One of my side projects is keeping tabs on devolution, which I first discussed in January in Devolution: Welcome to the World Where Things Don’t Work Well.
I’m going to go a bit Consumerist and discuss a recent frustrating case. Some readers might have better surmises than I do as to how this fits into the overall pattern of people not building organizations and products like they used to.
The example is my experience with WP Engine. By way of background, WP Engine is a specialist WordPress hosting service. WordPress is sufficiently fussy that it is prone to breakage and performance issues. As a result, there is a clutch of WP-oriented webhosts who cater to WP users (and please don’t tell me the issue is the hosting, not the software. The very existence of WP-focused hosts who charge a hefty premium to standard big iron hosting should be sufficient proof that this is a real issue). I will spare readers the discussion as to why this is probably what I need, but trust me, this is not something I’ve come to based on a whim.
WP Engine was highly recommended by a couple of readers. I’m not sure quite when I called them (November or December-ish) but the first sales call was unbelievable. I had looked at their service tiers (they have three tiers where they show pricing, and the next is “Premium – call for a price” and thought I fit into the priciest tier below Premium but wanted to be sure (as in I did not want to migrate under an incorrect assumption about what I was getting into). I went through basic parameters on my site (traffic, # of posts in the database, frequency of posting and commenting, since those all hit the database, which is the most problematic part of WP). The rep’s attitude was she wanted to get off the call with me as quickly as possible. She was not interested in my questions re what tier I fell in or the nature of their support. She kept referring me to the site when I’d already looked at it.
I sputtered at Lambert about the call. The message was they didn’t want my business. I should have taken that as a warning.
I then had a misadventure with another WP specialist hosting service, a relatively young one. I had scheduled a migration. Turns out despite agreeing a price, signing up, and setting a date, the migration was somehow NOT scheduled on their end. And it appeared this was the result of too many things converging on the CEO and him being chronically overloaded. Now I know that space. I live it. But that is death in a service business. And indeed, someone who did migrate to them a little after my aborted migration had a disaster and exited within weeks.
So I decided to try WP Engine again, since there aren’t a lot of options (WP VIP at the time was another choice, but I hated the idea of enriching WP for the crappiness of their software by giving them hosting business). This is January. I have a fairly decent conversation with one salesman who says I’m in their highest tier below premium and says they offer 24/7 software support which I had figured they did but I wanted confirmation. He also said I could self migrate or use a service called WP Valet for a fixed price of $199. I decided to talk to WP Valet.
WP Valet responds to the e-mail quickly, and said the base price for a migration is $199, which is not exactly what WP Engine had said. So about a week of discussion with WP Valet ensues where they check my plugins to make sure they are all OK with WP Engine and have me give them info like DB size, raw dump. We discussed doing some housekeeping to reduce the DB size. I had to upgrade in order to migrate which they said they would do for an additional $50.
So far this is taking longer than I’d expected but nothing is horribly amiss. But given the extra charge, I figured I’d better talk to WP Engine again to make sure I haven’t missed something. I again have a rep say based on the stuff I told them, starting with 1.4-5 million pageviews a month, that I was in the third of their four pricing tiers. And mind you, in none of these three calls did they ask questions that I did not answer.
But I did learn that the software support was not what I thought it was. It turns out 24/7 software support didn’t mean they’d fix problems if the site fell over, which is what I had discussed with the first two reps and they had indicated was what they had. And that was the feature I wanted most of all.
The latest rep said they would help me troubleshoot if the site fell over. Visions of dealing with Verizon when my service goes down flooded my brain. This seemed to be a big difference from what I had understood previously, but at this point I was psychologically committed to going ahead.
Some more back and forth on mechanics with WP Valet follows. I’m now puzzled that nothing is set up on the WP Engine end regarding billing, which seems pretty bizarre with a migration due to start. So I call WP Engine again. I go through the same song and dance as before with yet another salesperson. This salesman tells me I am in the Premium tier. The minimum price is double what I’d been told up to then.
Needless to say, I was outraged and canceled the migration.
Two and a half months later, I’m a beached whale on a web redesign because my current support guy can’t set up a workable dev space for my designer. This has been going on for months. This isn’t uncommon for WordPress. It apparently needlessly complicates the creation of dev sites or staging sites, and the tradeoff of letting site admins install plugins or tweak code is that you end up fighting with the server over file permissions.
But this seemed to bring the need to get into a setting with people who knew how to deal with it. And my designer had recently migrated a very fussy site (extremely busy ads which they serve, plus 31 plugins v. my mere 11, at 500,000 page views a month) and she said once you got past the salesmen, the tech guys were really good.
So I called a fifth time.
I was told their minimum for the Premium tier was $100 a month higher than I was quoted a mere 11 weeks earlier. The salesman said this was impossible (ie, I’m a liar) since they’d increased prices at the beginning of the year. I said no, my designer had migrated a site over this year and was paying the same price I’d been quoted. I gave particulars but he wasn’t listening.
I sputter to my designer. She tries to working this from the tech end, since the site she migrated over is much higher maintenance than mine. Her messages got more pointed:
To now say she can’t have that price because she could not get through the sluggish sales process in time is something that sounds Kafka-esque in its rigid technical interpretation mired in procedure and reflects poorly on how the company does business. This has been the problem from the beginning. This is what you and I discussed on the phone, and because they are also very low maintenance you told me this would not be a problem. It is still a problem. Susan has been jerked around since moment one in January when I first brought her to WP Engine. I am simply asking that after all of the run-around to get to this point, she be given the price she was told.
I can’t begin to fathom how anyone can conduct business like this. I was baited and switched twice on pricing. And then I get all sorts of caveats while we are seeing if they will relent that were totally absent in the previous conversations: “Any quote you were given couldn’t have been more than a ballpark…” Oh, and this even better: “At WP Engine, we want to be able to stand behind the promises we make to you — and a quote is pretty much a promise.” So that’s operative now? Why not in my previous four conversations when I was pressing for answers?
Now this may not seem like a big deal, but I’ve spared you a lot of detail. Twice I geared up for a migration (the tech guy was optimistic he’d be able to persuade the sales guys), which means rearranging schedules (you need to check that everything came over, and I had lined up both Richard Smith and Lambert to help, plus got my current site guy to take some measures to trim the DB, and I did some housekeeping too). So I wasted a lot of cycles for a company that can’t even do the most basic thing in sales, which is to give realistic pricing to an interested customer that will pay. And more important, they demonstrated repeatedly that they are not people of their word.
So I don’t care how good their back end is. I can’t trust people who do business like that. And the big lesson for me is I should have listened to my initial instincts.
But from the bigger perspective, what can a company be thinking that has a sales operation like this? I can only fathom that they believe they have a captive audience and can be pleasant superficially but substantively jerks in the sales process. And that’s not entirely inaccurate. When I came back the third time. WP VIP, their big competitor, had dropped its tier for folks like me and will only take on monster clients.
But even people who don’t currently have a lot of options will still go somewhere else rather than deal with this sort of treatment. Remember, WalMart, who was confident that its low prices would always prevail, is managing to drive customers to higher-priced Costco and Target. In my case, I’m back in a holding pattern and a tech person surfaced who can sort out the immediate problem, the permission woes. So you might eventually see a spruced-up NC after all.