Update: see the end of this article for a statement from TrackR's CEO.
Human nature is twisted. We prefer good news, but we're morbidly fascinated when things go terribly wrong. We want new companies to succeed, but stories of rip-offs and customer mistreatment fuel our righteous indignation.
This is one of those stories.
Before I dish the dirt, I'll tell you one thing: this article isn't just going to be a bitchfest. It includes important and helpful lessons for anyone starting and managing a company. So read on.
Our story begins on my couch, in early November. I was watching an episode of one of Leo Laporte's TWiT network shows. I'm a big fan of TWiT. I've even had the honor of being a guest on TWiT's Tech News Today. I was watching MacBreak Weekly, where they featured an advertiser selling a product called TrackR.
The TrackR bravo is a little tag that broadcasts a Bluetooth signal about 100 yards. It's meant for luggage tags, purses, puppies, and anything else you want to locate. If you're within that 100 yard range, you can find the tag. TrackR also uses a crowdsourced network, so if any TrackR user comes within range of your tag, you can be notified.
A few days before I saw the advertisement, my wife picked up an old dog who had gotten lost. She brought the pooch home. We took the dog to a local clinic to see if the vet could read the identity chip that most animals these days have. The lost dog didn't have a chip. We contacted community rescue workers, who managed to reunite the little lady with her family.
But this got me worried. My puppy is chipped, but he's a bundle of pure energy. We have a fenced in yard, but right after the incident with the older dog, I was feeling a bit paranoid. What if our boy got loose? He's so tiny, even if he was within 100 yards, we might not be able to see him.
So, when I was watching Leo's broadcast, and they had an offer code for two TrackRs for the price of one, I bit. On November 3, I placed my order on the TrackR website. One TrackR would be lettered to include Pixel's name, and both of our cell phone numbers. The other was plain. The total price was $37.78.
My plan was to use one TrackR on the pup as a doggy locator, and tinker with the other one, or perhaps put that on another of Junior's harnesses as a backup. I never got the chance. It's been more than two months, and I still haven't seen my order.
Although the TrackR site indicates that engraved orders will take an extra two weeks, the lettering I was having done wasn't an engraving process. There was no indication there would be any delay. And yet, no product. They took my money, but there's some evidence that they may have never actually shipped anything.
I gave it until December, a whole 27 days. On December 1, I contacted the company through their support ticketing system, and asked about the whereabouts of my order. Their site allows you to look at order information, but, ironically given their name, provides no shipping tracking information.
The next day, I got a message from a guy named Oliver, who said, "It's likely that your package was lost in transit and will not be delivered as it has been weeks since we dispatched your order from our headquarters."
Oddly enough, even though I had entered my shipping information for the original order, he asked me to send it again. I did. It took three days for a reply.
On December 5, Oliver responded with "I apologize for this inconvenience and will have your order reshipped in the next business day. You will be receiving an email regarding the tracking number information of your order once it has been reshipped to you. Please allow up to 72 hours for the tracking number to go live upon receiving it."
I waited eight days, until December 13. Having not yet received the reship, I contacted TrackR and asked for a tracking number. It took another three days for a reply. I was sent a tracking number and a representative named Aaron told me it would take 48 to 72 hours for it to become live. This is odd, because eleven days earlier, Oliver had told me he was shipping a new one. So was it shipped, or wasn't it?
When I checked the tracking number provided on December 16, it was for a package sent to Washington State. I live in Florida. I once again contacted the company. It took three more days for a reply (it was now December 19). I was told, "USPS actually recycles its tracking numbers so the one you received will 'reset' once it's been scanned and picked up."
It gets better, and by that I mean worse. There is some evidence that the postal service does recycle tracking numbers, but when I checked my tracking number again on the 19th, this time there was no record of any package.
By now, one representative had told me the package was shipping. Two weeks later, another representative implied the package had yet to be picked up from their shipping location.
Still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, I tried one more time. By now it was December 23, and Mia was replying to my requests. She seemed nice, sending me this: "We sincerely apologize for the delay. I will personally check in with the courier to identify the issue so we can get you your order at the soonest possible time."
By now it was two days before Christmas, and I tired of the game. I requested a refund. Instead, Mia offered an extended return policy and a free waterproof case if I kept my order open. I agreed, on the condition the TrackR arrived by the first week in January.
My last contact from the company was on December 26. Mia replied, "Rest assured I will do all that I can to meet that date."
That promised delivery date was last Friday. Nothing has arrived. I sent several further follow-up emails, and posted an additional trouble ticket, with no response. The company lists no phone number, and no means of contacting them other than through their website and their Twitter account. There's a support chatbot on their site, but I've never found a human at the other end of it.
Before writing this article, I reached out twice through Twitter to the company, asking for a press relations person to get back to me. I don't like to write negative commentary without first giving a company a chance to rectify the situation. There was no response via Twitter either.
So there we are. On three separate occasions, three separate reps each told me they were going to ship the product. After allowing for suitable time, I followed up. Nothing has arrived.
Tomorrow, I'll call my credit card company and ask for a refund charge-back. I hope I'll get my $37.78 back. But that's not the point. The point is, you need to ship your products.
Let's take a moment to look at the TrackR business model. The company raised a whopping $1.7 million dollars on the Indiegogo crowdfunding site for the TrackR bravo, back in 2014.
The individual TrackR bravo tags are sold for $29.99 each. It's very unlikely the company can sustain itself on individual thirty buck purchases. It needs to get repeat orders, corporate orders, and other volume deals to make these little tags profitable.
What that means is that a customer's first order is the most critical. I made a small purchase to try TrackR out. If the first one worked, I planned to put a tag on every one of Pixel's harnesses. I also figured I'd attach tags to other things (like my keys) that I sometimes misplace. I even thought I'd give a few to my neighbors for their dogs, so we'd be able to have a better doggy tracking grid in the neighborhood.
I, alone, probably would have bought ten to fifteen of these things. But, instead, I am writing this article as a case study of what not to do if you want your small to medium sized business to succeed.
New companies often struggle to deliver products. Making all elements of the supply chain work smoothy can be difficult. It's even more complicated on a startup's budget.
But when a customer places an order, and you take that customer's money, you must ship the product. That is the fundamental compact made between consumer and producer. Break that, even once, and the loss of credibility is often irreparable.
I don't know if Oliver, Aaron, and Mia outright lied about shipping the product, whether they were trying to buy time to hide some kind of supply chain problem, or whether they just didn't get the job done. But I do know that I'll never buy from them again.
Here's what should have happened. First, it never should have been allowed to get to months. When I ran my software company, I empowered my individual employees -- especially those doing support -- to make executive decisions to meet customer needs.
That's because long-term purchasing decisions are often made by customers, based on customer service interactions. I wanted my employees to know I'd back them up if they needed to make an out-of-the-box decision, or take special action to fulfill a customer's needs.
In the case of this order, TrackR should have overnighted me the TrackR, not made me follow-up time after time.
Customer service responsiveness was also an issue. It took an average of three days to get a response to any communication. That's unacceptable. In today's omnichannel digital world, we expect instant responsiveness. A few months ago, I posted a tweet about UPS (it wasn't even a complaint, just that I was looking forward to a package) and UPS responded in minutes. Minutes.
My suspicions started to grow when Mia promised a 60 day extended return time if I didn't cancel my order. That's a bit odd. I didn't want to return the product at all. I just wanted it to work. Offering a sweetener to save an order is a classic move, but the gift of a case would have been enough. Extending the return policy merely raised red flags. Do customers hate these things? Do they die in 45 days?
Finally, my tweets asking for a PR contact should have been replied to immediately. Social media is an outreach tool. By ignoring a direct tweet, specifically asking for a press contact, the company lost an opportunity to respond, rectify the problem, and possibly prevent this article.
I have no particular ill will toward this company. I will get my money back, of course, but even that's a risk to them. There are probably other customers who haven't received their orders. After a while, the credit card processing firms lose patience when they have to honor chargebacks. Who knows how soon it will be before TrackR has to find a new payment processing service?
I'm still wishing TrackR the best. I hope they pull out of whatever this mess is. But, more than that, I'm hoping your businesses don't do as they did. Support your customers. Don't provide false or nonexistent shipment tracking numbers. Don't say you have shipped things when you haven't.
Don't misrepresent the situation if there's a reason you can't ship. Don't further erode confidence in your product by offering an extended return period. Don't ignore requests for a PR contact. Above all, get those orders out the door in a timely fashion, and into the hands of your paying customers.
Chris Herbert, CEO of TrackR reached out to me with the following statement:
We apologize for this miss on our end. This year we scaled 30x in sales and we need to improve all of our systems for handling customer support requests better, providing faster and more reliable shipping, and better transparency into our business. We hope that all customers affected by these problems will give us a second chance.
If you were affected by poor communications or delayed shipping during the holiday season, please email email@example.com with a link to this article and the email you used to order and we'll send you a free device to help make this right and earn back your trust.
I'll tell you what I told him when he called. Companies make mistakes. When I ran my companies, I made some epic mistakes, some through lack of experience and some that could be attributed only to boneheadedness. To expect mistakes not to happen is unrealistic. The key is how you respond to those mistakes, the lessons you learn from them, and the systems you put in place to make sure they never happen again.
I wish Chris and his team the very best of luck.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.
CES 2017 recap video: Big trends, top products, and wackiest tech