Rather than have a fax machine take up desk space at my former business, I just paid for a fax number and delivery via email. Since then, the need for faxes has obviously slowed so I used the online chat feature on efax.com to cancel my account, for which I had an annual subscription.

I would’ve done it earlier, as a couple of months prior efax had charged my credit card, a fact I noted only when I got my card statement. The subsequent online chat was, in a word, torturous. While eventually I got everything settled, the experience ensured I’ll not recommend them. Yet hopefully we can learn from it.

Unpleasant surprises

When running a subscription-based service, especially if the subscription frequency is less than monthly (e.g., annual or semi-anual), send an email reminder a week or so prior to the automatic charge. This returns control to the customer, allowing them to modify their subscription or change their payment method. The first time a customer knows a renewal has take place shouldn’t be after the fact. Since efax doesn’t give pro-rated refunds, their revenue model relied on their customers forgetting. Nice, right?

Forcing an error

With subscriptions, we know the customer’s credit card’s expiration date. So rather than waiting until after it’s expired and only then letting the customer know their subscription’s lapsed, nudge them a month prior to update their settings. Auto-filling the last four digits of the card number leaving blank only the expiration date and CID makes the update process even easier.

Policy for policy’s sake

Want an instant way of pissing off your customer? Repeat some related policy statement without regard to solving the core issue. Policies serve to standardize procedure, which is sometimes necessary. But any employee we hire should be trained and trusted enough to be able to resolve an edge case. When I asked for help from efax, initially (and repeatedly) I was pointed to a FAQ page (that had a 404 error) with no other offer of assistance.

Putting the burden on the customer

efax wanted me to wait 9 months until my subscription would be renewed again before allowing me to cancel my service, putting the onus on me to remember and act. Of course their hope was that I’d forget and forfeit yet another year’s subscription. We shouldn’t put our customers in a compromised state or make our business rely on their errors or forgetfulness.

Pursuing a sky is falling strategy

When I finally convinced the rep to cancel my account today, not 9 months from now, he responded with a sternly worded reminder that all my prior faxes would be deleted and my fax number immediately reassigned. The way it was worded, you’d think we were on the verge of a nuclear showdown. Yet all I wanted to do was close my account. The last time I had sent or received a fax was three months prior. Pretty sure it wasn’t that big a deal.

Making it difficult to leave

Our customers have varying reasons why they don’t need a business relationship with us anymore. Not all of them have to do with us or our business, so we have to respect the reason without grasping, trying to keep customers that don’t need us anymore. It just makes us look desperate (and no one wants that). That’s not to say we can’t learn from those instances when we didn’t meet a customer’s needs, of course. Prior to this experience with efax, my relationship with them was fine–they did their part and I got reliable service at a fair price. But at the end…

Stable, reliable service at a fair price doesn’t always cut it today. We have to serve our customers better than efax did. Thankfully that’s easier to do than canceling my account with them.

P.S. Dark Patterns is a UX term describing web interface elements that not only don’t serve the user, they’re often actively harmful and usually deceitful.