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Your customer retention strategy isn’t working.

angry(?) giraffe portrait

Adam Foster via Compfight

I’ve been trying to cut my digital costs lately by consolidating my various hosting services in one place;  the blog, Breaking Bio, the audio hosting and feeds for the podcast and the steps I’m taking towards open science.  To do this, I’ve recently been building out my own server on a DigitalOcean cloud VPS1.  So far, the experience has been great … except for cancelling my old services.  HostGator in particular, though, has attracted my wrath.  Instead of just allowing you to cancel your service and then letting the matter lie, they’ve insisted on opening a support ticket, sending me multiple emails asking me to call them (or email if that’s not possible), and finally calling me at home to try and sell me on a year’s renewal at a discounted price.  Here’s the last one I got after the phone call that woke me up this morning:

Hello Steven,

I called you to discuss my offer, but unfortunately I was unable to reach you. So I left a message asking if you could call me back or reply to this email.

I read your cancel request and I see that you want to close your website for a better price. I’m sorry to hear that you want to cancel your service with us due to price. So I would like to offer you a 25% discount off your next invoice. But for the best deal, It would be best if we adjust your billing cycle to 12 months or more with the 25% discount.

I want to do everything I can to help you succeed, so please reply to this email or give me a call. If I’m available I will help you personally, or you can work with any of my team mates. We are here to help you.

John T

I am personally available 10AM – 7PM CST Monday – Friday, you can use Time.IS/Houston to tell you if I am available.

Frankly, I don’t need this.  What I do need is to cancel my service with them in a clean fashion.  If they had such great prices to offer me, why didn’t they offer them when I signed up?  Oh yeah, because they want to charge you more and then dangle the carrot when you realise that you’re getting shafted.  So, I may have gotten a little … agitated in response.  Here’s what I wrote back:


I’m sure that you’re just a guy, doing a job. So I’m trying to avoid becoming angry at you personally. But now, instead of simply cancelling my service as I asked, HostGator opened a ticket, sent me multiple emails, and finally woke me up on the only day all week that I have to sleep in with a phone call I didn’t want.  I was reasonably indifferent to HostGator before this; not a spectacular company, but the product was serviceable and for the most part you guys stayed out of my way. However, at this point, your ‘customer loyalty’ and ‘retention’ program has angered me to the point that I will actively discourage people from using your service. In fact, later today I plan on posting this to my blog (which I now host elsewhere!) to leave a permanent record of this interaction for the world to see.

As to the stated reason for leaving HostGator, price was simply a convenient excuse, like a hastily placed phone call from a friend to allow one to end a bad date. I’m cancelling with HostGator because I’m now hosting with a cloud VPS service that gives me more control, better service, a more attractive interface, and costs half of your cheapest plan with the ability to scale my server(s) at a moment’s notice with complete flexibility. The company that you work for, John, is a lumbering dinosaur. You may feel like Microsoft circa 2000 now, but look how that turned out for them.

So, in conclusion: no, I don’t want a 25% discount on service I don’t need, locked in for a year (subtle move, that). What I want is for HostGator to cancel my service as I asked for in the first place, without me needing to answer phone calls and respond to emails. Perhaps, now that I’ve wasted twenty minutes of my day replying to this, HostGator will finally believe me that I no longer want your service. (And no, I’m not making an international call to tell you this personally, either).

As for you, John, I hope that you don’t take any of this personally. I like to imagine that you’re an honest, hardworking guy who’s just trying to get by; maybe you’re a college kid squeezing out some extra cash so he can do something fun this weekend, or a family man trying to put food on the table. Or maybe the ‘Houston’ thing is a misdirect, and you’re a friendly fellow working at a cubicle in Mumbai. If so, hello! I hope to have the chance to visit your country some day. In any case, I urge you if your life affords you the opportunity: find a new job. Because if their ‘service’ as I cancel my account is any indication – and I believe that it is – HostGator is not long for this world. Get out! Get out while you still can!


Steven Hamblin.

It’s pretty unlikely that anyone at HostGator will ever read this, but if they do:  you’ll probably say that you do this because it works.  And you’re possibly even right.  But one important lesson that companies have learned (or failed to learn) in the past few years is that people don’t like to be locked in.  If you make a good product, they’ll use it.  If they want to switch products, then you should make it easier.  If you don’t, all you’re going to do is make them angry, like you did me.  Now, instead of recommending HostGator to someone else as a reasonable way to host a website for novices, I’ll tell them the truth:  that it was okay, but when I tried to leave they made it a pain and I wouldn’t ever use their services again.

Is that the message you want me out there sending?

  1. Server in the sky.  Like having your own Linux box, but someone else takes care of it.

What would I change? Nothing.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist blog, Jeremy Yoder is organising a blog carnival about “Knowing what I know now”. Essentially, the question at hand is: what would I do differently in the previous stage of my academic career (my Ph.D., for me) to help me in the current one (my postdoc). When I read this, I thought that it would make a great blog post here, but then the question sank into the back of my mind and I struggled to put anything down on the screen. I fought with it for a few days, until I finally realised why.

I wouldn’t change anything about my graduate career. But I would tell myself something.

Two years into my Ph.D., I was living in Montréal while my wife was living in Edmonton, 3500 kilometers away. It certainly wasn’t an easy life: I spent a fair bit of my time on airplanes, returning to Edmonton at least once every month or every two months, and let me tell you that the novelty of both the Edmonton and Montréal airports wears off quickly. It was stressful financially and emotionally; my wife was working two, sometimes three jobs, and I was putting every waking moment into my Ph.D. research to try and get finished. My sleep cycle was so screwed up that I often went to bed when the sun came up and woke up a few hours later to stumble back over to my computer. I put on a fair bit of weight, I was unhealthy, and I was a mess. There were also a few times – I’m told – when my mother-in-law, Dawn, was the only thing keeping my wife from divorcing me. I’ll owe her forever for that.

Which is one of the reasons that the news of her diagnosis with cancer that summer came as such a blow. The day I received the call, I was on a plane back to Edmonton, and we soon learned that the situation was bad: Dawn had a late-stage gallbladder cancer. Treatment options were limited, and we were faced the prospect of caring for her as she died in an extended and unpleasant fashion. My heart broke for my wife, who was as close to her mother as a human being could be; her father had been out of the picture since she was a child, and so the two of them had faced the world together as an unbreakable unit. Being allowed into that small but powerful family was one of the greatest honours of my life, and watching it go through this darkness was one of the greatest pains.

But here’s what I would tell myself.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert presents a compelling case that one of the things that trips us up so badly when it comes to happiness is that we’re terrible at predicting it. In his now well-known TED talk, he discusses the phenomenon of the lottery winners and the amputees; measured at the time of the occurrence, people in the former group would predict their happiness to be much higher than that of the latter one year on, but when actually measured a year later, their happiness comes out to be the same. The lesson of this is not to give up striving for situations that make us happy. Rather, the lesson I take from this is that when life hands you a truckload of lemons, rest assured that you’re probably going to enjoy the lemonade more than you think.

Why would I remind myself of this? Because the truth is that the things didn’t get better, at least not right away. I had to watch Dawn die painfully over the next eight months, and I had to hold my wife’s hand while she underwent the most difficult period of her life, utterly powerless to help. I lost one of the most important people in my life, closer to me than my own parents1. After Dawn died, I had to deal with my own grief while helping my wife do the same. And while all of this was going on, I had to push forward with my Ph.D. research.

When it comes to my Ph.D., I was lucky. I was doing theoretical work, so I could be away from my lab without being entirely crippled. Was that optimal? Hell, no. I went to Montréal in the first place to work with a really smart guy, and I spent most of the last half of my Ph.D. talking to him occasionally on Skype. His patience with me went above and beyond the call of duty, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully express how much I appreciate it, nor will he ever really know how much he taught me despite all of this. I also lost time with my lab mates, from whom I could have learned a lot. The research I did probably wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I might still be paying for that today2.

So, barrels and barrels of lemonade. Yet despite all of that, I’m happy now with how it all came out. As Gilbert would say, I’ve synthesised my own happiness, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s made the scientist that I am now, and even if that’s not as good as I could have been, I can live with that. This all drives down to the core of what I would tell myself at that moment, when I was flying home to Edmonton and facing down the prospect of watching someone I loved die, thinking that my life had gone completely off the rails:

Look, this sucks. I’ll grant you that. But insomuch as you can, try to let go of your predictions and worries for the future, because you’re definitely wrong.


Okay, I’m lying a little. I would change one thing. In the first summer of my Ph.D., my wife was teaching in Edmonton so she was able to come down to Montréal for the summer holiday. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have signed up for the ISBE conference in New York so that I wouldn’t have found myself leaving my wife in Montréal to go to New York a week after she came from Edmonton to see me. It seemed like such a good idea at the time and it actually had beneficial outcomes for my career, but it was – by far – one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

  1. A story for another day, but my adopted parents and I did not have what I would call a close relationship.
  2. Not an excuse for anything, mind you, just a recounting of the facts. I’m happy to take responsibility for the successes and failures of my work.

Not dead, just sick.

I’m not a blogger of huge volume to begin with, but recent silence has been due to a rather epic battle with the stomach flu over the past few days. We will return to your regularly scheduled programming when the author can see straight again.

Evaluating the fitness consequences of signalling…

Robert Kurzban, over at the Evolutionary Psychology blog, has a post up which caught my attention because it deals with an area of behavioral ecology that I happen to know a little bit about:  signalling.  My master’s degree was done on animal aggressive communication models, under the supervision of Pete Hurd.  So I was intrigued to see what Robert had to say.

The post itself was fairly underwhelming for me, because Robert only seems interested in using a (somewhat overstated) terminological dustup over signals versus cues.  But about halfway through the post, he decides to throw a rather large stone in a surprisingly glass house:

Let’s turn to the substance of the matter. Maynard-Smith and Harper (2003) define a signal as “any act or structure that alters the behaviour of other organisms, which evolved owing to that effect, and which is effective because the receiver’s response has also evolved” (p. 3).

Their first example is distinguishing two ways a stag might make another stag retreat: push him or roar at him. Pushing, they argue, isn’t a signal – it does alter the behavior or the other organism, but the response, moving backwards, didn’t evolve as a response to pushing – it’s simply a physical consequence. In contrast, retreating in response to a roar, they argue, makes the roar a signal. Roaring evolved because retreating from roars is an evolved response, the argument goes.

Note how casually Maynard-Smith and Harper make this strong claim. Labeling the stag’s roar a signal is an adaptationist claim, that the behavior in question has a function, in this case, conveying information – signaling – to a rival which, in turn, is useful in the context of intra-sexual conflict. I find it worthwhile to reiterate, at the risk of undue repetition, that this illustrates how biologists routinely make adaptationist claims based on observed patterns of behavior, rather than measuring fitness consequences, heritability, and the like.  [Emphasis mine].

I was astounded by this claim for two reasons.  First, an evolutionary psychologist is telling biologists that they don’t measure fitness consequences?  When was the last time an evolutionary psychologist did an experiment in which they manipulated a trait and measured fitness consequences, i.e. survival and / or babies made as a result?  I would love to be on the ethics committee that processes that application, I really would.  Every EP study that I have ever read which deals with fitness in any way is either a correlational study (e.g. using historical birth record data or doing a cross-sectional analysis) or uses some proxy  for fitness, like asking women to rate the attractiveness of male body odours that they sniffed from used t-shirts to assess the “fitness consequences” of MHC (major histocampatibility complex) preferences.  Don’t get me wrong, I find a lot of this work interesting, but to criticize biologists for not assessing fitness consequences is quite the santicmonious move.

In behavioural ecology we often do as the MHC researchers do and use proxies for fitness, by which I mean that we measure a trait that we argue (or assume) is correlated with fitness.  For instance, in foraging research, we assume that food intake rates will correlate with fitness and so suggest that the adaptive value of a behavioural trait can be measured – at least indirectly – by manipulating the trait in some way and seeing how that impacts food intake.  Would we prefer to measure fitness directly?  Sure we would!  The reasons we use proxies usually boil down to the difficulty, or downright impossibility, of measuring fitness in that way.  Primatologists, for instance, are going to be about as likely to perform such direct fitness studies as evolutionary psychologists are, and even those of us who work with smaller and easier to handle animals are going to find such research challenging.

But that brings me to my second objection, which is that biologists do measure fitness consequences (and heritability, and the like, but I’ll focus on fitness here).  Some examples:

–  The obvious:  twisting Drosophila into various shapes and seeing the consequences (fitness or otherwise) of that is practically an industry by now.  It took me about four seconds and a single Google search to find a nice-looking study on sexual selection and fitness outcomes in Drosophila by Promislow et al. (1998), and the related links lead to a flood of more recent research.
–  The awesome:  many examples are found in sexual selection research, for obvious reasons.  Frogs have some good examples of this, like work on the Australian frog by Jeremy Robertson that showed that female choice of male calls was adaptive by showing the consequences to female clutch fertilization by a mismatch between call and male body size.  And I’m pretty sure that Mike Ryan, who has done a lot of incredible studies on the signalling system in túngara frogs, would be surprised to find out that biologists don’t assess fitness consequences.

–  The vaguely frightening:  ever seen hermit crabs fight?  It’s a bit scary.  Check out this video from the Royal Society in which one crab thoroughly kicks the snot out of another and then steals the other guy’s house:

Research on the fitness consequences of these fights goes back decades, both intra- and interspecifically.  The signalling system used by hermit crabs (like shell rapping) is also a fascinating area of study.

–  The avian:  birds are a common target for this, too.  A particular example I like comes from an area close to home, the zebra finch.  Remember the assumption I was talking about above, using foraging intake rates as a proxy for fitness? William Lemon decided to test this directly, and so he manipulated the feeding rates of four zebra finch populations to determine the adaptive value of energy maximization (and its suitability as a proxy for fitness) by directly measuring survival and reproduction in the populations.  Show me the EP study that does that.

This is just a short list cobbled together from what I can think of off the top of my head and some quick Googling, and I even confined myself to just studies looking at reproductive benefits;  many more have done work on the survival component of fitness, and to cover even a fraction of those would require an inconveniently long book.  Even the examples I’ve chosen are slanted towards behaviour, for obvious reasons, and people skewing towards the genetics side of things have done a lot more work on these types of questions than we have in behavioural ecology.

When I began my undergraduate career in psychology, I was attracted to evolutionary psychology.  I felt then, as I do now, that the core concept of taking evolution’s effects on homo sapiens into account is true and needs attention.  It’s what inspired me to shift to biology, so that I could study the tools of biology and bring them back to the sort of questions that EP studies.  And if Robert’s feelings are shared by other current practitioners of EP, I can’t help thinking that the field needs more people who will do the same.


Welcome to my new blog, A Bit of Behavioral Ecology.  I’m starting this blog because I recently realized that the field I’m currently knee-deep in – as I work on the last year of my Ph.D. – is not well-represented on the net.  There used to be a Behavioural Ecology blog written by Matt Macmanes, but that seems to have ground to a halt a couple of years ago with no signs of resurrection.  I hope that Matt won’t mind me picking up the torch, as it were, and attempting to carry on.

In any case, aside from Matt’s blog,  I haven’t found many resources for quality writing on behavioural ecology outside of journals. So I’m going to try and contribute something useful by using this forum to write about things that I think are cool in the world of behavioural ecology and science in general, and hopefully raise the profile of our field a little bit.   What kinds of things will this blog cover?  Well, I have pretty diverse interests but I do skew towards the modeling side of things, so I hope that potential readers can forgive me for that.  In general, though, you can expect to see material on recent papers in the field, “basic concepts” posts in areas that I’m familiar with, and whatever other random noise floats through my head on the topics of biology and science. And of course, I welcome contributions, comments, and ideas from you, the loyal reader.  (Of course, right now, I’m shouting into the void … but hopefully that will change!)  Leave a comment, send me an e-mail, reach out on Twitter, and hopefully I’ll see you around the blogosphere.