Google has, so far, changed the way people look at the web, use their email, work online, and think about smartphones. In a more quiet fashion, they're changing how users of a service, free or paid, think about what they expect in customer service.
That's because, for the majority of the services Google provides, Google's support is entirely digital. Their "Contact us" page contains an array of links and input boxes for searching and heading straight to their help center. Nowhere on the page are the words "phone" or "call," and at every level you head deeper into the help center you're prompted at the top of the page to search out your specific issue.
Google Apps customers, at least those with paid Business or Education installations, can get more personal support, even 24 hours a day. But for most problems that a user might have with a Google service, you need to either submit the problem to the right product's help forums, or be smart enough in searching to find someone who's had the same problem.
As you might imagine, those on the wrong end of a Google problem can get pretty frustrated trying to tell an HTML form about their situation. Individuals, like Thomas Monopoly, can find their seven years' worth of Google data suddenly inaccessible. You can read Monopoly's account of how things went after that realization in this (very) extended tweet. Monopoly's account was reinstated, after a realization about a certain borderline image upload, but Monopoly's case was bolstered by widespread attention among tech watchers. Those without a story to tell are eventually directed to this page, then left to hope that an answer comes through.
The lack of personalized service wasn't always the way of things, but it seems Google intended from its earliest days not to let user support scale to any notable size. Early Google employee Douglas Edwards just published a book on his experience as the earliest non-engineer employee, I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.
In one section, excerpted by the Google Operating System blog, the experience of Max Erdstein, the only customer service employee back in 2000, is told. Erdstein was given a laptop, a copy of Outlook, and an inbox that was hopeless to try and keep up with. Google co-founder Sergey Brin suggested to Erdstein that responding to emails in general needed rethinking.
"To Sergey's thinking, responding to user questions was inefficient. If they wrote us about problems with Google, that was useful information to have. We should note the problems and fix them. That would make the users happier than if we wasted time explaining to them that we were working on the bugs. If users sent us compliments, we didn't need to write back because they already liked us. So really, wouldn't it be better not to respond at all? Or at best, maybe write some code to generate random replies that would be fine in most cases?"
That's at least a systematic approach to customer service, at least for a product that, in 2000, was limited to mostly search and advertising functions. But as Google grows into more areas of personal and business life, keeping a cool, aggregate-minded approach to service seems unlikely.
With the Google+ social network still in its incubation and testing phases, the search firm is catching flak for its sudden, unexplained account closures. Not just Google+, mind you, but the entirety of a Google account - Gmail, Docs, Calendar, and perhaps even Voice access. It's pretty painful for someone who, say, inadvertently tripped over a "real names, not brands" rule on Google+ to find themselves without email, documents, or even voicemail access.
It's funny, then, that computer maker Dell is considering Google+ Hangouts as a future option for customer support. On a more mind-bending level, consider what would happen if you were one of the earliest adopters of Google's self-driving cars, and something went amiss with your Google account. The "single point of failure" concept really hits home when you can't listen to your Google Music, or use Google Maps' Navigation, because of a photo someone uploaded to your Picasa account.
Any point to be made about Google's customer service eventually comes back around to a specific point: the overwhelming majority of users pay nothing for a wealth of often groundbreaking services. And Brin's point about the scalability of direct email response may be a valid path that other companies emulate. But computer users haven't changed their thinking about what service means as fast as Google has rethought what a user can do in their ecosystem.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.