LinuxUser Column 16

Service makes all the difference. That’s what I’ve learnt the hard way over the past few weeks. And there really can be no doubt that truly excellent service is very hard to provide. If it wasn’t so hard we’d be spoilt for choice in every service industry – but how many bad restaurant, bank or doctor stories have you got?

Here’s a bad web hosting story to add to the mix: Earlier this year it became clear that one of my clients were doing so well that we were going to need to get them a serious web serving setup with generous dollops of bandwidth on call. So we shopped around for a dedicated Linux-based solution (of course). I can now tell you gentle readers that, sorrow of sorrows, we are on our fourth hosting provider since we first began our odyssey looking for a reliable new host.

The first host had such a bizarre system setup that nothing was where anybody would expect it to be. And their compulsory statistical processes slowed the server down to a halt every 15 minutes. Despite it being a dedicated server we weren’t allowed to remove these insane CPU hog processes. After pleading failed we were faced with the prospect of our site stopping every 15 minutes hence we took the decision to move on.

So we moved to the next provider who looked very promising and had some good write-ups. They had a great software setup but the hardware and bandwidth turned out to be as ropey as hell. We were going to run out of physical resources in no time. We couldn’t believe it. They were totally misleading about how much horsepower they really had to offer clients.

All along I’d wanted to take this client over to the great company I usually host clients with. Unfortunately this client is growing so rapidly that they’re just about to grow out of the largest provision my hosts are happy to deal with. Which is disappointing for me, but it’s a position I deeply respect. Saying ‘No’ is incredibly hard in business. You never want to turn down a client. But my hosts know that servicing high intensity, heavy duty websites is a different kettle of fish to looking after the needs of small to medium sites. Their datacentre, their support processes and business model are all fine-tuned to meet the needs of a certain type of customer. The small amount they would gain by having one or two giant sites would be hugely detrimental to the rest of their business. If only these other hosts could be so wise.

My clients undertook a truly exhaustive search to find the third choice. Using industry associations and other sources they did everything humanly possible to verify the good reputation of this supplier. We started the move only to find a server not configured to spec, misleading or non-existent documentation and a trail of poor service. It was a shambles and the host got very nasty as my client decided to look elsewhere, again.

We were all exasperated. We couldn’t believe how hard it was to find decent Linux hosting for a successful website. How could people stay in business this way? I’m not sure but I do think marketing seems to overwhelm good old fashioned reputation and referrals. It’s very difficult to separate PR from genuine good feeling about a company, particularly with the abuse of many of these web hosting review sites that goes on these days. The hosts are reviewing themselves in unsurpisinlgy glowing terms again and again.

Finally my client decided to bite the bullet and go for a rather more expensive option. Thank goodness this host, the fourth, turned out to be serious operators. Support has been incredible, the configuration is logical and people answer the phone. Wow, now there’s an idea for you.

Great software, or great software ecosystems (which I guess is what Linux is) can’t alone make for a great customer experience. History is not just littered but carpeted with tales of the technically superior product which failed to win the market. For geeks it’s still hard to accept that this can happen. The technical product is just one part of this mix.

Service is another key ingredient which often gets lost, forgotten or left down the back of the sofa. It’s hard as you need to be patient, understanding, have an eye for detail and be a great communicator. It’s easy to want great service but much harder to give.

So next time you get extraordinary service, don’t just take it for granted. Make a point of complimenting the company and people involved. And do them a favour by spreading the word about their business. We all need to work together to keep good service alive!

_To protect the identity of various parties I did not originally include the names of any companies. I’m now happy to be able to say that the fine host we ended up with was RackSpace UK and our usual host are FutureQuest

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit