many months ago have the relevant reminders but recently created entries don't. Yet both show reminders in the UI.

I can't fathom beating my way through customer service to report such a bug -- cue the pre-canned responses suggesting user error -- so I began thinking about alternative calendar services.

Google Calendar and Outlook.com Calendar are obvious candidates but I would end up in the same situation -- all software has bugs and I'd have the same experience attempting to report bugs to Google or Microsoft.

In fact, in 2010 I had a paid Google Apps account and encountered the slow Gmail bug of 2010 as reported by Gabriel Weinberg of DuckDuckGo fame. Except not being e-famous we were unable to convince Google of a problem even after submitting the packet captures they requested. They simply went silent. Simple solution: close account and move to a provider who cares (in this case, Rackspace email, so far so good).

Thinking about how I should choose my future calendar provider brought me to the realisation that if there is a service I rely on I'd rather pay for it and have the ability to contact support than use it for free and have no support (or useless support).

Hence I have opted to sign-up with Fastmail. They're better known for their mail service but recently added calendars. They're also known for being technically astute and sound like the sort of company I could rely on - small enough to care, large enough to be financially viable, and seem to have the desire to be in the mail/calendar game for the long term.

It'll cost me $40/year but that's peanuts compared to the time I would have to spend convincing a Yahoo!, Google, or a Microsoft service person that there are technical issues with their products.

Of course paid vs free and good vs useless support is not a causal relationship. But in my experience they are highly correlated and generally companies tend to care more about paying customers than free ones. Looked at another way, companies tend to care more if you terminate your paid account than when you terminate your free account.

Also, this post isn't saying that free has no place in my world. Free is fine, when quality doesn't matter.

I'll continue to use free services from Facebook and Google because they're not critical services in my eyes. It won't really matter to me if they died tomorrow. Flickr is a weird case because I used to pay for Pro but Marissa decided to make it free. I guess if it dies I'll look for a solid paid photo host. I have paid for SmugMug in the past but found their product clumsy.

On a related note - Yahoo! Travel folks are spamming newsletters to some out-of-sync list. I've unsubscribed god knows how many times over the past few months and unticked every marketing thing I can find in my account. I'm pretty much at the point where I'm just going to bin all Yahoo! emails and I guess if my account gets hacked at some point in future and they try to notify me I won't get it. I'll simply no longer be a Yahoo! user at all -- including Flickr.

I feel like there's a reverse network effect in here somewhere. That the poor performance of the Yahoo! Calendar and Travel teams will inevitably cause the loss of an otherwise loyal Flickr user. And in the mean time I will have changed my thinking of my Yahoo! account to Yet Another Account I'll Probably Lose In Future So Don't Use It For Anything Important.

Lest anyone think I'm just jumping on the Let's Rubbish Yahoo! bandwagon, in a strange twist, I am still a YHOO shareholder (reasons below), and as I said above the same problems apply to Google, Microsoft, and many others.

Why YHOO?

When I was laid off I had a bunch of RSU and ESPP shares that were below water. Being the height of the so called Global Financial Crisis I worked out the sum of parts and it seemed to me that Yahoo! Inc was valued below its components of Yahoo! owned and operated subsidiaries, shares in Yahoo! Japan, and shares in Alibaba.

Irrespective of what the market may think of their products and prospects Yahoo! Inc, even today, throws off over a billion dollars in free cash annually. I don't have to be a Yahoo! user to consider it a reasonable investment for the short-medium term.

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