A mediocre business that executes just well enough and has a large customer base can survive for years. Decades, even. People don’t switch from something they’re hooked on until there is an alternative that’s 10 times better or 10 times cheaper. And if the service is already good enough, that’s impossible. That’s why it would be so hard to unseat Google. 10x faster? Who cares? 10x better? Really, how? 10x cheaper? It’s already free.
iStock doesn’t have that good of a business model, but it’s not bad. They have a huge selection of stock photography. They’re a huge name in the stock photography industry. The prices of their images have fallen dramatically over the past few years. For the past year we have had a $250/month subscription that gave us 50 images to download, at full size, and use anywhere. $5 per image isn’t bad, since I remember well the days of paying $50 and more for a single mediocre image that everyone else was already using.
But not all is well in iStockville. Case in point, I recently tried to upgrade from 50 images per month to 100 images per month after receiving an email from one of my team members asking for more stock images and ending with “If we could get this worked out by tomorrow that would be best.” I looked up the upgrade price and it was only $50 more per month, which seemed like a great deal. But we needed to upgrade fast, because we were already out of images for the month and needed another 20 or so. No problem, I figured. I’ll just log into my account, upgrade my plan, and be on my way. I do this all the time with all sorts of services, right? Turns out with iStock the process is somewhat more involved.
First, you can’t just upgrade online. You have to talk to someone on the phone. Yes, the phone. The problem is that at the time I was in Hong Kong, it was 11 pm at night, and making a phone call in our tiny, expensive flat would have woken up my wife and kids. So I couldn’t make a phone call. I contacted a service rep through chat, and she said I had to call in. There is no other way to upgrade. I couldn’t believe this, so I kept pushing. Finally, she told me she would have someone email me.
I got an email from the upgrade department…about 24 hours later. But I found the upgrade email confusing. Here’s what I saw:
I don’t know, I like to think I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but I couldn’t figure this out. This makes it look like the monthly cost of the new subscription is $518. Was I part of a bait and switch? What’s the periodic billing part talking about? The upgrade link I had clicked on said $299, so it wouldn’t be cheaper some other way, would it? And what happens to my old subscription? Is that why the price is higher, am I paying for two subscriptions at once because I’m under contract on the other one? I couldn’t understand what to make of this, and the only explanation in the email was “The follow quote is the cost to upgrade to the iStock Signature 100 subscription through August 4, 2015.” In retrospect, it sort of makes sense, but I wanted to verify that I wasn’t signing up to be charged $518 per month. So I sent an email back asking for clarification.
I received an answer about an hour and a half later, which isn’t bad for email support, especially since most of the time I use a company’s email support I get no response at all. I responded about 20 minutes after that, because the email, unfortunately, did not clarify things completely for me. So I restated what they had said to me, to make sure I understood it correctly. A few hours later, I got a response saying I had almost understood it, but not quite. Final explanation? I would be billed for the new plan starting immediately, get my 100 images per month immediately, but I would be billed immediately for the two remaining months of my old contract. No, I wasn’t going to be double billed, they were just going to bill me for two months right now. Why? I don’t know, because I have two months left on my existing contract, that’s why. Yeah, I’m still a bit confused, I guess. But I was secure enough in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to get double billed for anything, and that I wouldn’t be paying $518 per month. However, at this point the order was still not placed, because they still needed me to confirm that I wanted to move forward. I responded to the email stating that I was ready to move forward. That was on Friday. Today is Monday. I haven’t heard back. Understandably, because I must have missed the end of their work day on Friday, and they’re out for the weekend.
I don’t begrudge anyone their weekend. Weekends are sacred. And the people I dealt with at iStock were great. This is nothing against them, it’s the system. I wonder how much money iStock is losing because they haven’t seen fit to fix this process by allowing folks like me to do this kind of upgrade online, without a phone call, without contacting chat, and without several emails back and forth. In our case, I only persevered due to a fascination with the broken process and a curiosity of what it would finally take to get my upgrade (which, by the way, just barely came through). I have never considered switching from iStock before this. But if another stock photo website were to approach me right now with a better deal, better images, and a better billing process, would iStock lose me as a customer? They just might. The other site wouldn’t even have to be 10x better.
Update 28 Jul, 2015: The saga continues. Right after upgrading my account, our account was compromised. I have hundreds of accounts all over the place, and over the past 15 years I have had two accounts compromised. It doesn’t happen often. In this case, the perpetrator logged into my account and downloaded about 75 images within a one-hour period of time. This caused us to bump up very quickly to our limit on the account and once again, we couldn’t download images.
When I contacted iStock, they blamed me. Now, perhaps it was my fault. But what would a customer-centric company say? “Wow, that’s too bad that your account got hacked! We’ll refund those credits to you right away so you can keep downloading images. In the meantime, we recommend you change your password and see if you can track down how this happened. We’ll do the same on our end. Let us know what you find out.” Then they would put the credits back in my account. This would all happen in about 5 minutes.
That’s how Zappos is. I once ordered shoes from Zappos and it turned out they were the wrong size. And I’m in Hong Kong, so shipping them back would cost half of what the shoes cost. I emailed them to ask “What can we work out?” and they said “We’ll give you a full refund and you can keep the shoes. Give them to a homeless person.” Wow. No fuss. No debate. That was it. And it was completely my fault (and that of the manufacturer for not getting sizes right). It certainly wasn’t Zappos’ fault.
Instead, with iStock it was been weeks. There have been many emails back and forth. The response time has been agonizingly slow. There has been debate. I’ve been blamed. I had to threaten to quit to get any action. Finally, they put credits into my account for the stolen images, but only after I pushed them as hard as I could.
But it doesn’t end there. A few days after this iStock locked down my account. Why? Because I have multiple people logging into it, which they could tell by tracking ip addresses of logins. And I don’t have a multi-user account. In other words, if you want one person to access an account and download 100 images per month, you pay one price. If you want five people to access that account and download the same 100 images per month, you pay a different, higher price. Why? Because they can. Does it cost them more to have multiple people log into the account? No. Am I downloading more images? No. There’s no sound business reason for this, other than that they have the opportunity to make things more inconvenient for me, and then charge a fee to lessen the inconvenience. Are the results any different than if I had my team tell me what images they wanted, and then I logged into the account and downloaded them all myself? No, but iStock seems intent on extracting as much revenue as they can, however they can.
Some might question if my frustration is reasonable. Don’t all sorts of companies charge extra for multi-user access? Yes, but generally they don’t lock down an account if more than one person uses it. Instead, they charge more for setting up multiple accounts. For example, with Freshbooks if you want more users you pay for more. If you want to have 10 people use a common login, no big deal, if you’re ok putting up with that inconvenience.
I wouldn’t be half as frustrated if the situation had been handled differently. Bringing up the topic for discussion is one thing. Shutting down my account until it’s resolved is quite another. iStock has once again succeeded in making sure I can’t get work done. Once again I’m being treated as though I’ve done something wrong.
How long will I take this? Not long. The real question is how long iStock’s other customers will put up with this.
Update 29 Jul, 2015: Here is the email I had sent to the “customer service” department.
I’ve had my team stop logging in so now I’m the only one who will log in. Can we turn the account back on?
Here’s the response I received.
Good Morning Joshua,
You are not in compliance with the subscription license and do not intend to renew. Reinstating access is not possible.
Well, Tom is succinct, I’ll give him that.
It’s hard for me to blame Tom. Before I blame him, I’ll blame the system. He’s acting just like Beth Partain was before him, but she’s now on vacation, which is how I ended up working with Tom. The fact that both of them have been treating me in the same way tells me this is probably a larger issue with the way they’ve been trained, or the way incentives are structured at iStock. Other companies like Comcast have the same challenges.
My message back to Tom was as follows:
Not possible? Or do you mean you don’t want to do it?
One person is accessing the account, me, the owner. You’ve already shown me you can verify this. What else do I have to do to get in compliance?
I have paid for access to images. If you are going to deny me access to the service I have paid for simply because I don’t intend to renew, doesn’t this put you in noncompliance with the terms of service? I expect your terms of service say something about how you will provide services for which customers have paid?
Shall I keep adding the details of my customer service experience with iStock to https://joshsteimle.com/customer-service/can-a-business-run-like-this-and-survive.html? How much has the lack of customer service I’ve experienced cost iStock already? Shall we see if we can get some other iStock customers to leave or potential customers to never sign up?
Seriously, what kind of operation is being run over there? Is there no long term vision? I’ve been with iStock and Getty for years. I’ve paid in thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands. Now I get treated like I’m a crook, or simply someone to get money out of for as long as possible.
I’m not angry, just frustrated. And a bit incredulous. It is truly hard for me to believe that a company can be run like this. I own a business, I would never treat somebody this way, and if anyone on my team treated a client of ours this way they’d be fired immediately.
Stay tuned, we’ll see how far this goes. Kind of fun, in a way.
Update 30 Jul, 2015: I received this email from Christina at iStock:
Hello Mr. Steimle,
Tom has shared your concerns over the account suspension with me. I’d like to speak with you in hopes of resolving the matter. So that we may most effectively communicate, please provide a phone number and a few times that work for you. I will work around your schedule. I look forward to hearing from you.
Less than an hour later I sent my reply to Christina:
I’m in Hong Kong which isn’t conducive to communicating on the phone so much, plus I’d like to keep everything written.
I’ve already decided to leave iStock. I don’t want to have to deal with this anymore. But we purchased 200 images, and since our account information appears to be incomplete but that’s all I can go off of, it appears we have downloaded 15 of those 200 images, and we have 45 credits in our account. However, unlike the subscription, where 1 credit = 1 image, when we use these 45 credits that were put on our account, we often have to use 3 of those credits to get a single image. What would be satisfactory to me would be for our account to receive 140 credits that we can use anytime during the next 1-2 months, and which will purchase any image at the rate of 1 credit to 1 image. That’s what we paid for. This doesn’t take into account any of the inconvenience we’ve gone through, this is just me trying to get what we paid for and should have been able to get without going through what I’ve been through the past two months.
Another satisfactory option would be to get a refund for what we paid for the past two months of subscription, minus the 15 images we’ve downloaded.
Update 18 Aug, 2015: No response from Christina or anyone else at iStock. My latest email to Christina:
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Hi Christina, should I be expecting any response to this?