The Industry Needs to do One Thing to Avoid Regulation: Provide Better Phone Support

Why Tech Companies Avoid Customer Service and the Opportunity That Comes With Actually Engaging Your Users

Thirty years from now when you’re reading my memoir pay attention to Chapter 8 because that’s when I became President of the United States. The populist momentum that resulted in an unprecedented third-party ascension was all based on a single premise: the large tech companies should staff competent, responsive and empathetic customer service departments.

a telephone locked inside a clear plastic box, digital art [DALL-E]

My YouTube video went viral. Where I picked up a Yellow Pages, looked straight into the camera, and ranted about how we can get a locksmith on the phone, the local supermarket will pick up when it rings, even (with a little bit of effort) my doctor. But try to call Google. Try to call Facebook. Try to call most of the tech companies no one is there to pick up. Send them an email or file a ticket? Good luck. We are dependent on them for our lives and our businesses, and we make them billions of dollars, and their employees wealthy. But they won’t help us navigate through this new world they’re creating. And that’s why I’m challenging our government to regulate them. Not about monopolies or privacy or copyright, but customer service. They want DMCA safe harbor? They want Section 230? Well I want someone to answer the GD phone!!!!

Snapping out of my daydream where our fractured country is united behind the idea of 1–800–4GOOGLE (by the way, in the Presidential fantasy my VP led a grassroots uprising for standardized charging plugs — their logo was a Guy Fawkes and USB-C plug), I do want to seriously suggest that one way for our industry to improve its standing with average consumers and small business owners is to be more user friendly when those folks have questions. Through my years at Google and YouTube I heard from lots of people about how much they loved our software but when something went wrong (locked out of an account, wrong information on their business listing, confusion around advertising) they went down a rabbit hole trying to get an answer from our company. And didn’t understand why these powerful corporations couldn’t afford to try and help their customers/users figure out this new world together. It was, and still is, a good question! I think there are four answers:

I. Software Margins

It costs money to staff support team (duh) and if you’re not showing a high margin structure you risk being penalized from an enterprise value multiple. The pernicious impact of striving for ‘software margins’ means that support is typically a cost center to be minimized, rather than a point of excellence that’s invested in and rewarded.

II. Humans Don’t Scale

Sure you can help human workers be more productive over time but they’ll never be as efficient as software automation or customer self-service. “Won’t scale” is historically a way to kill any idea, even if it, for the meantime would make a situation better (obviously there are exceptions to this when the stakes are really high). I’m sure AI-driven chat, etc will be a boon here too. But sometimes it’s not just about an answer, it’s about feeling respected and served.

III. Engineering Stereotypes Create Permission Structure

How do you tell an extroverted engineer from an introverted one? The extroverted engineer looks at *your* shoes when he talks.

While many of the engineers I’ve know are perfectly sociable, well-adjusted, highly conversant people, the ‘sullen hacker in a hoodie on the spectrum’ is anywhere from an antiquated stereotype to a true segment of our community. And either way it lets too many of us get away with not having to deal with the actual implications of the products we build. Because we’re not asked to serve on the front lines of our businesses hearing the challenges real users are facing. Rotate everyone through the support queues periodically is my solution.

IV. Elites Get Special Treatment

Maybe the real reason these issues don’t get solved is that the 1% have their backdoors into these companies. You’re a big enough advertiser or business partner to have an account manager. You went to grad school with the COO. And so on.

That’s why one of my periodic troll tweets was something to the extent of “I don’t know why everyone says [Instagram, YouTube, Google, etc] has such terrible customer support. Whenever I have a question I just email the VP of the product and they respond really quickly.”

And there you are, Chapter 8 of the autobiography.

Besides my random power fantasies, this post was prompted by a discussion with a very smart marketing and comms exec in the wake of the SVB bank run. The conversation evolved to one about how our industry (venture, startups, tech in general) could better message about the positive role we play in the economy. I quipped that besides good phrasing we needed actions too. When she asked what would I recommend my response wasn’t about getting rid of carried interest or breaking up the big companies but about customer support. Why?

There are going to be people who believe capitalism is flawed — we won’t win them.

There are going to be people who long for a world where things moved slower and they didn’t have to deal with disruption and could keep the status quo because it serves them better — shrug emoji.

There are going to be people who use tech as a punching bag when convenient to further their own goals — we should stand up to them.

But there’s an even bigger percentage of average Americans, who *like* technology and find many of the companies aspirational. These citizens, these business owners, these leaders — we have the opportunity to show them we can help them navigate the new world that we are helping them build. If takes a few margin points and some empathy it might be healthier and more sustainable than just lobbying and tweeting. The bigger structural issues need examination and *some* regulation, but there’s lots we can do on our own.