by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Rarely does a business do its utmost to offend, alienate, and outright reject the patronage of even the most tolerant customers.

Skype is one of the exceptions. And it didn't have to be this way.

In case you're not aware of it, Skype was the first branded effort to bring VOIP telephony (for Voice Over Internet Protocol) to the masses of us who aren't necessarily early adopters of technology. VOIP makes it possible to route conversations over the Internet, which means the transmission costs from computer-to-computer are zero. The innovation of plugging a phone or headset into each terminal rivals the revolution prompted by Bell's declaration "Watson...come here...I want you."

Not only should VOIP have changed the way we use and pay for phone conversations, but in doing so should have flushed teleco stocks down the toilet. Skype, in establishing the first friendly interface -- replete with cuddly typeface and happy I'm-talking-to-you-as-a-fellow-human-being language on its app and web site -- was poised to be the brand that would lead this new wave of communicating. 

eBay paid $2.6 billion in 2005 in a bold move to capture this momentum, and promised another $1.7 billion payout based on the company’s forecasted growth.

Oops.

Skype has instead become a poster-child example of how otherwise smart people can misread a technology and its likely impact on society and, in doing so, make utterly dumb decisions about how to manage a business.

Skype neither owns nor has any control over how its calls are routed across the ether of the Internet, and it can't ensure or support the myriad connections possible between the net and local routers, LAN lines, wireless thingamabobs, computers, or telephony accessories. 

Call quality is uneven, unpredictable, and at times unavailable, so nobody can rely on the service as a replacement for land-lines and/or cell phones. If anything, it would have to find a role as an adjunct to those technologies, which is what I guess eBay thought: maybe sellers and bidders on eBay could use the Skype interface to talk about auctions, shipping, etc. And perhaps from there they could build communities and talk more, raising a number of options for monetizing those activities.

VOIP is a chronically unstable media that needs an interface that provides stability, or at least assistance, where none is otherwise available.

The opportunity for Skype would be to become that guy...to facilitate use by impatient, technically illiterate consumers. And, since it can't control the actual experiences of VOIP, it would have to focus on "owning" services on the front and back-ends of that use.

Skype would need to be the most aware, enlightened, and helpful customer customer service-oriented business in the VOIP racket.

Instead, it turns out that it is nothing more than its cute branding.

In fact, it's just a technology toy that doesn't even make pretenses about being a real business. There's no customer service to speak of, unless you consider chatting web copy to be the same as an offer of real assistance. Got a problem with a call? Sorry, there's really nothing you can do about it. If you read the company’s rules and policies, you'll realize that Skype isn’t responsible for bad connections or disruptions of service.

On top of this gigantic shrug, Skype maintains some real customer-hostile policies. 

Paying for the service requires pre-charging a credit card or PayPal account. But sometimes the credit card option doesn't work, and users get some nonsense sorry screen. Good luck trying to get an email answered with any advice other than "keep trying, or use PayPal."

Problem recognition isn't the same thing as problem resolution, at least not in the consumer space. Regular folks don't want to wade into geeky user groups to try and find a possible solution posted by an utter stranger. 

Presuming you’ve gotten over this hurdle and succeeded in giving Skype your money, make sure you use it regularly, or the company will seize it. It maintains a policy it blames on "standard accounting principles" that allows it to keep money that isn't used within a particular period of time.

There are lots of dim bulbs involved with this corporate nightmare, from the numbnuts who run the thing, to the addled visionaries who presumed that a high-tech contrivance could rely on business press buzz and branding good-lucks to support a viable consumer business.

It can't. And it doesn't help that Skype hates you.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/04/skype-hates-you.html

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