Web giants and the helpless individual

Web giants and the helpless individual

Summary: When these mass-market automated online services fail, the victims discover there's no information to be found anywhere as to what was the cause or what actions they should take. These web giants need to acknowledge the possibility of exceptions and treat individual users with respect.

TOPICS: Google, Browser

Like many users of technology today, I have developed an essentially dysfunctional approach when things don't work properly: I do whatever it takes to avoid fixing it. I wait to see if it 'fixes itself'. I make a workaround. I live with it till the next upgrade. Or I just use something else. It's only when I absolutely can't function without resolving the problem that I take a deep breath, grit my teeth, and embark on the quest to find a solution.

My worst nightmare is to find myself in the kind of situation frequently described in anguished blog posts by victims of Google, Amazon or eBay glitches and terminations. I've been collecting a few samples recently:

As is the norm when these mass-market automated online services fail, the victims discover there's no information to be found anywhere as to what was the cause, when normal service would be restored, or what actions they can take to resolve the problem. At least for Gray and Newsome, a Google support advisor posted an explanation to the customer service discussion thread some 20 hours after the problem first appeared, and it was resolved later the same weekend. The Google Apps user solved his 'kafkaesque' domain problem by going direct to the registrar, bypassing Google. Amy Hoy got her money back, but only because she was able to make a big fuss that got noticed:

"It was only because I was angry enough to write about it publically, and that there was a community who supported & propagated that post, that I got this resolution. I have no doubt that if I just emailed Google, it would have gone ignored... I would have received empty form letters in response, and no action. Based on other people's experiences (just search for 'em), this seems to be the standard MO."

The common theme with all these stories is a fundamental flaw with the business model of cloud services, which is predicated on fully automated systems — fine when everything works as expected, but not fine when the failure is unexpected, unbudgeted or involves parameters the developer didn't think of when the system was designed. At least with cloud services, you can often hope that an operational problem will indeed 'fix itself', because the cloud provider may well be working behind the scenes to correct the fault. In that respect, it's better than when I have a recurring problem on my own PC, where the only resolution to expect is that it will cascade to a worse fault that I can't put off fixing (in which case I'll end up stuck in an automated support purgatory at Microsoft or HP's website). But if the cloud problem is a mission critical fault like a lost RSS feed or a failed payment service, then you can't afford to wait — and if the root cause is an account problem rather than something in the infrastructure, that's where the cloud model really falls down.

What these web giants need is an automated customer response system that acknowledges the possibility of exceptions. Instead of setting out to eliminate all human contact, they should explicitly allow for human interaction to investigate and resolve those problems that the system's designers haven't allowed for. Each problem resolved should then be analyzed to see how it can be eliminated by enhancing the automation — thus the human intervention becomes part of an iterative self-healing process through which the automation adapts to experience. It'll cost more in the short-term, but long-term, it'll enhance customer satisfaction and sales.

Another way to keep costs down is to do a better job of integrating online and community help systems — and being open about their capabilities and limitations. I know from my own experience that I'm often reluctant to investigate a problem online because I'm not familiar with the online process, which breeds mistrust. How long will it take to get a response? Will it answer my question? What do I do if it doesn't? I was impressed earlier this year with a briefing from community help platform provider Helpstream, which allows vendors to set business rules so that, for example, a question posed to the community can be converted into a case for resolution by an agent if it hasn't been answered within two hours, or if the originator isn't satisfied with the response. It is also working on processes that automatically monitor community respoonse and its effectiveness, for example by measuring satisfaction levels for specific pieces of advice.

More than any of these acts, though, the most constructive change would be to get rid of the mindset that leads these Web giants to belittle the circumstances of its 'consumers'. Is it unreasonable of us to expect to be notified if our account is being cancelled, or to want to know how long you think is acceptable for us to have to wait for a satisfactory answer to a support request? We are individuals — many of us with serious business dependencies relying on our usage of your services — and if you don't treat us with respect then sooner or later we'll take our patronage elsewhere.

Topics: Google, Browser

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • This is why backups are soo important.

    Do not rely on any one service wholey. Have a backup plan ready for action just incase there is an issue.

    It does cost money, but when the shit hits the fan... its nice to have an umbrella.

    For google checkout, she could of had a payment processing gateway available sitting in the background or even a paypal account and coding to send to it sitting on an alternative page she could instantly activate.

    When its your business.. than its your business to have a backup plan.

    People need to stop relying soley on other people. i know in this technological world it sometimes becomes the norm... but if its a critical process you need to have your ducks lined up and ready to march.
  • The downside of "nearly free"

    One of the problems with services that are nearly free is that customer service is nearly non-existent, and that's not coincidence.

    When a customer's value is trivial to the supplier, then you should forget about any chance of personal service.

    Cheap broadband, self service credit cards, discount mobile telephony - we love 'em! 'till they go wrong. Then you do what you do with those $5 T Shirts - throw them in the bin and move on.

    John Paterson
    <blog contrarythinking.wordpress.com>
  • RE: Web giants and the helpless individual

    For the reasons mentioned in the article and privacy issues, I don't use any of Google's services, not even its search engine.
  • Shame On Google

    Recently Google removed their tag phrase "Do No Evil", and not a moment too soon. Google is rotten to the core. Their GoogleAds tool is a rip-off and their customer service is Dilbert-esque. Isn't there anyone out there that can do a better job? In my latest experience with Google they shut down a campaign I was running with no notification of any kind, and then when I contacted them I was given a vague answer that is was a "security issue" they were investigating. I was promised an answer "shortly" but my campaing remained frozen for 3 days. Then mysteriously the ads resumed, without any explanation. They are still promising me an explanation 7 days later. Do you think I'm ever going to get one? I doubt it. Not only that but you don't even get a support tracking ID. Somebody please put these jokers out of business. Meanwhile you should make sure that your company has multiple vendors for fail-over protection.
  • Google Maps not the Territory

    We ran into this not-so-benign problem at the beginning of the year and it's still not rectified.

    Since 1971 my company's been located on the intersection of a loop with a main state road.

    Google Maps, which last autumn displayed our location properly, suddenly showed us nearby the end of a cul-de-sac, the loop now truncated.

    Truck deliveries and emergency vehicles, such as police, have been misdirected.

    Tele-Atlas, which feeds Google and GPS devices, has not corrected the problem after three emails since the beginning of the year to their automated system.

    JJ Brannon
    • Thanks Google Maps

      I was late for a Job interview because Google Maps was way off. The owner of the restaurant has been trying to get them to change it for months. Thanks Google !
  • It does cut both ways...

    I think that we, as the individual users, let ourselves begin to think that the operators of these online services, many of which are free, are infallible, or that we could ever expect them to be error free. It's as if we all forgot all the troubles we have with the programs on our hard drives because we are accessing programs through our browsers. These big companies are as screwed up, if not moreso, than we are as consumers.

    On the other hand, it does seem many times that groups such as the "Googleopoly" think of their users as merely the final stage of a fully automated system, as if we are the "Application Layer" of their OSI stack, which leads either to apathy or worse, the thought that the user is something which needs to be "Fixed".

    I fear sometimes that they will have to tick off a sufficient number of individuals before they realize that ALL of their users are individuals and not some monolithic block of robotic parts which support their business.
    ReadWryt (error)
  • RE: Web giants and the helpless individual

    I work for an IT hosting and service provider. We calculated that if we get a customer contact then it costs on average about $10 to handle it, but this is only achieved when there is an optimized and even load on the Helpdesk. If you were Amazon or Google and get those massive problems with suddenly millions of people not getting their service you just could not handle them with traditional Helpdesk (e-mail, phone, chat) support...even if you outsource it to India.

    So something else is needed, but can be done.

    Another important factor of customer support is that people are always much more patient if they know what is going on and when the service is expected to be OK. This is the "lift effect". :-) If you get a chance examine people waiting for lifts that have dashboards showint the floor the lift is currently on and to what direction it is moving. They wait for it calmly, sometimes cursing, but still calmly. Whereas with lifts that don't have those dashboards...well their call-buttons get a lot of pushing.
  • Add Facebook to the giants list...

    Add Facebook to that list. My team developed a Facebook app for adding custom tattoos to users' profile pics, which was becoming fairly popular and well-rated. One day Facebook simply deleted the app without warning, citing a vague policy violation related to misusing the term "wall." Several attempts to contact Facebook support yielded no further explanation or appeal which could be made on our part.
  • Facebook is not exempt, either

    Same with Facebook. Facebook appears to have an incredible bug where a new account can be opened using the email address of an existing account. Then the old account goes into never-never land. There are many people on www.getsatisfaction.com with this problem. I was lucky that mine was fixed in a week. There are lots of interesting Google problems reported there, too.
  • email on Verizon.net

    Verizon's webmail system is designed by programmers too arrogant to consider that your problem with their system might be anything other than your ignorance. Pages have dead links. Emails already marked and quarantined as spam delivered to your screen anyway.
    Attempts to contact a webmaster lead through pages of FAQs and tutorials about basic web use. There is no facility for notifying them that their web page is defective, because their web page couldn't possibly be at fault.
  • Does the cloud really have a future ?

    Sure, we are relying on lots of online applications. Arguably though the keyword is 'rely' - if the application provider cannot ensure the reliability, or cannot react properly to failures, I sure cannot entrust those guys with anything important. And this doesn't even consider the privacy issues.