Can’t Open Your E-Mailbox? Good Luck

LOGGING on to Gmail or other e-mail service has become a routine of daily life, completed without a thought. What would you do, however, if you woke up tomorrow, plugged in your user name and password as you always do, but then received an unfamiliar message: “User name and password do not match”?

If you’re a Gmail user, what you’ll want to do after a few more unsuccessful, increasingly frantic attempts is to speak with a Google customer support representative, post haste. But that’s not an option. Google doesn’t offer a toll-free number and a live person to resolve the ordinary user’s problems.

Discussion forums abound with tales of woe from Gmail customers who have found themselves locked out of their account for days or even weeks. They were innocent victims of security measures, which automatically suspend access if someone tries unsuccessfully to log on repeatedly to an account. The customers express frustration that they can’t speak with anyone at Google after filling out the company’s online forms and waiting in vain for Google to restore access to their accounts.

Tom Lynch, a software entrepreneur who lives near Austin, Tex., discovered early last month that he had been locked out of both Gmail accounts he used; he had no idea why. He received boilerplate instructions for recovering his accounts that did not apply to his particular circumstances, which included his failing to maintain a non-Gmail e-mail account as a back-up. He said it took him four weeks, including the use of a business directory and talking with anyone he could find at Google, before he succeeded in having service restored.

A Google spokesman placed the blame on Mr. Lynch, saying he did not follow Google’s guidelines. The spokesman characterized Mr. Lynch’s ordeal as a praiseworthy illustration of Google’s tough security: “We have had no cases of falsely recovered accounts.”

Google does provide phone support to Gmail customers who subscribe to Google Apps Premier Edition, which costs $50 annually and includes larger storage quotas and other benefits. Customers who use the advertising-supported version of Gmail, however, must rely solely on what Google calls “self-service online support.”

Microsoft and Yahoo similarly offer phone support only to their premium e-mail customers. (Yahoo says it offers phone support for its free e-mail service “in some cases,” but it does not publish the phone number; it is revealed to the user in distress only after e-mail communication fails to resolve the problem.)

Last month, Google’s official blog dispensed advice for those unfortunate souls who find themselves locked out. The post, “What to do if you can’t access your Webmail,” scolded users about not sharing passwords with anyone, pointed customers to a form to reset the password and, if that doesn’t solve the problem, to another form to start the “account recovery process.”

As customers, we bring the same expectations to Google’s personalized information services, like Gmail or Google Docs, its word-processing service, as we do to our bank’s Web site. These are places that hold information very dear to us. My bank recognizes that losing access for days at a time is unacceptable. It provides me with round-the-clock phone support for account problems. So, too, should Google, even if I pay the company not in the form of a monthly account fee, but with my attention, which Google commercializes by selling slices to its advertisers.

Last month, with cases like Mr. Lynch’s in mind, I contacted Google to see what the company had to say about my suggestion that it add phone support for its customers with account-related problems. The company returned with a debate team of three to argue the negative position: Matthew Glotzbach, who works with Google’s business customers; Roy Gilbert, who handles consumers; and Greg Badros, who is an engineering director.

Mr. Glotzbach began by saying that “one-to-one support isn’t always the best answer” because it would take Google too long to collect lots of data about a problem that is affecting many users simultaneously.

For systemic problems, data collection is important. But not for other categories. Account recovery could be slow for a locked-out customer who doesn’t have a backup e-mail account, and who declined to provide a security question and answer because of concerns that someone else could use it to get in (which is what someone did to Gov. Sarah Palin’s Yahoo Mail account).

Mr. Badros argued that Google asks so little personal information of a new Gmail customer that it’s hard to determine identity when the genuine user and the impostor both present themselves to claim the account, and neither can produce the verification. He said more information could be asked of users when they sign up, but the inconvenience would dissuade them from trying the service.

Mr. Gilbert added that proving identity with only minimal information is a problem, whatever form of communication is used to reach customer support. He said, “Even if they were standing right in front of us, it wouldn’t help.”

THIS makes sorting out competing claims seem permanently hopeless, when, of course, this is not the case; it simply means that standard security questions will not suffice. But if Google were to use real people to sort out identity problems over the phone, the only remaining consideration would be the one that Google’s panel of experts didn’t mention in our talk: cost.

Google says it has “tens of millions” of Gmail customers. (It declines to be more specific.) If it’s willing to consider phone support for account-access emergencies, it can take heart in the example of Netflix, which last year adopted phone support with enthusiasm, replacing online support completely. For all customers. For all problems. And without resorting to an offshore call center.

It turns out that a staff of 375 customer service representatives are enough to handle calls from Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, answering most calls within a minute. Netflix says with justifiable pride that it has received the top ratings in online retail customer satisfaction by both Nielsen Online and ForeSee Results.

A Netflix spokesman explained the complete switch to phone support: “Most people don’t need customer service,” he said, “but when they do, they want it now.”

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[via nytimes]

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