Monday, August 22, 2005

They're Really Good At This (Except When They're Not)

While speculating as to how Google might spend $4 billion, the Washington Post shares the following:
"Why would they want to get into the customer service business?" said Michael J. Kleeman, a telecommunications industry expert who was chief technology officer for Cometa Networks, which undertook an earlier national Wi-Fi network effort. He noted that two-thirds of the costs involved in such retail businesses are in customer acquisition and support.

"When was the last time you called Google with a problem?" he said.
If Google really needs suggestions as to how to spend $4 billion, I can come up with a few.... But, as you probably figured out, I'm actually posting about the "customer service" issue.

Most people don't have to deal with Google's customer service, because they don't have issues that can be resolved by customer service. There's an advantage to being the last to enter a field, such as free online email, in that most people will be relatively comfortable with your product when it enters the market, and you can build an interface that people are not likely to find confusing based upon past experience. In that respect, perhaps Google could enter the "proactive customer service" market - helping companies design products and services (particularly in an online setting) which minimize the need for customer service.

But stop by Webmasterworld, and check out what people who actually deal with Google's customer service have to say about it. It isn't unusual to read criticisms of Google's non-responsiveness on certain issues, or suggestions that if you don't like the first answer you get, a second complaint can get you a different answer you may like better. Google tends to respond in "teams" rather than assigning an individual customer service representative to an issue, which probably exaggerates some of the discontent. They rely heavily upon form letter responses - understandable given the volume of feedback they process, and their goal of providing actual responses to as many inquiries as possible - which can be a bit frustrating when the response is too generic or when the customer service representative accidentally selects the wrong form letter response. And if email isn't good enough... where's the phone number? (And there is at least one minor service Google offers where its customer service representatives don't even seem to be familiar with the terms of use for that service.)

So obviously I think there are a few bumps that need to be ironed out before Google should get into the customer service industry. Which is not to say that their present system, warts and all, doesn't beat what a lot of other businesses hold out as "customer service" these days. The response to an inquiry is, in my experience, usually reasonably prompt (usually less than 24 hours during the work week), and is usually on topic. Sometimes the response is highly personalized. I am not aware of any company that would provide feedback this detailed and helpful in response to an inquiry by a webmaster who is, at least in my opinion, trying to game Google's system.

If Google can continue to refine and improve its system, though, there should be a market for it. My guess is that the team approach and standardized responses permit Google to respond to user problems a lot more quickly than a typical customer service department, and without the annoying "search through our poorly written, poorly indexed compilation of FAQ's, try to find one that is not out of date, and see if you can implement it before calling us"-type "support" that increasingly pervades the computer world, with additional support provided by a phone bank in a foreign nation. Customer support horror stories such as this one don't exactly make me want to run out and buy a Dell. And the comment,
dellman Says:
August 19th, 2005 at 2:41 am

Hi everyone, I work for Dell Tech Support.
Now I’m not here to advertise for Dell, because I think it was a bad move for them to downgrade the consumer side of business (Dell is mostly concentrating on the business/government side now). Everyone should do what Jeremy R has done [by paying extra for "Gold Level" support]. If you still like Dell, then they still have the best customer service; that is if you buy the Gold Support contract. It means you’ll talk to someone in the States, every technician is Microsoft Certified, there is 2 minutes or less queue wait-times (usually none), and we provide seamless support (we’ll support anything attached or installed on your Dell, then if we can’t solve it, we’ll conference in the 3rd party support for help).
is hardly reassuring - Dell offers several levels of support, but if you want one that is helpful even their own representatives suggest that you're throwing your money away unless you buy the most expensive support package? At least with the companies I have dealt with, which have offered similarly poor support service, I haven't paid extra for that support, let alone been told that despite buying a support package I can't expect decent support because I didn't pay enough.

If Mr. Kleeman is right, perhaps Dell can be Google's pilot project.

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