Petnet goes offline for a week, can’t answer customers at all

This pup will stare at you balefully until someone—or something—feeds it already.
Enlarge / This pup will stare at you balefully until someone—or something—feeds it already.

Automated or otherwise mechanized pet feeders aren’t particularly new; you can find analog models dating back to 1939 at least. But the 21st century being what it is, of course there are now app-driven, cloud-connected “smart” feeders that you control from your phone. And when some mysterious outage takes out that system for a full week, you and your furry friend may end up deeply annoyed.

The Petnet smartfeeder is one such system, and it did indeed recently suffer one such outage, as spotted by TechCrunch. Systems do occasionally go offline, it is true—but Petnet’s outage seems emblematic of the difficulties consumers face with customer service in the app-driven economy. Namely, can you actually reach someone to complain?

Petnet began posting messages on Twitter on February 14 advising customers that some of its SmartFeeders “will appear offline,” although they still would nominally work to dispense food. Of course, when something doesn’t work, most people will try to turn it off and back on again, as that’s the first-line repair for basically everything with a power switch. That, alas, was not the solution here, and Petnet explicitly advised against turning feeders off or on, adding, “We will continue to provide updates on this matter.”

The next update to the company’s Twitter feed came four days later, on February 18, when it said it was working with a third-party service provider and would “release more information as we learn more.” Finally on February 21, a full week after users began to notice something was amiss, Petnet said it had resolved the problem and would be pushing a reset and an update to affected customers.

Users were distinctly unhappy, not only with the outage but also with the company’s lack of response and a clear lack of avenues for contacting them.

“Does that same third party pick up your phones, answer your emails, pay your lease (property address is available for rent) and support your customers?” one customer tweeted on February 18.

Another, on February 21, said, “Why were your emails not delivering? Why isnt anyone answering the phone or returning calls? Your website still claims support Mon-Sat by phone email and twitter. You’ve been silent for a week.”

Customers aren’t the only ones unable to reach the company. Ars’ request for comment sent to the press contact Petnet lists on its company website bounced back with an error indicating the email address does not exist.

The missing middleman

It’s the great irony of modern app-based services: we use them on our phones, and yet you cannot actually use a phone to call anyone when something goes wrong. Petnet is far from the first device or service to leave customers high and dry with complaints.

For example, ride-hailing service Uber in its first years fairly infamously provided no other contact for passengers than email, even in a crisis. The company finally rolled out a “secret” 1-800 number in 2016. Both Uber and Lyft now require customers to contact them by phone through their respective apps, rather than by dialing a number, but they do at least allow customers to talk to someone.

Every once in a while, I also hear from readers who desperately wish they could contact Facebook or Google by phone, as the existing contact options don’t help with the problems they are having. The largest firms, though, do at least provide extensive non-phone support options, with user forums and support emails for concerned consumers to try. Smaller services, like Petnet, may not even afford customers that much contact.

Petnet lists several investors on its website, including Petco, iRobot (the company behind Roomba), Amazon, a handful of private equity firms, and, inexplicably, Major League Baseball. A representative for Petco told TechCrunch that the company “is a minor and passive investor in Petnet” that has no involvement with the company’s operations.

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