Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Customer Service *The* Business Model

It used to be that software companies had real information about you and they picked up the phone when you called. But that was before “free”.

In this new era, software companies decided they could no longer provide customer service for free. This is logical, but it somehow got switched to “we can no longer provide customer service at all.” And this is where things have gone off the rails.

The recent controversy over Nick Saber’s Google accounts highlights the issue. Basically what happened is that Nick’s Google account, which spanned gMail, gTalk, Google docs, and Google Checkout was suspended.

Nick tried to reach Google, but to no avail. Google’s initial response was wholly inappropriate, and while a proper answer ultimately did surface – his Google Checkout (a payment service) had been compromised – the fact that Google responded at all was primarily a function of the fact that the blogosphere exploded with discussion about the issue. But my goal here is not to pin the tail on the Google donkey here, because the issue is a systemic, Internet-wide problem.

Indeed It is maddening that there is rarely a phone number made available to customers of Internet services. And as this most recent incident shows, when Google kills your account, or there is some other problem, there is little you can do. I have most of my interesting data, aside from code, in some Google repository somewhere. I trust them, but it is out of convenience, and not pure hard defensive logic. Unfortunately, I am sure there are many of you out there like me. And while most of my data is also on my computer, email and transactions and contacts and other records are inconvenient to do that with at all times. On some level I have to trust in Google.

And so what this got me thinking about was whether what Google, and most other Internet companies treat as a potential burden could actually be, if treated properly, a source of real revenue.

I, and I suspect most people who use Internet services for business, would be happy to pay for the privilege of being able to pick up the phone to deal with a real problem. As important data and services are offered through the Internet, being able to reach a human being who has the authority and capacity to solve problems is critical.

As I see it, the reason this has been an acceptable status quo for so long is in part a desire for anonymity, combined with the fact that so many Internet services are really considered to be more curiosities than really important productive tools. For most new services, who cares if I lose my account. And why would I ever give *them* my personal information. But a problem arises when the services really do matter.

Anonymity is a problem when it comes to customer service. This is particularly true when, as in Nick Saber’s case, the problem was tied to someone apparently having hacked his bank info. It is critical for such services that they actually have a real verifiable physical phone number and address. Obviously a hacker is unlikely to have access to your home, office, or cell phone.

The solution to this problem is to go back to the way things used to be. Our important service providers should know who we *really* are. They should have our contact information – outside the Internet. And we should pay for services, either on a per incident basis, or on an annualized basis. And services should include backups, recovery, and whatever else is appropriate. Given all the business model fail out there, I see no reason not to roll things back and start developing real, “un-anonymous”, money paying relationships with our important vendors.


  1. "being able to reach a human being who *has the authority and capacity to solve problems* is critical."

    That's very important too. In Spain you can still talk to a human being when something related to you mobile company happens.

    The problem is that the people on those call centres are *highly* unskilled and underpaid. Most of the times they don't help at all and sort of make things even worst.

    I don't think this is specific to internet companies but a problem of companies maximizing profits saving money from customer service to indecent limits. Emails they don't reply to, phones that leave you on hold for ages, under skilled personal... you name it.

  2. Some companies are trying to eliminate customer service through crowdsourcing and the use of volunteers in support forums, utilizing people who are passionate fans.


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