Sunday 10 April 2011

The systems you'd think toll road providers would have down pat...

UPDATE: I got a response from Citylink...

I'm a user of the "Citylink" toll roads in Melbourne, Australia. They have a wonderful roadside assistance service for people who break down on the tollroad, but their accounting systems leave something to be desired.

I recently wrote to Citylink with the following letter:

On the 25th of January, I had a tyre failure on the tollway, just after the final gate, airport bound. After I'd managed to get my vehicle into a wider portion of the emergency lane, the incident vehicle arrived and completed changing the tyre for me.

The person in the incident vehicle in question was quick and courteous and I was back on my way quickly. This is a good part of using Citylink.

The bad part of Citylink? Your account management system!

The website is forever timing out performing basic functions like paying a bill - if you can even log in! ... and then if an account should fall into negative range, one can't check how much it's out by online as the account is made "inactive" (great if you want to reconcile your balance with your usage!). Instead one has to call and use the phone service to get the balance. Then there's the "magic $40" mark that gets tacked on to everything. If my account is ($5) then I owe $5. Suggesting I somehow owe $45 is creative accounting. I will, however in this case charge my account with $30, bringing it to $25.

Trying to download statements can also be a nightmare. If you view a given statement, then want to go back and view it again or save it, the website seems to choke on statements you've already viewed that day! Oh, and if you want to download several statements, perhaps 5 or 6, the last two will slow right down.

I don't think I've seen any real change to the website since it was launched (except perhaps closing the security flaw [I hope] that leaked all those credit card numbers awhile back). Clearly if the automated phone system can behave, then the web system should be able to behave also. Perhaps it's time to upgrade the infrastructure behind your accounting system.

Having said that the phone system works, it can take up to several days for payments to be processed, be they lodged through the website or the phone system. I can make a top up one day, based upon the amount I receive over the phone, then receive a stern email later that day or next day telling me my account's in debt.. but have the gantry system relay that my account is low, not empty.

The whole point of electronically managed billing systems is to speed throughput on the roadway (I love how you can drive through Citylink at up to 100kmph, whereas a system in NY/NJ USA ["Fastpass" HAH!] in the US is perhaps 15-30kmph), reduce the need to talk to people on the phones and increase accuracy. It feels like your customer-facing frontend systems (except for the toll gates) can't keep up, and the stream to the master backend systems is running so close to capacity that stuff can't be processed fast enough.
In the US system's defense, it's been around a lot longer than Citylink has and uses previous generation of technology, at least the last time I was there in 2006.
In the past when I've complained about the website, I've been given a response along the lines of "Due to higher than expected volumes...". I'm sorry, but if it's been going on for at least a year, maybe more, it's not "higher than expected".

Also, telling me to use the phone system is not a solution - I can't get statements from the phone system etc.

My final point - when my account falls into negative, I get an emailed warning. If I haven't already paid by the time this warning arrives (I've noticed a lag inbetween travelling on tollway, beeps registering a negative amount, lodging a payment and it being reflected in my balance queries and tag beeps) I will pay on this warning before things go further and fines come into question. I have never been fined for not paying Citylink fees.
Ok.. it wasn't my final point :)
For some reason, even though I'm signed up to email notifications/statements, my account keeps being switched back to paper statements. Seems to me there's some bit of business logic afoot in the account management system that says if someone gets a warning notice that they want paper statements again. This is *not* a reasonable assumption, nor is it more effective - I check my email far more than I check my mailbox.

No, I am not interested in autodebit (given your website was hacked in the past and doesn't really seem to have had a lot of work done since then, my trust in storing my payment details with you is not exactly high).

On this score, your web form does not engage any techniques to defeat browser caching of credit card details.

Eg. My web browser seems to remember my credit card number from last time, and double clicking on the field for each quartet brings up the history for that field.

For someone paying their citylink bill online from a netcafe (if they can even log in), these details will be captured. Of course, it doesn't include their expiry, but it certainly reduces significantly the amount of information someone needs to acquire.

In short:
  • The incident vehicle response is excellent
  • Upgrade your accounting system infrastructure - it's not keeping up
  • This "minimum topup" business, going from $25 to $40 is a joke
    ... if my account is in debit, then I owe the amount that I'm in debit by. Adding $40 to everything "for my convenience" is not something I expect on an invoice. An invoice should reflect actual owing amount. This feels like a cheap move to conceal the delays in processing with the accounting system
  • I've selected email notification, don't keep switching it to post
  • I don't trust your ability to securely store my payment details for auto debiting
  • Your website doesn't prevent a browser from remembering an entered credit card number
For better or worse, Melbourne has a network of tollways in Citylink and Eastlink - the reality is that a lot of infrastructure these days is user-pays. I'm not arguing with that. I do, however, have an issue when all parts of the infrastructure I've paid for through taxes and through tolls on top of that is not maintained. Your accounting system is part of that infrastructure.

Anthony Hogan
**Account number redacted**
So tell me, am I the only person who's having these problems with Citylink accounting? Perhaps I am. I use Linux, so I thought maybe it's my browser setup, but I tried both Mozilla Firefox (one of the world's most popular browsers) and Google Chrome (Well, actually Chromium - which uses the webkit rendering engine, also very common) and experience the same symptoms either way. That still would only explain website access issues and not the delay in processing payments etc.

UPDATE: I got a response from Citylink. Basically they're well aware of the website issues and working on "a full re-build of the site, which is being worked on as a priority; however I don't have a date it will be completed". In the meantime they're patching the existing system to try and keep it going.

They're still pushing minimum topup as a convenience based upon increased toll charges and additional toll charge. I'm still thinking it's because their accounting system doesn't handle payments in real time... and there are provisions for smaller amount payments by credit card or cheque, so it's not set in stone.

Regarding security, the breach they had a few years ago was apparently from an internal database by a "previous employee who acted improperly and without authority. Only credit card numbers were obtained from an internal database. No names, expiry dates or other information was used or disclosed."

I'm glad they've admitted their web site needs work - but the "don't have a date it will be completed" is a concern.

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