Google Apps

Google and customer service: The odd couple, but it's no joking matter

For the majority of the services it provides, Google's support is entirely digital, containing an array of links and input boxes for searching and heading straight to their help center. Kevin Purdy wonders if this system is adequate.

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.

Also read:

About

Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.

11 comments
spin498
spin498

Plain and simple. They want too much information and as stated in the article just close down accounts. Their answer to fix that issue? Give them a valid Credit Card (and suffer a small fee) or provide them with valid Gov't issued ID (WTF?) who do they think they are the World Police??

mail
mail

I have had a Gmail account since it started. This last year as they have expanded and changed systems, a person using a UK google mail account with the same user name has had emails come to mine. I have still not even found a way to let Google fix the problem as you stated the form circus is mind numbing. How much is this type of thing happening to others? I can't even forward the mail to the right person, it just comes back to me. And if that happens in the simple email ap, what is happening in the cloud based world with docs and such? By not even finding a person at google help to email to about it, it is frustrating. I saw this happen before in my career. A vendor used to be noted for 24/7 live parts and help. Corp got bought and cut services. Now it takes days to get help if lucky you can reach someone after computer phone assistance. Maybe we need to slow down and take a step back.

jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376
jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376

This might be OK for consumers who will put up with self service. But I don't think Google can ever hope to gain Enterprise trust with such poor service. Even small business would have to think twice. It just go to show you why paid services are just that. They provide better customer service usually.

Leafgreen
Leafgreen

I agree fully with Kevin. Further, Google attempts to coerce its users into having one account. I carefully avoid this and compartmentalize different Google services. If you doubt what Kevin and I say, just go to any of the help forums for Google's products, especially Adwords. You will see a huge number of posts of horror stories and pleas for help. You will see that about 5% of those pleas are answered, and mostly by volunteers (non-Google employees). Absolutely horrid, Google!

Computer Dave
Computer Dave

When I decided to use Postini for mail filtering at my company I wanted to ask some questions. It took me over a week of trying before I got any sort of a response. The basic reason for no response was my company is too small for Google to care about - I was told to go to one of their many re-sellers. I'm sure Postini was much more attentive before Google bought them. As for Mr. Monopoly's issues, I would encourage him to file suit. I'm sure there are more than a few maggots, I mean lawyers, who would love the exposure such a project would bring.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

They could take the M$ route and charge $250 just to pick up the phone. It's funny that many of the same things from this article are also true of M$ when you compare the cost of a M$ product to all of the free Google services. They both are terrible at support. At the same time it is hard to imagine supporting all of the people on all of the products available. You would need a support team for each appliction. This does not scale well.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Have you had to deal with (or the lack of) Google's customer service? Tells about your experience.

brent
brent

To be honest I don't take anyone serious that uses "M$" instead of "MS". Grow up. I'm not a Mircrosoft fan boy by any means (I run Linux and Mac OS), but really, you people that use $ in place of an S are annoying and aren't taken serious.

Justin James
Justin James

... with Microsoft I at least have a CHOICE to pay $250 for support. Oh, and Microsoft employees (and MVPs) actively read and respond to their forums, providing free support, unlike Google. Oh, and Microsoft lets someone buy a support contract so they can call when they need to, unlike Google. Oh, and when you DO talk to someone at Microsoft, they treat you like a paying customer, not the trash they stepped in on the way to work that morning like Google's support does. Google's awful support is a large part of the reason why I don't give them a dime or use any of their services unless forces outside my control compel me to do so. J.Ja

Leafgreen
Leafgreen

No, it's just irresponsible and selfish.

NetMammal
NetMammal

I signed up three years ago for adwords, and months later accidentally discovered that they had rejected my ads. Now let me make an aside here. Most people think they are Google customers because they use the search engine or Gmail. NO! You give them no money, they should not think of you as a customer. Sadly, paying them money (and wanting to pay them MORE money) did not seem to help. My business is too small for them to give me access to the 800 number. I think one of Google's problems is that they do not charge little customers like me enough money. I'd willingly pay ten times as much if they would just talk to me. Instead, I got drones responding to my questions with irrelevant answers cut and pasted out of their policies which are already on the web. (Which when you think of it is ironic: I already knew everything about my problem before I started asking, because I know how to use their search engine really well. Yet their answers left me with the feeling that they presumed I did not have a search engine to find answers with. I really never solved any of my problems, and I gave up. I would happily go with a competitor, but there are no viable ones yet. I use an Android phone, and have just gotten a second one. Stupid things that should just work (camera, screen saver, crashes/hangs) which were not a problem in the first phone are just awful in the second. Google is still in the 'can do no wrong' phase of mind-share, but it will eventually catch up to them.

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