October 8, 2008

Why is It Impossible to Contact Google By Telephone?

By Rhodri Marsden


The competition for worst customer support is a fiercely contested one, particularly in the field of technology. Of course, the complexity of gadgets, gizmos and software guarantees that there's going to be more demand for post-purchase hand-holding than if you'd bought a pair of ill-fitting trousers. But while we've all had tense phone conversations with support staff while staring incomprehensibly at a computer screen, we don't even get that dubious pleasure with the internet giants - the eBays, the Facebooks, the Yahoos and the Googles.

'The New York Times' reported this week on the efforts of their readers to phone Google to resolve problems with their GMail service. After their emails went unanswered, they scoured the website for a contact number - but to no avail. Because if you come unstuck with one of the big online services, this is the procedure: press a "Help" button; read a page of Frequently Asked Questions which doesn't actually contain your question; frustratedly seek other people with the same problem to reassure yourself that you're not being stupid. Their attitude to customer support: there's no question you could possibly ask that isn't covered in our online documentation; if you can't suss it out, you'd be unlikely to get much help from an underpaid call-centre worker, so we haven't employed any; and if there's something wrong with the site, we knew about it before you did, so there's no point in telling us. We're dealing with it."

Major sites are either terrified of offering phone support, or feel that services they are providing for free don't warrant it - but we're still valued customers, aren't we? eBay and Flickr have an email form. GMail have a "Help Center", but no way of contacting them unless you'd like to "suggest a feature". MySpace has a "contact us" link that informs you that "your question probably already has an answer". Paypal do offer telephone support, although they position a "virtual assistant" called Louise between you and the number to dial. "Even though I'd like to be a real person, I'm not," she says. "How can I help you?" I told Louise that I'd like to speak to a human being. "My software allows me to speak with you," she replied. Eventually, I did get the phone number - but 5 minutes of labyrinthine voice menus left me no nearer humanity than with Louise. Perhaps she represents the future of customer service. But I certainly hope not.

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