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Google should let users phone for assistance

By David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times –

If there’s one issue that consistently cheeses off consumers, it’s being unable to get a human being on the phone when you have a problem with a company.

And few companies make this tougher than Google.

Steve Gillette, 61, in Orange County, Calif., recently found himself receiving strange text messages and calls from the Silicon Valley search giant. They seemed to be prompting him to disclose personal information.

Troubled, he tried to contact Google to see if the company was really reaching out to him or whether a scam was being perpetrated. And he wanted to speak with a real person, not just send an email and hope for a response.

Google, however, doesn’t want to speak with Gillette — or with any of its millions of other users. The company makes it virtually impossible to get an actual employee or service rep on the phone.

It’s an issue that’s become increasingly common in today’s business world, especially among technology companies that seem to assume their customers are as comfortable with digital communications as they are.

Google, Facebook, Twitter — good luck getting through to anyone at each company, let alone finding a number you can call that a real person will answer. They go out of their way to keep their millions of customers at an electronic distance.

“It’s very frustrating that a multibillion-dollar company like Google will go to such lengths to keep you from talking to a human being,” Gillette said.

Google offers no apologies for its catch-us-if-you-can approach to customer service.

“We think it’s a faster and better experience,” said Andrea Freund, a company spokeswoman. “Because we have so many users, we can scan the issues users are having and determine how to fix them and make them better.”

But what if someone really, really wants to speak with a human being? Doesn’t Google, which boasts more than 1 billion unique visitors monthly and which pocketed nearly $10 billion in profit last year, have a responsibility to make itself available to customers in need?

Apparently not.

“We have 350 million Gmail users alone,” Freund said. “It’s just not feasible to offer phone support.”

Gillette, who works as a retoucher of digital photos and thus knows a thing or two about technology, received a pair of text messages recently providing a six-digit “Google verification code.” He ignored them.

A few hours later, Gillette received several robo-calls instructing him to press 1 on his cellphone to confirm his Google information.

“It seemed like the smart thing to do at this point was contact Google,” Gillette said. “If it was a scam, I wanted them to know about it.”

But he didn’t want to simply send an email. He wanted to speak with someone, to discuss the situation and learn if he was in a scammer’s cross hairs.

Fat chance.

If you go to the “contact us” page on Google’s website, you’ll find a snail-mail address for the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. You’ll find links for searching online “help” queries or to participate in online forums.

What you won’t find is a phone number, or even a simple email address to report potential fraud. The entire system appears designed to keep you from actually reaching the company.

Gillette Googled Google’s phone number. He came up with (650) 253-0000. But when you call and press the buttons for customer support, you’re informed by a recording that you need to go back to the company’s website because Google “does not offer live customer support at this time.”

“It’s absolutely crazy,” Gillette said. “Google is a public company. It’s omnipresent in people’s lives. But there’s no way to have a two-way conversation with them.”

I conveyed his issues to Google’s Freund, including copies of the mysterious text messages and the nature of the robo-calls. She said she’d look into the matter.

Apparently the whole thing was due to a typo. Someone had signed up for Google’s security-verification program for his or her Google account, but entered the wrong cellphone number. Gillette’s number was entered instead.

So the texts and calls were legit. They were just going to the wrong person. And that person — Gillette — was unable to get through to anyone at Google who could untangle the mess.

Once it became clear to Google’s computers that the texts and calls were going unanswered, the company stopped bugging Gillette. In this way, Freund observed, all’s well that ends well.

“The situation was self-resolving,” she said.

But what if it wasn’t? What if it did involve a scam? What if Gillette really did have to reach someone to discuss things?

Google doesn’t want to hear about it. Or if it does, it wants to hear it only on the company’s terms.

This is unacceptable. Call me old-fashioned, but any business that specializes in providing services to millions of customers has a responsibility to be accountable to those customers. And that means being accessible.

Here’s my proposal: Any publicly listed business earning more than $100million in annual revenue must provide the resources for customers to reach the company by phone. That means having a working number that’s actually answered by a human being.

Yes, that’s more expensive than steering people to online help forums. But in the long run, it’s how you keep customers happy.

Remember when that was a priority for businesses? Not all progress, it seems, is a good thing.

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