Five Internet Companies That Need Better Consumer-Facing Customer Service

A year ago, when Google announced an aggressive push into the consumer hardware business, I wrote that the company needs a better consumer-facing customer service infrastructure. The column was published in Recode and received quite a bit of attention.

I’ve been thinking about some other consumer-oriented Internet companies and brands that also need to improve their customer service. My bias is toward actually being able to talk to a human being, in real-time, by phone or via live chat. Because sometimes, in certain situations, the miasma of e-mail, help forums, Zendesk and the like, just doesn’t cut it. A common approach of many Internet companies is to shift the burden of customer support to the customers themselves, which means that Mary from Kentucky might be telling you how to connect your bank to Mint.

Companies that do this well — Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and even some of the cellular operators such as T-Mobile — have higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Some have shown marked improvement (Dell, Microsoft), while others, such as some of the airlines, have started to use Twitter fairly effectively, especially during times of high call volume.

So, here are five companies in the B2C realm that need to make improvements in their customer service infrastructure.

Mint. If you read the help forums, the tens of millions of people who use this web-based personal finance management service have a love-hate relationship with the company. Mint has email and the Zendeskian support site, but there is no way to actually talk to a human being at Mint. The types of problems and questions that can come up – bank can’t connect, wacky duplicate entries, transactions that suddenly get lost – require an immediate and often quick discussion and not the multi-threaded email that can stretch out over several days. Curiously Mint is owned by Intuit (Quicken, TurboTax), so there’s no shortage of customer support infrastructure there. Perhaps they can dispatch some of that army of folks who staff the support lines at TurboTax during the “off-season”!

Uber and Lyft. If you ever have a problem with one of these popular ride-sharing services, you might be wistful for that cranky local taxi dispatcher you used to call when the cab didn’t show up. Because unless it’s a real emergency, there is basically no way to contact a human customer support person at Uber or Lyft. If one uses these services with some frequency, there will inevitably, at some point, be an issue with an incorrect fare, being charged for a canceled trip, etc. If there’s ever an actual dispute, web/email is the only recourse – some nameless person (maybe even a robot?) is judge and jury, and there’s little opportunity for any back and forth. There are some situations where one needs to be able to talk to a person to provide some background and context. Uber and Lyft should do better here.

Airbnb. Sensing a theme? The vaunted ‘sharing economy’ operates lean and mean when it comes to customer support. Now, it is possible to contact Airbnb when there’s an emergency. But if there are any other issues or questions, as a guest or a host, there are lots of hoops to jump through in order to talk to a person. Airbnb does have a number to call, but it is hard to find on their website. My personal experience has been that hold times can be very long, with customer support generally outside the U.S. and reps not adequately trained or equipped to deal with contextual situations. This isn’t like calling your cable company to do a modem reset; each situation is unique.

Airbnb handles some 500,000 stays daily…situations are bound to come up. Even though @AirbnbHelp can be very effective, when one is in a foreign place, it would be good to know that there’s an ability to call a person at AirBnB to get help, real time.

Another frustration is that Airbnb does not provide the ability the ability for a guest to contact a host until a reservation is actually booked, other than through its internal messaging system. Again, there are situations and contexts during the ‘reservation inquiry phase’ where electronic, asynchronous communication just doesn’t cut it. Airbnb has said they withhold contact information due to privacy concerns, but I’d imagine that another reason is AirBnB doesn’t want the guest/host to ‘go around’ its system in order to avoid fees. If a host is willing to provide their phone number to a potential guest, shouldn’t they be able to?

LinkedIn. This is a bit more of a B2B site, but still, I think that the issue of customer support still applies. LinkedIn does not offer any phone-based support, and chat support is uneven and unpredictable. E-mail support is through the dreaded “web form, with drop down options”, which, again, put the onus on the customer and lacks the ability to provide context. Now, the issues might not be of the ‘urgent’ B2C variety as with Uber or AirBnB, but LinkedIn is a large and fairly complex site, and getting any help figuring out how to best use LinkedIn or answering FAQs can be an unwieldy and time-consuming process.

Facebook. Whether it’s help using the site, posting an ad, or dealing with a more urgent issue such as customer privacy or an emergency type situation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk to a human being at Facebook. The company has a very extensive Help Center, with literally hundreds of forms, and a very active Facebook community. And I understand that with some 2 billion users across many types of services, high-touch customer support might be a huge challenge to undertake. But there are a few types of situations, specifically with regard to privacy, or other types of emergencies, where it would be good to know that one can get help from someone at Facebook, and quickly. I did a little research, and found some situations where, for example, a Facebook user was reporting unauthorized usage use of their child in photos, and they were told to ‘fill out a form’ by someone on the ‘Facebook Help Team’. Not very reassuring.

Now, folks might complain about the high cost of cellular or cable service, but at least you can call them for tech support…or argue about a bill!

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

4 thoughts on “Five Internet Companies That Need Better Consumer-Facing Customer Service”

  1. You’ve made some good points there. I checked on the internet for additional information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this website.

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