Gmail's lack of customer service is its biggest shortcoming.

Gmail's lack of customer service is its biggest shortcoming.

Gmail's lack of customer service is its biggest shortcoming.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
May 26 2011 5:52 PM

Your Call Is Not Important to Us

Free Web applications are great, but don't expect good customer service when they break.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I've never been shy about declaring my feelings for Gmail. Two years ago I called it "the best email program ever." Last summer, when Google launched Priority Inbox, a feature that automatically identifies important messages, I poured on even more praise. But even those fulsome declarations of love don't quite describe the depth of my commitment to Google's email application. I check Gmail a million times a day. It's not just that I spend more time on Gmail than I do with any other program or website—I spend more time on Gmail than I do with television, books, magazines, and my wife and kid.

And yet, Gmail is letting me down. Every day, it fails in some small but painful way. For one thing, it has gotten incredibly slow. The problem first began to crop up late last year, and over the last couple months it's become a wreck. On a good day, Gmail's search box takes five seconds to respond to my queries; on a bad day it takes 15 to 20. The same is true for opening up different email folders—nowadays when I click to switch from my Inbox to my Starred folder, I go off to read the newspaper to give Gmail time to process the request. I've added Google's Calendar widget to the left pane of my Gmail box, but half the time I see a network error message where it should be.

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What's wrong with Gmail? Is the trouble on my end or Google's? Are these issues widespread, or am I the only one affected? I have no idea. I've turned to the site's help pages, but they were unhelpful. I've complained many times on Twitter, and I've seen others complain as well—TechCrunch's MG Siegler is my brother-in-Gmail-carping—but no one at Google has come to my rescue. A couple months ago someone in Google's PR department offered to have their engineers look into the problem for me, but I was told that an investigation revealed nothing technically amiss. That didn't make sense, but I didn't press my case with Google's PR folks. I wasn't looking for special treatment. Instead, I want the standard, universally accepted way to ask for help from our corporate overlords: I want a phone number.

And that's the one thing Gmail can't give me. For most people, Gmail is a free service (some businesses pay for Gmail through Google Apps accounts, and Google also lets individuals pay for extra storage—which I do). It's astonishing to think that we get so much from Gmail in return for so little. Google makes money on Gmail—from what I hear, it makes a profit—by running ads around your messages. It's a brilliant business model—until, that is, you encounter a problem, especially one that requires deep technical assistance to solve. Who are you gonna call when something gets screwed up? No one.

Screengrab of Google's free email service Gmail.

It's not just Gmail. This is the grand bargain of Web software. We run more and more of our lives on free sites online. Many of these sites are indispensible—in addition to Gmail, I can't live without Google Voice, which I use to handle all my phone calls, and Mint.com, which I use to manage my finances. But these sites support themselves through ads, and ad-based businesses only work at huge scale. Gmail has 193 million users, and it's still growing. Customer service, on the other hand, can't scale. Google wouldn't be able to make any money on Gmail if it allowed anyone who encountered a problem to call up tech support. If you have a problem with a free service and you've worn your fingers to the bone searching the Web for an answer, there's often very little you can do about it. You get what you pay for, after all.

For months, I've been having a similarly terrible problem with Mint, a site that tracks your finances by connecting with all of your bank accounts to monitor what's happening with your money. My own Mint account hasn't been doing this very well—it's been persistently unable to connect with my retirement account, and it's had intermittent problems connecting with my main checking account. I searched for help on Mint's online forum, where loyal fans often assist one another, but I couldn't get any answers. Late in May and then again early in April, I submitted a description of my problem using Mint's tech support online form. I got a couple of unhelpful responses—one message told me that my problem had been solved, and another asked me to follow the on-screen prompts to fix my problem, which I'd been doing all along. (As it happens, I didn't see either response until later—the messages ended up in my Gmail spam folder. Thanks, Gmail!)

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So next I did what I often do when I'm having trouble with a free Web service: I complained on Twitter. It worked! I got an answer from @MintSupport, the company's customer-service Twitter account, and then an email from Stephen Mann, who's in charge of customer care for Mint and Quicken (both are owned by Intuit). Mann was gracious and extremely helpful. He put his engineers on the problem, and after a few hours and several back-and-forth emails, he'd resolved it. I was grateful but suspicious. Was Mann helping me because I'm a journalist? Would everyone get this treatment?

Probably, but it depends on how important Mint considers your problem to be. Mint has about 6 million registered users, and Mann says that it gets about 1,000 tech-support requests a day. He's got a staff of 30 people to deal with this deluge, and when I chatted with him, I have to say Mann sounded a bit overwhelmed. About three-quarters of the complaints Mint gets are about the exact problem I had—connection difficulties between Mint and financial institutions. Mann's team recently put in place some filters to automatically route complaints like these to engineers, but this method doesn't always seem to work—in my case, for instance, an engineer thought he'd fixed my problem, which is why I'd gotten a response saying my issue was solved. Considering the volume of tech questions it gets, Mann's team seems to do a pretty good job of staying on top of things. He says his staff responds to a service complaint in an average of 17 hours, and they resolve connection problems in about three days, on average.

Mann says that there have been times when people on his staff have spent many hours fixing a single customer's problems, but those are unusual cases. "There is a priority consideration based on Mint's user population," he says, meaning that if you're having a problem connecting with a big, popular bank—a problem that's likely to affect a lot of different Mint users—there's a better chance you'll get help. You'll have problems, though, if your problem is more unusual. "If one user is getting an error and they're with a small credit union that has a population of 15 users on Mint, there's a good chance that that user, unfortunately, will see a longer fix time," Mann says.

This matches Google's tech-support philosophy, too. "The design point for customer service is one-to-many versus one-to-one," says Matt Glotzbach, the director of product management for Google Apps. What he means is that Google devotes most of its efforts to building a great online support system—help pages, problem-solving wizards, and discussion forums—that are likely to help the majority of problems that users encounter. "Most issues are not unique to an individual—given the scale at which we operate, it's very rare that we see something that's affecting only one user," Glotzbach says.

I asked Glotzbach what people should do when they've exhausted these methods. What should I do, for instance, about my ever-slowing Gmail speed—is there any way I could get a Google support person on the task to find a definitive fix for my issue?

Goltzpach noted that there is a way to send a support request to Google's staff, but that wouldn't result in someone at Google personally taking on my problem (I knew that; my previous requests haven't helped). What else could I do? Start paying. "It's a difficult answer because my goal would be that as a power user you shouldn't need to go pay, but your situation falls on the line—the type of service you're looking for is as a business-related, mission-critical service, and we offer that for $5 per month." Among the benefits of paying: 24/7 phone support.

I'm considering that option. Those who don't want to pay, though, may be out of luck—there are some problems you'll encounter with free, ad-supported software that you'll never get help for, no matter how hard you tweet about it.