Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chatterbug disappoints

In the never-ending effort to lower my monthly phone cost, about a year ago I switched to a long distance service called Chatterbug. My decision was based on a review that I had read in the New York Times that described the service favorably. In fact, most of the reviews of the product I've seen have described it as "...unique" and "...a great way to save money" on your long distance bill. Chatterbug is a Voice over IP (VoIP) solution that uses your regular phone line and doesn't require the use of Vonage or similar services. One of the big advantages of this is that as long as you have a phone line, you can use the service. Where I live in Florida, even after a hurricane, phone service is likely to still be available, even if cable and electricity are not.

Based on the Times review I ordered the adapter. Several days later the device arrived, I installed it and activated it successfully. I was delighted to find that it worked exactly as advertised. Using the Chatterbug on-line reporting tool I saw that based on my usage, my long distance charges were costing me about 1¢ per minute, or about 60¢ per hour. At $9.95 fixed charge per month, this was absolutely the lowest priced service I had found and the service was excellent.

About 6 weeks ago, Chatterbug advised all of its customers that they were having technical difficulties and supplied an 800 number as an alternative. The user was instructed to call a toll-free number where they'd hear another dial tone. Then you'd be able to enter the number you were trying to dial. This was a bit inconvenient, but the problem got solved in short order and the service returned to normal.

Then, on March 16th, Chatterbug once again advised customers that they were having "technical difficulties" and provided another 800 number to use as described above. After a day or two, that toll-free number was disabled and the Chatterbug service has been unavailable since. A call to Chatterbug tech support simply gives you an announcement that they are having technical difficulties and to keep checking back for a progress report. Note that this blog is being written on March 25th, almost 10 days after the original e-mail notifying users of the problem.

While I don't know what I'm about to say as a fact, it would seem that what has happened is that Chatterbug can't pay their data and phone bills, and they've been disconnected from having access to the infrastructure they need to make their service functional. Whether that is their Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the phone companies, I can't say. However, there isn't much else that could happen technically that couldn't be fixed in this long period of time. This has all the earmarks of a financial problem, not a technical snafu.

So why take the time to write this blog? It's because Chatterbug is still selling the device on their website and accepting orders for service! In fact, if you go to their website, you'd never know that there was a problem at all. That's just devious, and a simple attempt to try and collect money from users to hopefully raise enough capital to pay their bills, or raise the number of subscribers to convince someone to offer financing to get them over their current hurdle. Others should know that they are no longer a viable service, probably not well financed, and based on the content of their website, dishonest to boot in that they are still willing to take your money even if they can't offer the service.

If the primary reason for technology reviewers in national publications is to let people know about interesting new products, then it is the users responsibility to report back on the long term performance of those products and services so that others can benefit from their experience ad, hopefully, the reviewers can follow up with additional feedback to their readers.

In the case of Chatterbug, save your money. It's a good idea that unfortunately appears to have been under financed and badly marketed.


Friday, March 23, 2007

40 Years With Allstate

I have been a loyal customer of Allstate's since I lived in New York 40 years ago. It started with a modest boat insurance policy and progressed through auto, home and liability. I've had only small claims on my auto policy over this entire time, and never a claim on my homeowners.

I moved to Boca Raton, Florida 2 1/2 years ago and naturally turned to Allstate for insurance. I was shocked to find out the cost compared to what I had been paying up North, but chose to be loyal to a company I'd done business with for such a long period of time. Imagine my wife's and my surprise when I opened the cancellation letter from them this week to find out we'd been dropped.

I am approached by Geico and others weekly to re-examine my auto insurance. I've never done so since I felt a loyalty to Allstate. Apparently that was a one-way alliance. It is obvious that in canceling my insurance that Allstate looked at the numbers and nothing else. Customer relationships didn't come into it.

You would have thought that if the insurance company and the customer formed a real partnership, long-term customers--especially those with multiple policies--would have been exempted from this cancellation. Alas, this was simply a decision made by an anonymous MBA in the actuarial department with no thought to the people who would be affected. How sad, and what a slap in the face from Allstate.

The "good hands people?" I don't think so. However, you'll excuse me if I don't have time to elaborate right now. I need to call Geico to switch my auto insurance. At least when I apply for it, someone will have to acknowledge my name and that I'm a live, breathing person by writing it down on a form. It may be the last time that will happen with them, but that will be one more time than the actuaries and executives at Allstate who focused solely on the bottom line and ignored all of the people who helped build the Company into the insurance giant it is today.