A good Web host is like a good landlord: For a monthly fee, the overall upkeep and maintenance of the property are taken care of, making all of the tenants happy with their rental situation.

You can usually judge whether landlords are doing a good job by looking at occupancy rates and lease renewals. But accurately judging Web hosts is more difficult. The Web host industry is too new to have sufficient records to check, and customer satisfaction studies in the hosting industry are rare.

Despite the dearth of studies, there are some indications that the young Web hosting industry needs to do more to meet customer needs. TechRepublic has received several e-mails from dissatisfied customers who have a long list of complaints about their Web hosts—some of which resulted in lawsuits against Web hosts.

In this article, we will explore some of the more common customer relation problems with Web hosts and offer suggestions for making your Web host experience a successful one.

Real people, real problems
A year ago, TechRepublic member Jim Leung started a Web development business. He faced problems from the start:
“It took me two months to establish my site due to DNS and domain name registration problems,” Leung said. “Each time I [contacted my host], I would get a new rep, have to explain the scenario all over again, and was then told to give them some time to rectify the problem. Meanwhile, my business was put on hold.”

Then, Leung discovered that his site was not being hosted on Cold Fusion (CF) servers. Leung said the sales representative had originally promised to provide CF servers. All of Leung’s account information would have to be changed in order for his data to be transferred to CF servers.

According to Leung, the hosting company refused to refund his money and failed to respond to repeated e-mail messages.

“Looks like they really didn’t want my business….[Fixing the problem would have been a] show of true customer relationship management, and yet they just didn’t get it. Don’t you think somebody should let them know that without customers, they are just a bunch of open circuits?”

Contract ambiguity is another typical complaint from Web host customers. Lynn Provencio, another TechRepublic member, found that her site was taken off-line because she said the hosting company accused her of “using too much disk space.” Provencio was surprised because she said the hosting company had offered her unlimited space, and the Terms of Service fine print gave no indications of space limitation.

Avoiding trouble
What can you do to avoid facing these types of problems with your hosting company? Leung, Provencio, and other TechRepublic members who have had problems with Web hosts offered these specific suggestions for avoiding a negative hosting situation.

Research the Web host company

  • Speak with multiple sales reps and sales managers, billing people, and customer support personnel.
  • E-mail and call the company directly to see what kind of a response you get.
  • Use the Internet. Go through the company Web site for FAQs or support information. Does its technical support function 24/7? Key the name of the company into a search engine and see whether there are any adverse reports or glowing compliments online. Some Web sites, such as HostReview, offer customer reviews and help you choose a host that best suits your needs.
  • Ask for references from longtime customers and recent customers.

Understand the costs in writing

  • Insist on being informed in writing about all setup costs, monthly costs, and any and all additional charges, including those for database connectors, multiple domain names, and technologies like streaming video.
  • Make sure that the host company’s rates, services, limits, and terms of contract are spelled out very specifically.
  • Make sure the Web host can cover your short-term and long-term business requirements.

Be prepared for problems

  • Ask the Web host to assign an account manager to you. A single point of contact can make it easier to deal with problems if they occur.
  • List yourself as the contact when you register your domain.
  • Maintain your own updated backup files.
  • Have an alternative planned so you can get back online in a hurry if your site goes down.

The law is on your side
To further avoid Web hosting problems, Internet lawyer Harvey Jacobs said you should also be aware of your legal rights and retain an Internet lawyer to review all contracts before signing.

Jacobs advises that you strike out any clauses that are overly ambiguous or onerous.

“If the company refuses to make any changes in its contract, ask them to put that policy in writing to you. Such onerous contracts, where the bargaining power tips significantly in the Web host’s favor and where they refuse to negotiate their onerous or unconscionable terms are called ‘Contracts of Adhesion,’ and U.S. courts are empowered to ignore and not enforce Contracts of Adhesion,” said Jacobs.

When dealing with billing problems, you probably have an ally that you’re not aware of. Jacobs said since Web hosts require credit cards, you should take advantage of the credit card’s policies in the event of billing mistakes.

“You should immediately contact your credit card company and alert them about the problem. They are then obligated to contact the Web host to verify the charges. A written explanation of the problem has to be given. If the Web host does not verify the matter, the credit card company is obligated to remove the charge,” said Jacobs.

If the credit card company takes this action against the Web host, it’s called a “charge back.” Merchants try to avoid charge backs since they affect the rates they pay for credit card processing.

Signs of improvement
Mark Morais, VP of Operations at InQuent Technologies, a Toronto-based provider of Internet and application hosting solutions, said that the industry as a whole needs to improve customer service.

“The Web hosting business in general is like any new technology company—the focus is on technology, and companies struggle to play catch-up with issues like customer service,” he said. “Because there has been such tremendous growth in this industry, the strain placed on start-up companies is overwhelming. New players end up with a huge customer service backlog.”

In a bid to improve the Web hosting industry’s image, the Web Host Guild offers certification to Web hosts based on a set of stringent standards for service, speed, and support. To meet the Guild’s criteria for certification, a Web host must demonstrate an impeccable background, provide A-grade technical and customer support, offer a wide range of services, and provide details of its infrastructure. Yet there is currently no indication that such certification is standard in the industry.

There is hope that the hosting industry will soon turn the corner and come out on the side of the customer. Morais predicts that Web hosting companies will work to address shortcomings by conducting customer satisfaction surveys and investing in customer service infrastructure development. These actions, combined with the maturation of the industry, should ensure that Web hosts soon turn their focus onto customer satisfaction.
What have you done to prevent problems with your Web host? Post a comment here or send us an e-mail.

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