Saturday, October 04, 2008

Reconsidering Google: life without customer service

We have a lot of our personal data invested in Google.

Gigabytes of email. Gigabytes of photos. Thousands of blog postings. Six Google Apps domains, including our family domain and Minnesota Special Hockey. Maps. Googe group posts. Google Notebook items. The Family Calendar. Contacts.

A lot of stuff. Stuff tied to a single user name and password.

With no customer service ..
Digital Domain - Can’t Open Your E-Mailbox? Good Luck -

... If you’re a Gmail user, what you’ll want to do after a few more unsuccessful, increasingly frantic attempts is to speak with a Google customer support representative, post haste. But that’s not an option. Google doesn’t offer a toll-free number and a live person to resolve the ordinary user’s problems.

Discussion forums abound with tales of woe from Gmail customers who have found themselves locked out of their account for days or even weeks. They were innocent victims of security measures, which automatically suspend access if someone tries unsuccessfully to log on repeatedly to an account. The customers express frustration that they can’t speak with anyone at Google after filling out the company’s online forms and waiting in vain for Google to restore access to their accounts.

Tom Lynch, a software entrepreneur who lives near Austin, Tex., discovered early last month that he had been locked out of both Gmail accounts he used; he had no idea why. He received boilerplate instructions for recovering his accounts that did not apply to his particular circumstances, which included his failing to maintain a non-Gmail e-mail account as a back-up. He said it took him four weeks, including the use of a business directory and talking with anyone he could find at Google, before he succeeded in having service restored....

... Google does provide phone support to Gmail customers who subscribe to Google Apps Premier Edition, which costs $50 annually and includes larger storage quotas and other benefits. Customers who use the advertising-supported version of Gmail, however, must rely solely on what Google calls “self-service online support.”...

... Last month, with cases like Mr. Lynch’s in mind, I contacted Google to see what the company had to say about my suggestion that it add phone support for its customers with account-related problems. The company returned with a debate team of three to argue the negative position: Matthew Glotzbach, who works with Google’s business customers; Roy Gilbert, who handles consumers; and Greg Badros, who is an engineering director.

Mr. Glotzbach began by saying that “one-to-one support isn’t always the best answer” because it would take Google too long to collect lots of data about a problem that is affecting many users simultaneously.

For systemic problems, data collection is important. But not for other categories. Account recovery could be slow for a locked-out customer who doesn’t have a backup e-mail account, and who declined to provide a security question and answer because of concerns that someone else could use it to get in (which is what someone did to Gov. Sarah Palin’s Yahoo Mail account).

Mr. Badros argued that Google asks so little personal information of a new Gmail customer that it’s hard to determine identity when the genuine user and the impostor both present themselves to claim the account, and neither can produce the verification. He said more information could be asked of users when they sign up, but the inconvenience would dissuade them from trying the service.

Mr. Gilbert added that proving identity with only minimal information is a problem, whatever form of communication is used to reach customer support. He said, “Even if they were standing right in front of us, it wouldn’t help.”

THIS makes sorting out competing claims seem permanently hopeless, when, of course, this is not the case; it simply means that standard security questions will not suffice. But if Google were to use real people to sort out identity problems over the phone, the only remaining consideration would be the one that Google’s panel of experts didn’t mention in our talk: cost.

Google says it has “tens of millions” of Gmail customers. (It declines to be more specific.) If it’s willing to consider phone support for account-access emergencies, it can take heart in the example of Netflix, which last year adopted phone support with enthusiasm, replacing online support completely. For all customers. For all problems. And without resorting to an offshore call center.

It turns out that a staff of 375 customer service representatives are enough to handle calls from Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, answering most calls within a minute. Netflix says with justifiable pride that it has received the top ratings in online retail customer satisfaction by both Nielsen Online and ForeSee Results....
I pay Google for extra storage for my Gmail and Picasa Web Album accounts, but that still doesn't get me any customer service.

As noted above there is customer service associated with upgraded Google App accounts, but the price is $50/user/year. So $200 for our family. The commercial Google Apps accounts are really aimed at corporations; they aren't a reasonable solution for families.

We do get free Google Apps Educational/Non-Profit service for our Minnesota Special Hockey site (free upgrade for non-profits). I can confirm the email response is very fast. You get corporate-grade support.

I don't believe the line in the article about "no falsely recovered accounts". The world doesn't work that way. There are no perfect tests. If Google really hasn't had any "falsely recovered accounts" that means they have shut out thousands of legitimate account owners.

On the other hand, kudos to this journalist for noting that anyone who fears losing their account won't use Google's obscenely inane security question, but if you don't answer the question then you have no hope of account recovery. (I've gone to my Gmail account and answered the question with a password-like string I now store with in my backed-up password database.)

Google should offer a support service with enhanced user authentication procedures for a fee of $25 a year, and bundle it with an extra 5-10GB of storage.

If they don't do that, I'm going to have to reevaluate my Google relationship.

Update: I reviewed after reading this story.

Google has added a lot of new features to the Google Account information since I created my account years ago. I changed the security question to "what is your secondary google password?" and gave it a 50 character generated random hex string.

I then added additional email addresses that I control through my DreamHost domain and completed all the "optional" identity related questions. These email addresses are distinct from whatever extra email addresses may have been defined in Gmail settings. These addresses are associated directly with the Google account. They may act like a kind of merged identity.

I use unique passwords on the two external services. One is outside of Google completely, the other is in a distinct Google Apps account. So for now I feel a bit better. I appreciate the warning!

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