The Customer

The Skype Skam

Your boss left you a message. Want to hear it? Pay up!

A video chat

Update, March 18, 2011: The Skype Skam appears to be more of a Skype Skrew-up, though whose screw-up it was remains unclear. I say “was” because I have now repeated the experiment described below several times and come up with different results. When somebody who subscribes to Skype’s voice mail leaves me a message, I am now able to hear it, even though I haven’t paid $6 to subscribe to Skype voice mail. I have obtained this satisfactory result both with a Skype employee and with someone who is not employed by Skype. I now believe that you, dear reader, will experience the same result. So in the words of the late, great Emily Litella: “Never mind.”

It remains true that both Slatereader Auros and I (both using Macs) experienced different results prior to publication of this article. * So what happened? I see two possible explanations (though there may be more). One is simple user error on both Auros’ part and mine. That would seem a peculiar coincidence, but we can’t rule it out. Another is that the problem we described was eliminated by the latest Skype software update, which I happened to download after I conducted the experiment and before I repeated the experiment post-publication. A third possibility is that something I haven’t thought of got in the way.

At any rate, Milosevich assures me, “The product was designed so that when you receive a message, you can receive it free of charge.”

My original article from March 15 on the Skype voice mail problem is below:

Last week I performed a little experiment. I asked Slate intern Rebecca Rothfeld to phone me via Skype, the software app that turns your computer into a telephone and lets you talk and even video-chat with people around the globe free of charge. I instructed Rothfeld to pay $6 to sign up for three months of Skype voice mail. (Memo to self: Remember to reimburse Rothfeld!) Then I told Rothfeld to go ahead and contact me via Skype. Before she had a chance to get through, I logged off Skype and found something else to occupy my attention.

After perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, I logged onto my e-mail and found a message from Skype. “You have a new voice mail,” it said in big blue letters, and then, in smaller black letters: “Left by Rebecca Rothfeld. Sign in to Skype to listen to the message or call your Skype To Go Number to hear it.” I don’t have a Skype To Go Number—that’s a mobile phone service for which Skype charges $2.99 to $19.99 per month, depending on coverage—so I logged onto my regular, old, completely free Skype. There I saw a little icon that looked like a cassette tape—a nostalgic tribute to the days when answering machines had moving parts. There was also a “play” button. I pressed “play” and a little round dot moved from left to right, trailing a blue line. A little counter ran below: one second, two seconds, up to nine. A nine-second message from Rebecca Rothfeld was playing, but I couldn’t hear it because, unlike Rothfeld, I hadn’t shelled out for voice mail service. Skype was holding Rothfeld’s message hostage until I paid a $6 ransom. It was really annoying!

Our experiment was an attempt to re-create an experience that blogger, Slate reader, and self-appointed Slate fact-checker par excellence R.M. “Auros” Harman had described to me in an e-mail. Auros is an investment adviser whose boss travels a lot. [Update, March 16:Harman modestly informs us he is a portfolio analyst, not yet an investment adviser.] To stay in touch when the boss is overseas, the two use AOL Instant Messenger and Skype. One day, when the boss was in France, he tried to reach Auros by Skype but Auros wasn’t at his computer, so he left Auros a voice mail. Auros doesn’t subscribe to Skype’s voice mail service, so imagine Auros’ exasperation when he got an e-mail saying he had a message from his boss that he couldn’t listen to unless he paid up. “I shouldn’t be able to get voice mail on Skype,” Auros told me.

Good luck complaining to Skype about this—or anything else—by phone. There is, I’ve been assured by Skype spokesman Brian O’Shaughnessy, absolutely no customer-service phone number for Skype. The company is based in Luxembourg and is owned by Silver Lake, a private equity firm in Menlo Park, Calif., situated on Sand Hill Road (venture capital’s Great White Way). Skype itself has a U.S. office in Palo Alto, and in theory you can call it up; the phone number is 650-493-7900. But when I dialed it at 2 p.m. West Coast time on a weekday, nobody answered and—ironically—no recording came on inviting me to leave a voice mail message. (I reached O’Shaughnessy, who is based in Luxembourg but happened to be traveling in Texas, through a Silver Lake spokesman. I could give you O’Shaughnessy’s cell number, but then I would have to kill you.)

In a blog item, Auros wrote up his unhappy experience and quoted an e-mail message he received from Skype in response to his e-mailed complaint. Skype’s reply—which I would summarize as a more polite version of “sucks to be you”—read like it had been written by a computer, a person with an unsure grasp of English, or a computer with an unsure grasp of English:

We understand your concern regarding the voicemail services that you are receiving although you do not have a voicemail subscription. We know this can be inconvenient specially that your contacts may expect that their message has been relayed. We will be glad to assist you with this.Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to block the voicemails that were being sent to you by your contacts who have a voicemail subscription. We appreciate your feedback on this and we will definitely look in to this.However, for now, your only option is to inform your contacts not to leave a voicemail since you will not be able to hear them or you may subscribe to a voicemail.

Auros’ e-mail exchange took place a couple of weeks ago. When I spoke with O’Shaughnessy today he said that neither he, nor a Skype customer-service expert he contacted in London, nor a Skype product manager he contacted in London, had ever heard of this problem before, which makes the Skype e-mail’s pledge that “we will definitely look in to [sic] this” ring a bit hollow. O’Shaughnessy further told me that the London office had, in response to my query, attempted and failed to re-create Auros’ experience and mine; when they directed somebody with Skype voice mail to try to leave a message for someone who didn’t have Skype voice mail, they found it couldn’t be done. I invited them to try to leave a voice mail for me, but I never received one. By then it was getting on toward 10 p.m. in London; maybe everybody went to bed. Or maybe the problem only occurs with voice-mailers you’ve already communicated with at least once via Skype. “We need more time to understand this issue,” O’Shaughnessy finally told me via e-mail. “Please understand that we take matters like this seriously … . We are investigating and will follow up soon with you.”

In March 2010, the Web site agreed to pay up to $9.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that the site (since renamed “Memory Lane”) had conned people into subscribing by telling them that former schoolmates were trying to reach them. What did was much worse than what Skype is doing, because after you purchased your subscription you found out that, in fact, no former schoolmate was trying to reach you—not through, anyway. A judge recently rejected the settlement, sending both sides back to the bargaining table, because “it does not require to stop sending deceptive e-mails.” Skype is not engaging in deception, but its voice mail hostage-taking—whether a bug or a feature—sufficiently resembles the marketing scheme that Keyser Söze or whatever reclusive figure runs Skype out of Luxembourg or Menlo Park should feel embarrassed. And if this really is the first that the Skype brass are hearing about it, then maybe it’s time to install a few more telephones.

Correction, March 18, 2011: An earlier version of this update said that Skype’s customer-relations representative acknowledged the problem to Auros. The earlier version also reported that Skype spokesperson Kim Milosevich said that the Skype representative had misinterpreted the question. Milosevich did say that initially, but later she was able to establish that the Skype representative, though appearing to acknowledge the problem, was acknowledging what I now understand to be a different and relatively trivial problem—the receiver’s inability to block incoming voice mail messages. That inability looms fairly small if the receiver is able to listen to those messages. (Return to the corrected sentence.)