Oct 192012
 

I have worked for pretty much my entire adult life in the field of accounts, and throughout that period I have almost always used, to varying degrees, a package from Sage.

This started in my first job, working for a firm of chartered accountants. Around 1990-ish, they had purchased a copy of Sage’s software. The intention was to use it to maintain the records for a client, and they asked me (as the resident computer geek) to learn to use the software so that I could train the person who would actually be using it, and provide oversight and support where necessary. Since then, I’ve used it at various clients and, in recent years, even for my own accounts.

I often find faults and problems with it (which can usually be worked around), but overall I consider it to be a very comprehensive piece of software, to the extent that at times I have tended to recommend it (or at least their cheapest package) in preference to anything else.

However, I’ve done that less and less in recent years, and I’ve actually come to dislike the company – mainly because of their support contracts (and the cost thereof) and the difficulty it is in getting them to respond (outside of such a contract) when reporting a bug in their software: Acknowledging such things and (depending on the nature of the bug) addressing it, especially if it is in the latest version and within a year of purchasing it, is something Sage should do, and not refuse to discuss it because the user hasn’t paid for support beyond the 45 day free support provided on purchase.

My dislike of the company and their support policies, though, and the problems I’ve found in the software (which on a couple of occasions have left me thinking that if this was software I’d written, I’d be ashamed to admit it) are another matter, because now I have a new reason to dislike them, a reason that throws them into an entirely different category of dislike – one that, on a matter of principle, means I can no longer do business with them, unless it is absolutely unavoidable.

That reason? Sage are now spammers (or employ spammers, depending on how you view it).

As ever, whenever I provide an email address to a company, I normally make it one that is unique to that company, and I always opt out of receiving any emails, from the company concerned or any third parties, other than those necessary to the task at hand. This was done in Sage’s case via the “My Sage” section of their website, and the result of my choices should mean that the only emails I ever receive from them are related to any support requested – i.e. if I have a problem with the software, I can email details to them, and they can reply by email.

On 26th April, 2012, though, I received an email to my Sage-only address, with the subject “Sage’s Customer Survey 2012” – and not only that, but the From: line showed davidw@euro.confirmit.com (with the Received: headers confirming it had been sent through confirmit.com’s mail server), and the email contained an unsubscribe link that went to www.b2beresearch.com (which is also where the survey itself could be found).

So Sage had passed my address to a third party in order for them to send this email and manage subscriptions – completely ignoring the fact that I had deliberately opted out of receiving such emails .

Which in my book makes this an unsolicited commercial email.

Spam.

My first reaction was to comment about it on Twitter, bringing it to the attention of the person who runs their Twitter account by including an @mention – first tweet, second tweet.  I then checked my account on their website, to ensure my email preferences were as I expected them to be – which they were. I made a couple of additional comments, and received a message from their Twitter account asking me to forward them my account details so that they could look into it, which I did by email. I never heard anything back.

But I did receive another email from Sage that I shouldn’t have.

This was on 26th June, 2012, and had a subject line proudly informing me that I could “Save up to 54% with a Sage Training Passport”, coming from news@mail-sage.com and sent through dotmailer.com – an email marketing outfit. (At the time, I hadn’t noticed that last point – I checked the whois on the mail-sage.com domain and noted that the admin address was Sage’s, so I simply assumed the email had been sent by them and didn’t look at the headers.)

So, again, Sage had abused my email address by ignoring my preferences – and my objections two months earlier – and, although I didn’t realise this at the time, they had again done so through a third party.

As before, I commented about it on Twitter, in two initial tweets (here and here). including an @mention to bring it to the attention of the person running the Twitter account. I then checked my account on the Sage website to confirm I was opted out of everything – which I (still) was. As expected, this got the attention of that person, who asked me to let them know my email address so they could look into it – but by this point I had already sent a message directly to Sage to complain about the problem (both by email, and via a contact form on the website), which I said in reply.

This time, I did hear something back – a little over a month later. I was telephoned by another person at Sage, who asked me to forward her copies of the emails in question (which I did, on 1st August, 2012, so that must have been when we spoke), and assured me that she would take steps to ensure I did not receive any more such emails. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the exact wording she used, but I think she said she would in some way wipe or eradicate my email address from their system, meaning it wouldn’t be possible for this to happen again.

Until yesterday – 18th October, 2012 – when it happened again.

Yesterday’s email was for another survey, the SageCover Survey 2012, according to the subject line, and purports to come from survey@sage.com, but its entry point onto the internet appears to be through smpt1.pr3.keysurvey.com – yet another third party. At least this time the unsubscribe link appears to be via Sage themselves, being an email link to digital@sage.com with a subject line of “unsubscribe” – though I suspect any emails sent to that address probably end up with the third party company. (The link to the survey itself leads to sage.keysurvey2.com).

Of course, as before, I commented about it – with an @mention – on Twitter (here, here and here). I decided that this time I would register a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office, and write about it on my personal blog – which is what you are now reading, obviously.

In the process of writing up this post, I have logged into my account on Sage to check my email settings, as I did on those two previous occasions. This time, what I see is this:

My email preferences in my account on Sage's website

My email preferences in my account on Sage's website

My email preferences aren’t showing, and I’m instead presented with an error message informing me that “an error has occurred while processing your email subscriptions.” I suspect this is the result of my previous complaint to Sage – that wiping or eradicating my email from their system was achieved by disabling this aspect of my account altogether (or this aspect of my account is disabled because my email address is no longer in my account – other than as part of the log-in).

But, if that’s the case, it clearly hasn’t worked, otherwise I wouldn’t have received yesterday’s email.

I have also noticed while writing this that I have again had a reply from the person running Sage’s Twitter account, asking for me to forward my details so that it can be checked out – I’ve yet to reply, but when I do it’ll be a reminder of the previous instances, and probably a link to this post, which contains a little more information than I can squeeze into 140 characters.

(You might very well ask why I bother to mention such things on Twitter. It is because it is publicly naming and shaming in such a way as to bring it to the attention of [a representative of] the company, and that the Twitter account is ultimately about PR and marketing – and this sort of thing is bad publicity. Plus, it’s a quick and easy way to express my annoyance!)

I also notice that I’ve had a reply to my tweet that says I’ve already told Sage that I won’t be renewing my SageCover (which I did when I spoke to the person on the phone at the start of August) – this reply being from someone else, asking if it would be worth dealing with a Sage partner (i.e. him) instead. I’ve also yet to reply, but when I do it might take several tweets – my answer to this is also unlikely to fit into 140 characters, because I need to explain that…

As I said above, that I will only “do business” with Sage if I can’t avoid it. What that really means is that I want to avoid ever having to part with any money that contributes towards Sage’s revenues – and buying from or dealing with a Sage partner does still do that, albeit indirectly, and with a reduced amount going to Sage. The key part, though, is that I said “if I can’t avoid it.” Unfortunately, I do need to use Sage’s software, and it’s likely that I will continue to need it for the foreseeable future, because I have yet to find an alternative that does everything I need in the way I want.

I will continue to use the Sage software I have, since I don’t actually need to spend any more money to do so (and I’ve already spent quite a bit on it), and I will simply not renew my SageCover contract – which is actually SageCover Extra, the more expensive option that brings with it any new versions of the software released during the term of the contract, which is the real reason I started taking the cover in the first place. My intention is just to carry on using the version I have, until such a time as I have some pressing need to upgrade to a newer version – at which point, I will obtain the cheapest suitable version I can in order to reduce the amount of money that, ultimately, goes to Sage. That might very well be via a Sage partner – in which case, the tweeter’s details are noted – but it might just as easily be from the likes of Amazon; wherever I can find it for the lowest possible price.

However, as I also mentioned somewhere above, it’s only relatively recently that I began using Sage for my own accounts. Previously, I’d been using spreadsheets as a temporary measure. This is because a long, long time ago I wrote my own, very simple, accounts software; my own requirements outgrew it, and it had always been my intention to rewrite it – but I never got around to it. I decided earlier this year that it might be time to re-visit that idea, if only I could find the time. Whether this actually happens – and if it does, whether I can use it for my clients’ data – is anyone’s guess.

All of which is a touch more than 140 characters. Perhaps I should just refer him to this post!

As an aside to this account of Sage’s new practice of disregarding email preferences and subjecting customers to spam (I’m sure I can’t be the only person in this position – though I might very well be the only person willing to publicise it), it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t my first official complaint about Sage this year:

On 2nd August, 2012, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about a false claim on Sage’s website. Promoting the 2013 version of Sage 50 Accounts, the “In-depth” tab on the relevant page of their a website included the claim that users could “Submit your VAT returns to HMRC directly from Sage 50 Accounts (now a legal requirement)”.

Sage's dubious original VAT submission claim

Sage's dubious original VAT submission claim

The first part of that claim is obviously correct, but the bracketed part is worded such that it could easily be read that it’s a legal requirement to submit you VAT returns from Sage 50 Accounts. However, the legal requirement is actually that returns are submitted online – whether this is done from within an accounts package, or manually via the HMRC website is irrelevant.

It is my experience that people setting up in business, while they may be experts in their chosen field, are often somewhat less knowledgeable when it comes to accounting, and the wording of that claim could result in such people thinking they have to use Sage software.

As such, it was misleading, so I complained – and on 10th August, 2012, I received an email from the ASA, saying:

We have noted that the claim on the ad has since been changed under the advertiser’s own volition.  It now states “Submit your VAT returns to directly to HMRC online (now a legal requirement for most businesses)” which we consider is unlikely to mislead consumers.  We therefore will be taking no further action at this time but I would like to thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.

A response that is no more than I expected, sadly, but better than nothing.

It is likely to be a similar story with the complaint I am preparing for the ICO about the spam. They’ll probably do little or no more than instruct Sage not to use my email address again in marketing emails – but at least making the complaint means it will be on record in the event of any future infractions.

VinceH