While its somewhat of a low-priority currently; the developers at BlankLabel have been trying to figure out where and why the worker-process jammed the other day when I hit it with 50,000 requests; and visual studio and their load testing tools will only let them loadtest unit tests to a point… after that you need to bring in a cloud based solution like loader.io from sendgrid to hit you till you pass out.
Most programmers do not think about high availability or how the code will perform under massive loads and many think that its the hardware’s responsibility to make sure that the software is highly available and that its the hardware that should make the application scale and perform but this is just plain wrong. High availability, scalability and performance start at the coding level, when people write code that is scalable the cost for hardware to cover up the problem goes down and at some point, no amount of hardware will save you from bad code that will bottleneck’s you in someway or the other.
Code may behave properly when simple unit tests are run at the pre/post checkin and build phase(s); code may even behave when the QA team hits it with their testing and some in-house load tests but many do not test for high volume/hit routinely because of the effort involved in getting the test’s setup. Lets say you currently have a well functioning checkout process with a simple flow
User login/info -> Product Cart Selection -> Checkout
A new feature requires that the users last 5 orders are loaded into a session; but for some reason the developer decides to load the entire order history data into the session when a user logs in and unknowingly introducing a defect that depending on the order history and number of active sessions, it could cause the worker-process to crash (we wont argue about in-proc session storage here); however this makes it through unit and QA testing and this leads to a longer checkout process, in some cases a loss of session data, or an error; eventually through bug reports / customer support the issue would have been identified and yes it would have been fixed; but this could have been caught by load testing your critical points of success (or failure) like the checkout, signup or login process.
The setup I created for the developers is a bit complicated but to help explain the concept for this post, using BlankLabel as the test subject, I exposed 3 basic web/call points, LoadLogin, LoadCart and LoadCheckout.
LoadLogin uses the user object and uses the data that is passed to simulate a login for the test user using the existing code.
LoadCart uses the Item object and populates a Cart with the data that is passed to simulate a user adding items to a cart.
LoadCheckout uses the Process Order methods to simulate a checkout and sends out an email with the order details (data captured in LoadLogin and LoadCart)
Most do mock test the above with unit testing but the unit testing would not have triggered the performance related issues caused by a high number of active users with large order history data being loaded upon user login.
Using loader.io we are able to create a test that will first hit LoadLogin then LoadCart and then finally LoadCheckout; in each case passing values. Below is a simple screenshot that illustrates this simple test.
This test will make 1500 connections, each connection will make the URL call (in reverse order) once and hold the connection open for 15 seconds, the connection limit can be increased to 50,000 and you can hold each connection for 60 seconds if you like, but if each connection requires 20kb for its session, you will need the appropriate size of RAM (50000*20KB = 976GB).
If you are sending out emails, you will end up with 1500 emails (it may be smarter to disable the emails in the test and just look at the data stored in the DB post order completion for confirming that 1500 orders were placed with he correct data); as you can guess, I did not click on start this test now for 1500, but I did try it with 15 🙂
Why is any of this important?
In my opinion, services like loader.io help you break things quicker; if you can break things quicker, you can fix them quicker. You can also use it to routinely verify that code/releases you put out do not negatively impact performance by automating load testing by integrating loader.io with your build/test scripts through their API.
Everyone should routinely loadtest their unit tests and plan for growth as I learnt the hard way a couple of years ago…..
Success is always welcomed; we always work towards success, and preferably in most cases we can track towards it and see it coming…
But what do you do when success comes and you are the least bit prepared?
In the eCommerce world, your ability to evolve will make or break you. If you don’t rush to ensure you are prepared, you will end up with failure. I learnt an important lesson in eCommerce and startup almost a year back, may 2010.
Most tech based startups, start lean, and thats the appropriate approach. You do not want to go out and get dedicated hosted, or even get on a cloud host that costs a few hundred $’s a month when your revenue is $0 or already in the negative.. on that train of thought…
We were hosting our Blanklabel website on a shared host. Our provider was discountasp.com and I had (and still do) used them for years for many other projects/websites. I have always known the benefits and drawbacks of using a shared host…. and at 60k visitors per month and no set bandwidth limits, it was a great home for a “start up”….
That was until the New Your Times published an article on us.
To be fair, I did know that we were getting an article published in NTY; but it was a day or two before and there wasn’t much we would have done in preparation for it mainly because we did not know to expect. Our website was functioning, the order and payment system was fine, everything looked good…
Within a few minutes of the article showing up… we went from “functioning perfectly fine” to the brink of failure! How? Why?…. I live in CA so below is a time-log in PST of the sequence of events..
3:00 AM – I was coding Away… decided I needed to get some sleep so I closed shop…
3:30 AM – My phone rang, went to voice mail, woke me up,
3:35 AM – Checked my email, saw some questions about performance, looked at the website, seemed fine, sent an email in response, sent an email to discountasp went back to sleep
4:30 AM – Phone ran, answered, heard something like “It seems to be fine on my end, but customers are saying that the images are not loading”., I said “How many? just a couple? Call me back if its more than couple, could just be their connection, its working fine for me as well”… checked email, discountasp responded with the same “looks good here”, emailed them again “We are getting more complaints”.. back to sleep
6:00 AM – Phone rang again, Panicking person (you know who you are) on the other end “I have 22 chat sessions open with customers who are trying to buy, there is something definitely going on”.. This time, I got out of bed, I cleared cache, refreshed the pages a few times, tried to place and order, and there it was, random images were missing, email went out to discountasp again..
6:15 AM – I decided it was time to start looking at the logs… and there it was… As people started their morning on the East coat and were looking at their NYT print and web… our hits were rising… we had gone from a few hundred per day… to 35,000 per second… yes PER SECOND.
6:15 AM – Emailed discountasp again! asking if we could increase shared resource or get some sort of load balancing and pay for multiple servers… and also decided it was time to look for a Plan B
6:16 AM – Started looking for my Rackspace contact….
6:17 AM – Started to chat with Rackspace
7:00 AM – Signed up for Rackspace Cloud
7:19 AM – Started to download the current discountasp FTP snapshot
7:20 AM – 6 month old daughter woke up, so I was entertaining her while i did the rest below…
7:30 AM – Response from discountasp “Yea, we cant help you”…..
7:35 AM – Started to prepare a mental migration plan.. aka Plan B…
7:40 AM – Plan B was ready! Created SSL request at RackSpace, MS Sql server provisioned
7:45 AM – Download database backup file
8:00 AM – Restored Database file at RackSpace… Decided I should account for the orders that will continue to go over to the discount house so that no orders are lost and that I can migrate them over later… So I put in a 1500 order jump in the identity seed
8:XX AM – The rest of this hour went towards uploading the website to Rackspace,updating code to ensure that things worked fine on Rackspace, doing a few test runs…..updating DNS, generating and applying SSL,
9:XX AM – Started seeing orders come in on the new Database…. not just 1 or 2 here and there., but 15-20 every few minutes minutes. Was still chatting with Rackspace support to see if we could get some sort of stats, but since we had just signed up, it was not yet setup.
10:00 AM – Started to see discountasp log show traffic had reduced, server was now able to process requests that it got while the DNS updated globally.
10:XX AM – Declared Victory, while all the above was going on, My daughter was entertaining me.. or was it I who was entertaining her?…
11:00 AM – Continued to see things progress… orders still coming in… in hundreds… Called it a day for now… needed a break from this..
11:30 AM – Some more emails came in from discountasp ….. I wasn’t too happy with their lack of customer service and commitment… I guess the name does fit it well… its a discount store.. nothing compared to Rackspace’s fanatical customer support… I would not say they are really that “Fanatic”.. but… its better than discountasp and they are usually helpful.
6:XX PM – Due to the large # of orders, outgoing emails got blocked because the Rackspace servers saw it as SPAM/Flood. after an hour or so of going back and forth, Rackspace unblocked the email and thousands of emails went out to customers.
2:00 AM – Discountasp hosted site was at 0 hits; Did a global DNS check, found all routes leading to Rackspace host.
2:XX AM – Started coding scripts to bring in the orders that ended up going to discountasp servers while DNS was still updating
3:XX AM – Executed the scripts after verification.. was impressed to see that my buffer of 1500 served me well., we had 1393 orders that ended up saving on the old database… once these were broight over with the same Order Id we had a gap of just 107 orders!
4:XX AM – Realized that I forgot to put in a buffer for the User Id, had to resolve this as we now had two users with the same User ID’s because of the split servers
5:00 AM – Emailed out the #’s of shirts we sold to the team!…
7:00 AM – “Shut down the website, we cannot process any more, we are over capacity”…. I will leave this one for another day..
In the time-log above, I have highlighted take-aways in bold that will help you prepare and execute a “Live Migration” from one host to another host AND ensure that all your data comes with you, with no additional negative impact to your customers. Today, we are still with Rackspace and are content with their service… We have however grown and believe we are ready to take the next big step in cloud hosting.
This blog post is just one of the many examples where potential success can take you down if you do not know how to prepare, execute and evolve in real time.
Artscow.com, Thank you for telling me how worthless I am and giving me something to write about.
While this post is a dedication to artscow.com, the major focus of this post is “What is a customer worth to you”.
I am aware that there are more than a handful metrics and formulas you can use to figure out a $ amount; but this post is directed more towards the ethical and monetary value of a customer.
So let me start with a series of events…. Which were actually related to my wife’s interaction with an ecommerce purchase:
We have been long time customers of shutterfly, we love their customer service, product quality and the variety of products and services they offer…
Shutterfly does entice us with special offers and discounts and many times we pay full price for their products, which compared to professional studio and/or printer are a steal with as good or greater quality. Whenever there is a need, we have obtained products from them…
However; every now and then, you come across an offer that doesn’t cost you anything, and you say why not… One of these offers was artscow; they were offering 30 8×10 prints for free; all you had to pay was standard us postage, roughly $3.
My wife ordered the prints; a decent looking website.. The eCommerce/cart was slightly underpowered compared to shurterfly (boy is that an understatement) but it was a Fairly painless process.
A week or so went by and the prints showed up in the mail. We noticed that these shipped out of china (nothing wrong with that) and upon opening then, the print quality was decent; I.e nice color and gloss… However upon inspecting the images, the pictures were cropped left and right. From the 15 prints, 2 were usable.
My wife got on gmail and contacted customer service; a day went by and the response we got was instructions on placing items in cart and ordering them. None of the content in the response addressed the issue with the print.
Now I had to get involved; I took pictures of the pictures and emailed them over along with what it should have looked like. Also took a screenshot of their webpage that showers thumbnails of what was being ordered.
What I was expecting was a “Thank you for the details, please use this coupon to reorder your prints. While reviewing your images, we notices that the image is slight larger than what 8×10; even though it would have fit as the proportions were correct, out tool does not resize/shrink. Hence the cropping”…..
What I got was, “you didn’t adjust the image, so your got that”..,., and that was it…
I guess, we have been spoilt by shutterflys tool that notified you of any potential issues you may run into if your image is larger than the print or the image resizes, or crops.. but is that really our fault?
Here is where my “You are a worthless customer” statement ties in.
1. We were given FREE prints
2. We paid about $3 in shipping
How hard would it have been for artscow to say “Let us fix your experience, here is a coupon for another set of free prints” and maybe they could have even thrown in a “and you don’t even have to pay for shipping this time”… keep in mind, we still had coupons in our account for free prints which artscow.com would have been aware of… so I guess, we were not even worth $3 to them 🙂 what does it tell you about such a vendor?… so what is their official policy? “ArtsCow.com offers 30-day money back guarantee on all products. If you would like to return or exchange an item, please contact us to fill out a request form, and we will instruct you on how to send the item(s) back. Please keep in mind, shipping charges are not refundable”…. go figure…
Let me compare this to similar situations with shutterfly, at one time we ordered prints using low res images instead of the high res ones. When they got printed, the pictures were pixelated, obviously customer fault; however, shutterfly reprinted and shipped for free! I believe our order was worth $65; doing a comparison on “how much a customer is worth” I would have to say that we were at least worth the $65…. Now should the order have been $600 and it had been customer error; I do not know if shutterfly would have given us the same “let’s fix it for you”… eventually it tapers off and vendors will only pay so much to hold onto customer loyalty… however, their policy “If, for any reason, you’re not happy with a purchase, we’ll replace your order, at no charge, or give you a full refund.”….
Enough about shutterfly; let’s talk about Zazzle.com. We purchased a Groupon for $50 for $25; went online, customized some invites, ordered the invites; got them in the mail; somehow the “customized text” was replaced with the “generic text” that was shown as an example.
1. Customer error? No, and even it was….
2. Cart/Website should have caught the issue as no one would be buying customized invitations and keep the generic/sample text
The total order was worth $87; I chased Zazzle customer service down on twitter and had them help me with an emailed request to customer support. We got our Groupon certificate replenished and balance refunded and we placed our order again. Customer worth? $87 in this case…. and actually, if you look at Zazzles policy “If you don’t love it we’ll take it back”..
Now let me mentioned another eCommerce vendor that i actually know more about, and that is blank-label.com.
I know that at blank-label.com we care about customer satisfaction and loyalty, on the front page currently we have “Our Custom Fit Guarantee You will be completely satisfied with your custom fit dress shirt. If not, we’ll take it back and try again–free of charge.”. We toyed with 100% refunds in the beginning and then moved onto free remakes and we have been thinking of going back to 100% refunds or remakes. We moved away from 100% refunds was because we really wanted to do a good job of making sure that we met customer expectations and simply giving the money back wasn’t cutting it for us; if we still messed up after the 2nd try, we do refund the $’s and if someone really doesn’t want a remake, we refund in those cases as well… it’s just not a published policy 🙂
What is blank-labels customer worth? I have seen transactions in the $300 range been credited back to customer service; if you have not yet tried a custom shirt from blank-label.com I suggest you give them a try.
In summary, Customer satisfaction brings customer loyalty; if you do not care about your customers, they will not care about you…. especially if you make them feel worthless.
Recently thinking about sales, user experience and friction points for blanklabel.com (blank-label.com) I started thinking about our customers…
And soon I was trying to answer the age old question that plagues many, “What type of a customer qualifies as the best customer?”
I pondered between “does a customer who know what they are looking for the best customer?” or is a customer who I can educate the best customer? Money? Male? Female? Age? Income?….
After getting no where… I decided to analyze, “what type of a customer am I” and then it hit me…
“I am the best customer”!
So what type of a customer am I?
I am an impulse buyer… And impulse buyers, on my opinion are the best and hardest to sell to…
Well, we have the money and will spend it in a couple of seconds and will think about our decision later… What makes that hard? Well, impulse buyers have an attention spam that goes from “must buy” to “I’ll think about it” to “won’t think about it again” in a few seconds….
Are most buyers of this type? My observations tell me so; but will need to collect some statistics to prove this observation. High bounce rates for sites/pages that cannot successfully funnel a sale in a few seconds (clicks) will validate my claim.
If you have to educate this customer; you’ve probably lost the impulse sale, but may get them at a later time.
So how do you sell to buyers like me?
Convince the user that it’s okay to buy on an impulse because you will happily refund their money if they are not happy will feed into their impulse.
Don’t make me enter a whole lot of info, capture my credit card ASAP.
If I can connect to the details visually; don’t make me read
Do not give me a lot of options, funnel me!
Most buyers don’t know they want to buy something…. Most buyers are browsing the net aimlessly… I certainly am…
If it isn’t
1. That’s cool, I could use that
2. I believe that it’s worth the $
3. Ready to buy
5. Within 1-120 seconds
…..You’ve lost a sale.