The comparison came to mind while reading an Ars Technica item about Google's problems with providing customer service for its Nexus One phone. According to the item, the Google Nexus One support forum is filled with complaints about problems in switching the device's connectivity from EDGE to 3G. Apparently, Google has provided no telephone number where customers can connect with a human, and e-mail responses are a day or two in coming.
No matter how simple and intuitive your products are, and Google is often lauded as a master of intuitive design, people are going to have questions or concerns that are best handled by a human being. I was reminded of a 2007 flap over Walmart's bluntly-named Customer Contact Reduction program. The giant retailer removed a customer-service telephone number from its Web site. It later restored it, but in a spot where only someone desperate and/or dogged enough to click on practically every link would find it. To be fair, I pointed out that Amazon is widely credited with pioneering the practice of "burying" customer service numbers deep within a Web site.
I got frustrated recently while trying to solve some problems with the iTunes store. It's run by Apple, which rules the customer-service roost. I couldn't access the store, presumably because I had opened an account a couple years ago and then used it sporadically at best. Sure, I appreciate that Apple was in theory looking out for my security. But if there was a simple way to solve this problem, I couldn't find it.
A tedious, drawn-out process ensued, involving several days of impersonal e-mail exchanges, during which my son begged me to help him buy songs for his new iPod nano. In the several times I've used the service since, it has twice denied my payment method, forcing me to (inexplicably and arbitrarily) switch between a credit card and my PayPal account. (And sent me scurrying each time to check those accounts, to make sure they hadn't been compromised.)
As I said in my post about Walmart, I know running call centers is expensive, so I can't fault companies for trying to shift more folks to self-service channels like Web sites. But that doesn't mean these channels can or should remove humans entirely from the process. I wrote:
... But I'd liken Web sites to 911 services. Many of the calls fielded by 911 personnel are inappropriate and just plain stupid. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of legitimate problems that truly cannot be solved without the intervention of a human being on the other end of a phone line.
Complaints on user forums are bad, in much the same way as complaints on Twitter and other social channels. They get you lots of bad publicity and feed a sense of collective anger and resentment. This makes me question Google's decision to handle direct sales for unlocked versions of Nexus One. Based on this item from Techie Buzz, forget trying to get Nexus One support help from carriers. One customer trying to get help from T-Mobile was reportedly told Google hadn't provided the carrier with any support documents.
Google knows it needs to improve its service. Android lead Andy Rubin said so in his interview at the All Things Digital conference. But how will the company do it? I've written in the past about rumors that it's difficult for Google divisions outside the company's flagship advertising business to get any quality time with senior executives. Perhaps because so many of its products are "free" to users, Google simply doesn't yet have a focus on customer service.