Why Constant Contact is a horrible company, why it's imporant to do things yourself, and discrimination

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Steve Sokolowski
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Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 3:27 pm
Location: State College, PA

Why Constant Contact is a horrible company, why it's imporant to do things yourself, and discrimination

Post by Steve Sokolowski » Fri Jul 10, 2020 11:54 am

While there isn't that much that's safe to do on the weekends nowadays, I had hoped to spend at least some time over the weekend playing video games and biking. Instead, I'll be spending these two days and more re-implementing something that's been done hundreds of times before - an E-Mail marketing tool. This post will describe our recent experience with Constant Contact, an E-Mail marketing firm. In addition to the obvious conclusion that nobody should ever purchase services from Constant Contact, the experience should also serve as yet another example of why it is so important to rely on as few third-party companies as possible.

Over the past year, Prohashing has seen a decline in the number of customers using its systems. Average revenue declined from $250,000 per day on December 7, 2017 to $6,700 on June 27, 2020. It may seem that profit also declined significantly, but the huge revenue occurred during a time when it was more important to stay online than to do a complete audit of the mining server for bugs. At first, our strategy to maintain profit was to resolve bugs and significantly increase margins. Several million dollars were lost to bugs during a period it was more profitable to add capacity than to fix them, but due to progress in coding, we expect to lose less than $25,000 due to bugs, forks, and pricing errors this year. We also figured that the reduction in bugs would also encourage more customers to join, but unfortunately that did not seem to be the case.

We spent the past month performing research, including the polls that existing customers probably noticed, to determine why the system was in better condition than ever, but that there were fewer customers than a year ago. By far the largest response was "[potential customers] have never heard of Prohashing." While E-Mail marketing isn't going to make people who never heard of us join, I figured it will cause existing customers to re-engage and perhaps spread the word, and signed up for Constant Contact to try that.

I quickly discovered that Constant Contact is the third worst company with which I have ever dealt - behind only Coinbase and UnitedHealthcare.

The experience started out well enough. Having used their services for Toastmasters, I signed up for a new account and was surprised to receive a call from a salesperson, Whitney, about 15 minutes later. After introducing herself, she first asked what industry I was in and what I was trying to market, to try to understand our business. I told her that Prohashing was a cryptocurrency mining pool. She moved onto other questions and seemed genuinely friendly and willing to help. I told her we would get our referral program up and then advertise the program when it was ready during the week of July 6, and she said she would call back during the first week of July.

On July 6, I returned to their site as promised, uploaded the list of contacts who had allowed us to send notifications of new features to them, created an E-Mail, and sent it - only to find that most of the messages were bounced with a reason of "other." It turns out that the reason for the bounces was SPF - a record that can be published to prevent rogue mailservers from pretending to send valid E-Mail by your company. Services that read these SPF records, like GMail, will bounce messages when another site, like Constant Contact, pretends it is you without a valid SPF record. The message of "other" didn't make the SPF problem obvious, so I called them to troubleshoot why.

I ended up spending two hours and 47 minutes on the phone, over six calls, trying to get an answer from them. Three times, I was transferred to their "deliverability" team. During my final attempt, someone told me that it would be an hour and 48 minutes until the team answered the phone. I disconnected and gave up. I decided to give one last ditch effort to try to figure out the domain from which Constant Contact was ending their messages, and found it through a Google search. Adding the SPF record solved that problem, but I was so fed up with their tech support that I planned to cancel anyway.

The next day, a woman named Barbara called and asked for 25 minutes of my time to discuss how their company could improve. I (stupidly, it turns out) spent almost half an hour on the phone with her, giving her suggestions like that they need to train people better in what SPF is, and even walking through the website talking about how placement of buttons and links could be improved. She said that she was going to offer a 25% discount to me for my time, and that she would be sending me an E-Mail later in the day with more details. I felt better and decided to give them another try.

The E-Mail came, but it wasn't quite what she had promised:
Dear Steve,

We have some bad news: your Constant Contact account, login name "steve@prohashing.com", has been closed because it violates our Prohibited Content policy (https://www.constantcontact.com/legal/p ... ed-content).

Please don’t take this personally; the industry in which your business operates unfortunately matches an industry associated with today’s biggest spam offenders. We hope you understand that this is not a reflection of your individual business or list collection practices, but an effort on our part to avoid the possible risk and exposure to spam associated with your account.


We also processed a refund on your $100.70 - 7/07/2020 payment.

Please don’t hesitate to call or email if you have any concerns.

Best of luck with your future marketing adventures,

Constant Contact
This E-Mail came after I spent hundreds of dollars in labor to try to figure out their API, after I had uploaded and modified images, after I had set up templates, after I had told the original salesperson exactly what industry Prohashing was in a month earlier, and after I had spent uncompensated time helping them improve their system. While they claim that we shouldn't take offense, they couldn't have made this E-Mail more offensive if they tried. And while the fact will never be proven definitively, the timing of the message and the strange "25% discount" promised by the feedback specialist that was a few minutes later unavailable due to a "bad promotion code" suggests that the call, which they presented as asking for feedback, was instead used as evidence of some sort of wrongdoing.

They somehow have hours and hours to devote to their salespeople hawking all sorts of products and getting feedback to improve their site. Yet, they couldn't spend five minutes to call me and ask to see the "Settings" page where people opt-in to the newsletters, or to look at the list of tax regulations we adhere to, or to read the tens of thousands of words of documentation that explicitly spells out exactly how the system works and how people are paid.

Concerningly, what Constant Contact did places us in a bind: there were some people who marked the messages as "unsubscribe" or "spam" - and we don't know who that was because the account is now deactivated. Theoretically, our next message could be a violation of the CAN SPAM act, given that everyone who unsubscribed is going to have to do so again. (I edited this message to indicate that Constant Contact saw the negative reviews I've started to submit across the Internet, and sent me the list of contacts. However, we still lost the template for the newsletter, and this trivial act should be seen as the minimal required action, not as going above and beyond.)

Three lessons can be learned from this experience. The first is the obvious one - don't use Constant Contact. If you need to use an E-Mail marketing service, then Mailchimp is a far better alternative. The blog notifications are sent using Mailchimp, and I have never had any issues with them. Even if one were to argue that Constant Contact somehow had cause to close the account, the way in which they approached the situation (no warning, no call to investigate, the strange timing, no ability to retrieve data) was appalling.

The second is a more general lesson - do things yourself whenever possible, and never implement other companies' APIs unless there absolutely no alternative or there is a contract stating that the company cannot terminate service to you. API development and research is expensive, and because most companies are not required to continue to offer the API for some time period, the other company can revoke access to their services at any time.

Potential discontinuation of service is part of the reason why we prefer exchanges that are implemented in trading libraries - someone else has already done the work, and if that one exchange stops offering services, we can easily replace it with another exchange implemented by the same library. It's why we would not offer Coinbase payouts if we hadn't already implemented them (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=5967), why we can legally offer but do not perform direct ACH transfers (because the bank could just close our accounts for no reason), and why I'm going to write custom code for the next attempt at E-Mail marketing.

Other companies closing accounts happens to businesses more frequently than one might think - Janney Montgomery Scott (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=5927) and PNC Bank (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=3958) are just two examples. With PNC, you may recall that all the transactions from the closed account were solely tax payments, an act that of course everyone obviously recognizes is a highly illegal use of a bank account.

The third lesson calls for a new thinking about how commerce should work. There is, correctly, a lot of focus on protecting employees from the heads of big corporations. Less discussed is how the protection of companies against big corporations should be codified. While we are not a sole proprietorship, a single individual who owns a company with no employees undoubtedly has even more difficulty dealing with corporations than we do.

Gender-based discrimination, for example, is outlawed in many jurisdictions. Even though many women become pregnant and that has a negative financial impact on contracts, it is not only morally wrong, but also illegal, to refuse to offer services to a woman because she may become pregnant. In another case, society even goes so far as to sometimes "seal" criminal records and to make it illegal to consider those sealed records in business deals or living arrangements. And yet, it remains perfectly legal to blanket discriminate on other classes. A landlord could refuse to sign a contract solely because a friend is a drug dealer, even if the prospective tenant has never used or sold drugs, or even known about the friend's activities.

A fair economy would include a law against class-based discrimination. It would mandate that if a company offers a product or service, it must be offered to everyone equally, unless the buyer's actual personal behavior has demonstrated a cause to refuse to sell that service to that person. Demonstration that a decision was made based upon the behavior of others would be cause for civil liability.

The effect of this law would be to impose costs on companies to either watch individual customers preventatively or to clean up the consequences of a greater number of bad things that happen. But since every business would face the same costs, there would be no unfair advantage to one company over another. The presumption of innocence is a foundational belief in Western society. We understand that there is a cost to society in assuming innocence and yet do it anyway. It should be mandated in business dealings as well.

In conclusion, we apologize to our customers who requested to unsubscribe and who will still receive additional messages. If you already unsubscribed, you can visit the "Settings" page and remove the "notify me of new features" E-Mail address from the box proactively before the next newsletter is sent. And whatever you do, avoid Constant Contact at all costs.
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