By Emily Lundquist
flickr/Administrador Galeria Uninter
Ten dollars a month is a small price to pay for practically every piece of recorded music except The Beatles. Which is why, late last year, I signed up for Spotify. Only two months in, however, I was out, and feeling like I'd been ripped off. Turns out I'm not the only one.
A little background: Spotify Premium, the ad-free and mobile subscription arm of the streaming music service, has been available in the U.S. since 2011, and has over 5 million global users. All the kinks have surely been worked out, right? Not quite. When I signed up in December I was charged $9.99, the price for a month of service. The next day, my credit card was charged another $9.99. That's when the trouble began.
After exchanging emails with multiple customer service reps, I gave up on a refund from Spotify and instead filed a claim with my bank, Wells Fargo. The funds were returned and my Spotify login promptly stopped working. Fair enough.
That was it -- until one month later, when Spotify charged my credit card another $9.99. More emails ensued. The responses I received from my customer support agent, though sympathetic, did little to quell my frustration:
I am sorry if I came across wrongly, I just meant the outcome was that we could not help you and you ended up getting charged again. That is what we tried to prevent as I knew the bank would not help you :(
A dozen emails in, and still without a refund, I received an explanation -- a second account under my name was at fault for the erroneous charge. In both instances, with one phone call my bank identified the charges and made things right.
And that illustrates the problem with Spotify. It's not about the ten bucks. It's how they address account problems, with inefficient web-based customer support, blind shuffling between representatives, and the lack of timely resolution.
My editor had a similar problem. When he canceled his service in January, he immediately received a pair of $9.99 charges, and was told his subscription would continue until March. When he responded via email that he wanted his service canceled immediately and the extra charge removed, he received this response:
The two charges that you see on your statement are both linked to your Spotify account. It's possible that you accidentally pressed the subscription button twice.
But don't worry about having lost any payments. Our system has taken account of both payments and has extended your Premium subscription to two months. This means that you will not be charged again on your next billing date. Your subscription will continue as usual the month after.
However, if you would like the second payment refunded and your subscription to continue with normal monthly payments next month, just let us know your date of birth and the last four digits of your payment card.
In other words, it's probably your fault, but even if it's not, never fear -- we'll just continue your service and keep charging you. (My editor's money was refunded after he mentioned that I was putting together this story.)
Last week I spoke with Graham James, head of communication for Spotify USA, Inc., based in New York City. Our phone conversation was terse and tense, and most of my questions went unanswered.
When asked about the user-submitted web contact form, for example, Graham said that he could not discuss the internal workings of Spotify's customer support.
So I turned the conversation to the Spotify support forums, where moderators converse with users seeking help on issues ranging from playlist syncing to billing inquiries. For almost every question, moderators instruct users to submit web contact forms to reach a customer support rep. Then when users complain about receiving only an automated reply, the moderators instruct them to reply to those "no-reply" emails in order to reach an agent. Confusing, right?
I asked Graham if those extra steps were necessary just to get in touch with a representative. He said he didn't know.
What happens when your account is deleted, I went on. Does Spotify hold onto your credit card information?
"We don't really discuss that," Graham said. "Suffice it to say there is a very secure method and anybody's payment is kept at the highest security imaginable."
One thing is clear: Spotify is doing something wrong. Search the word "refund" on the forums and you'll find 40 pages of related threads, with complaints about being charged for free trials, as well as duplicate charges, like my own.
Of course, Spotify isn't the first web-based subscription service to mishandle billing complaints. In 2003, AOL settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges of unfair business practices, which included billing AOL Internet subscribers after they requested to cancel their account and failing to properly execute account closures.
The video above is hilarious, but also frustrating. Substitute Spotify for AOL, and the fact that you'll be haggling over email rather than the phone, and the frustrated user on the other end could be any one of us.