Not so hot mail

If you're an Xtramail user by virtue of being a customer of Xtra, you're probably about to be enveloped in the Hotmail fold.

If you’re an Xtramail user by virtue of being a customer of Xtra, you’re probably about to be enveloped in the Hotmail fold.

Hotmail is Microsoft’s free web-based mail service, which last week passed the milestone of 100 million users. This coincided, more or less, with the announcement that Telecom-owned ISP Xtra would form a joint portal with Microsoft’s MSN, to be called XtraMSN, or some similar name.

The benefit to the two parties — apart from the $300 million that Microsoft would sink into Telecom — would be local content for MSN and a bunch of “community”-based services for Xtra subscribers. Among those services, presumably, will be Hotmail accounts all round. If you read the following tale told by a contact of ours after his first experience of the Hotmail helpdesk, you might wonder what’s in store.

He had sent an email (with a fairly large attachment) to a Hotmail subscriber. It was rejected with a message about exceeding storage limits.

Our informant decided to pursue it further (he wanted to find out what the limits were — or whether the recipient just had a temporarily full mailbox). He banged off a message to help@hotmail.com explaining the problem and pasting in the mailserver’s exact error message. Back came this:

“Thank you for submitting your question to MSN Hotmail Support.

“This is an auto-generated response designed to help you get an answer as quickly as possible.

“Please note that you will not receive a reply if you respond directly to this message …

“Our automated email help system may have the answer. Please send a BLANK email message to the address below that best matches your question.” A series of problem categories with corresponding addresses follows.

In other words: “thanks for your email explaining the problem. Now please send us another email, not explaining the problem, and we will try to guess what it is.”

It’s the email equivalent of “don’t you dare try to raise a live operator. Press the buttons on your phone first, like a good customer; 1 for password issues, 2 for spam complaints …” You have to have some sympathy. It presumably cuts out the time live operators spend answering Really Dumb Questions.

Our source sent the blank message to whomd@hotmail.com. (Yes, it’s the right contact for bounced mail.)

Back came the predictable RDQ document, beginning “are you sure you typed the recipient’s address correctly?”

Various other possible explanations were advanced. “If this has not answered your question” — and it hadn’t — the inquirer was directed to a web page where, at last, he could re-enter the text of his first email.

A sigh of relief escaped him on the fairly prompt receipt of a message with an obvious human mind behind it. The help operator even started by revealing her first name. She explained concisely that the attachment limit for a message to Hotmail is one megabyte (really, Microsoft, this is the 21st century. All those digital camera owners wanting to send batches of high-resolution photos and scraps of video home will be very disappointed.)

Tell me, Bill, how much could your people achieve in 1MB?

But wait … there was more. A touching footnote.

“Your satisfaction with my customer service is very important to me. If you consider your issue resolved, please click on the link below to let me know how I am doing. With your comments, please include my name and ticket number found in this mail’s subject line to help me keep track of my performance.”

Or, we suspect, to help the boss keep track of her performance.

A click on the link opened up a form full of survey-speak:

“Thinking about the overall quality of service you received from the Hotmail support representative, would you say you were...? (select ONE answer)

  • Very satisfied with the quality of service
  • Somewhat satisfied with the quality of service …”
And so on for 11 questions. By this time, the inquirer says, he felt so keenly for the poor helpdesker that he just had to complete the whole thing for the sake of giving her a few Brownie points. Fortunately, the form included a space for freehand comment, where he could register his disappointment with the rambling process that preceded live contact.

The paragraph requesting evaluation, he says, was “disturbingly Orwellian”. We’re inclined to agree.

Bell is Computerworld's Wellington-based journalist. Send email to Stephen Bell.

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