Spotty Customer Service Haunts Free 'Cloud' Services

Gmail Fail Underscores Consumer Dilemma That You Get What You Pay For

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NEW YORK ( -- Jennifer Culhane, like many people, conducts much of her internet life through sites and services such as Facebook and Gmail. So when she realized a hacker had infiltrated her Facebook account, traveled into her Gmail account and started forwarding mail to a third account, she was devastated. Then her hacker started sending Facebook messages to friends saying she'd been robbed at gunpoint in London and needed money, fast.

What she really needed was help, fast. But she ran into the same problem many folks have with services that live in the "cloud": In the cloud, no one can hear you scream.

These "cloud" computing services -- generally free applications that exist on the web such as Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, AIM, Wordpress, etc. -- are now woven into the lives of just about everyone on the web. But what happens when there's a problem, or as happened to Gmail last week, it simply breaks down? The Gmail outage left leaving tens of millions of people without e-mail for 100 minutes; complaints about it no doubt contributed to Twitter locking up, too.

In an age when consumers broadcast their experiences with products and services -- on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere -- businesses have come to see customer service itself as a form of marketing. But in the cloud, the economics simply don't support one-to-one communication. "When you have tens of millions of users, and they aren't paying anything, it isn't scalable to have people answering phones to try to help them," said Google enterprise spokesman Andrew Kovacs.

The rule in the cloud is the majority of problems can be fixed by the user with a careful reading of the FAQ page. Some also try to crowd-source fixes by grouping complaints and related solutions online, or by outsourcing tech problems to their more enthusiastic users.

Shelling out
That's fine for the vast majority of people who appreciate the service and the fact that it's free. But will it still be fine when they ask consumers to spend money, such as through the payment system Facebook is testing, or Google Checkout? Or when Google tries to wrest another business or university out of the clutches of Microsoft and into enterprise versions of its cloud apps?

Only in the rarest instance will the problem merit a phone call. To do otherwise would be to further scuttle the business model (real or imagined) on which these services depend. Consider that Facebook has 250 million-odd registered users and 850 or so employees. That's a ratio of nearly 300,000 to 1. DirecTV, by contrast, has 26 million customers worldwide and 13,000 employees, or a ratio of 2,000 to 1. And rarely is a customer-service number part of the bargain in the free-conomy.

Consumers are less reliant on the phone today than even two years ago, but "when consumers are really angry, the phone is important," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP-Nielsen Online. "If you want to stem the viral tide, the phone is a shock absorber."

More and more, companies inside and outside the cloud are taking a more scientific -- and yes, cheaper -- approach. Intuit refers questions to a community of experts on its software, in part because it's cheaper but also because they believe the answers are better. "For small business, it's more useful to have someone from your own industry answer your question," said Scott K. Wilder, general manager of Intuit's small-business division.

Mr. Kovacs said 90% of Google's consumer problems are best handled online anyway and it has a staff monitoring complaints for "edge cases," or those can on very rare occasions, trigger a call. How often? "Not often, and we want it never to happen," he said.

Paying customers
For $50 a year Google offers its "premier edition," which includes phone support, added security, more storage and a guarantee of 99.9% uptime. But paying Google Storage customer Staci D. Kramer, co-editor of ContentNext Media, still found herself out of luck when her debit-card number was stolen this summer and changing it caused a payment lapse. That triggered a shutdown of her Gmail account, which took 24 hours to restore after Google had accepted her payment.

"We are all used to Google doing things fast: Google took the money right away, but it took 24 hours to apply to Gmail," she said. "I'll buy the argument you don't have to support free services by phone. I do not buy the idea that you should slough off paying customers."

In Ms. Culhane's case, Facebook reacted quickly and shut down her account after one of her friends smelled foul play; Google responded with a form letter. "The problem came with Gmail; all they kept sending me was a form letter," she said.

Ultimately, it may be the services that best handle customer care get the upper hand, much like Zappos and Amazon in e-commerce -- and that if you want to talk to someone, you'll have to pay for that, along the lines of Apple's AppleCare.

Or, in the cloud, as it is on Earth, you get what you pay for.

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