Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Google Support Story

This blog post is a critical piece about the Google Apps Premium Edition support experience. I describe the interaction I had, comment on my reaction and provide some humble suggestions to Google about how they could possibly do better.

Firstly, some caveats and context:
  • I am a Google fan. I have moved my blogs to Blogger, I am building an application on Google App Engine and I use Google Apps with great success for my requirements. So any criticisms I make I hope are constructive and a mere prelude to changes already in the pipeline.
  • I own a Premium Google Apps account that services only 2 users - one of which is for testing only. My experience may have been a lot different if I administered a domain for 10,000 or even ten users. I am a small-fry customer, but a paying customer nonetheless.
  • Both of the support issues I have raised (and I have only raised 2 issues to Google) have been resolved. I am not sure to what extent Google played a part of the resolution or even if serendipity was involved (and that is a part of the problem).
  • I hope neither of my support cases were trivial or otherwise hard to resolve. I certainly put in a good attempt to both read the Google documentation for Apps and try various approaches to resolving my problems myself. But especially with cloud-based services, there are not a lot of moving parts that you can examine as an end user or administrator.
With those notes out of the way, let me begin to describe the Premium Google Apps support experience. The substance of my support problems are not really relevant, so I will not go into detail about that.
  1. The Support heading on the "Manage Your Domain" control panel is obvious and easy to find. Clicking on it provides some links to resources for administrators and links for email and phone support for specific service groupings. Importantly, this page also contains a 'customer PIN' and a 'support PIN' only available to Premium and Education editions. From our point of view, it is interesting to note that the experience I am describing uses those PIN numbers for a Premium edition support experience. Do not ask me about the experience to be had when requesting support for the free version of Google Apps (it is presumably worse, or slower).
  2. The email and phone support links open to a new window containing more ways you might provide yourself with self-service specific to those applications, including links to settings documentation and links to the Help Center and Help Forums searches and voting for new features. Assuming your answer is not found within those resources, you can click on another link to 'Email a technical specialist'.
  3. This last link reveals a standard HTML form that allows you to identify yourself, how you may be contacted and the nature of your problem. Various radio buttons and drop down menus attempt to categorise your problem. You are asked how to reproduce the issue. Finally you can enter your PINs at the bottom of the screen. My PINs are currently populated with the correct values by default, but on my first visit I had to copy them from the previous Premier Edition support page described at step 1. Assuming you reach this stage, you faithfully provide a full and complete description of your problem. For someone like me who has had some experience providing application support I go to a lot of effort to include all the relevant information.
  4. Once you submit the form you immediately receive an automatic email from Google acknowledging your problem. This is where the Google process begins to show some warts. The email comes laden with the same links to resources that might resolve the issue, just in case you missed them in your haste to raise the issue directly with Google. It also includes an issue or ticket number, which is nice since it shows that somewhere in the Google support system your issue exists and will not be forgotten or misplaced.
  5. What happens next? You do not know. The email includes no information to set your expectations about how long you might need to wait before your issue can be looked into. The email contains no information about how Google may get in touch with you or even if they will. In one of my experiences, a support engineer did write me an email the following day. I tried to correspond with the engineer about the problem, but my last email met no reply. In the other experience, just recently, no one got in touch. My problem was resolved, but I do not know whether my Premium Edition support provided the solution, whether it was a glitch in the system that was later resolved or whether another mechanism entirely was to thank.
There is no more support experience to describe. I managed to get around the first problem and the second was somehow resolved. But the experience was not a postive one. The support conversation I had with Google started and ended with me describing the problem. It is possible that I received a large amount of support engineer time (relatively speaking), but I have no way to know that. I waited for a resolution, and no one let me know whether it could not be or was resolved. Even now, I do not know the status of either of my issues with Google.

This is a problem.

Ironically, my understanding of best practice support was crystalised recently when I read (well, listened to) the Jeff Jarvis book What Would Google Do. Support is a conversation, but Google does not treat it like such. Support is something you need to have in order to provide a paid service - that is the impression I receive. Google is trying it's utmost to move into the paid enterprise cloud service space, which is a big change for them in terms of the support expectations. And they are getting it wrong by not providing a proper end-to-end support process that involves the customer in a conversation.

To be clear: I am not complaining about not recieving a specific service level from Google. Maybe the days I had support problems also saw large deployments of Google Apps have specific large scale interruptions. May half the office - whichever one it was- was at a conference. I am reasonable and can accept that problems need to be triaged and prioritised, and worked through when possible with available resources. Where Google support has problems it begins with the process.

The Google process is not transparent and does not ensure either quality in support provison or end user satisfaction. How could it, when Google does not as a standard finish the conversation started by the customer? These are my recommendations for Google for any of the products that they supply email or greater levels of support:
  • Include in your acknowledgement of a support issue being raised an indication of what next steps the user should expect. Will a Google specialist always get in touch? Set expectations around resolution delivery time. If issues are generally taking 3 days to resolve, let me know up front so I can plan appropriately. I'll find out anyway, so you may as well be the one to break the news. I will respect you for it.
  • Let me find out what the status of my issue is. I do not want to guess. I already have a problem with your service. Do not compound it by causing me additional uncertainty about whether the problem has been looked at yet, is under review or that Google believe it is solved and closed. Bear in mind that although I trust Google, if can not check the status of the problem I may wonder as the days pass whether Google might have completely ignored it. A technical solution would not be ground-breaking. In fact, I have seen much smaller cloud-based service providers with simple and quite satisfying dashboards that let me track the status of any issue that raise. Why can't Google provide something similiar?
  • Let me know when you change the status of the issue on your side. If it is progressing from initial triage to a support department's queue that will be a measurable sign of progress for me. If you request information from me to help me resolve the problem, let me know that the issue is now waiting for me. If you believe the problem is resolved and you close it on your side, let me know. Again, this is not rocket science, and can be done with minimal effort by support engineers by adding some automatic email notifications. I took the time to document a problem with your service, you can at least let me know how you are going in resolving it.
  • But please, before you close the support issue, check with me that I think the problem is resolved. Too often companies (and not necessarily Google) close support issues when they believe the problem is resolved. But the only person who can really confirm the support issue is resolved is the person who raised it. The pragmatic fact is that support engineers, especially dealing with large workloads and sometimes repetitive complaints commonly misinterpret the actual problem. Support personnel of cloud-based services need to be especially wary as the service and the environment in which it operates is changing all of the time. Maybe my problem is routine, but maybe it is something new altogether. Ask me if your solution has solved my problem. Again, this is not a brand new approach. It can be easily automated. A policy can be put in place to prevent abuse. This one change - asking your user if his problem is solved will dramaticly and rapidly provide a very high level of both quality assurance and customer satisfaction.
Google is not alone is having a support process (in this case, for its Premium Edition Apps product) that is less than perfect. In this case, more transparency and interaction with the customer would fix the problem. Transparency in support is not something to be afraid of. Rather it is a benefit and a point of value. Along the way, your support processes and outcomes will be improved just through the act of making it more visible.

I am a Google fan. And I would like Google to improve this part of its service. Both Google and its customers would benefit.

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