One of the themes coming out of the Google I/O conference last week was Google plans to make a more aggressive push into the consumer hardware business. The company announced the Home product, an AI-oriented service to compete with Amazon Echo; a VR headset; and a new smartphone division that will build and ship its modular Ara phones. Former Motorola CEO Rick Osterloh will lead the new hardware division. In a good Recode post earlier this week, Mark Bergen argued that one of the key unanswered questions coming out of I/O is how these exciting new products are going to be distributed. Getting products such as Nexus and Chromecast into consumers’ hands is something Google has “never done well”, Bergen said, further suggesting that, if Google wants to more directly compete with Apple, the company will also need to think about its retail strategy.
I agree with Bergen’s points and would like to take his argument a step further. If Google wants to play more seriously in the consumer realm, the company needs a better consumer-facing customer service infrastructure. If you are a consumer of Google products or services, such as Gmail, Maps, or Office-like products such as Docs or Sheets, it is nearly impossible to contact Google for help. No direct email. No phone support. Not even chat. You are basically on your own (there are some exceptions, such as the Google Play Store and Nest). Basically, you are left to search help forums, bulletin boards, and answers to FAQs Google has posted on its site.
Now, I know this is sort of the way of the Web. It’s not easy to contact a human being at Mint, Uber, LinkedIn, or Facebook, either. However, if consumer hardware is a big part of Google’s future and it wants to compete more directly with the likes of Apple and Amazon, the company needs to think seriously about how it will provide help and support to its customers.
The customer segment for Android devices, for example, has always tilted toward the younger, geekier, do-it-yourself crowd. By contrast, Apple’s year of free phone support, Genius Bar, and Apple Care are significant market differentiators, which many consumers cite in justifying the “Apple Premium”. Amazon customers also cite customer service as one of the company’s hallmarks. All the major service providers, and most consumer tech hardware manufacturers, provide some level of phone support plus other direct contact options such as email and chat. I’m not saying it’s always good and many companies make you jump through all sorts of hoops before you can get direct support but at least it’s there. For the companies who do a good job of it, it’s a market differentiator.
As a side-note, if you are an enterprise customer, Google provides excellent product and tech support, via phone and other channels, for enterprise customers—even small businesses. The minimum ante here is about $100 per year for a small business.
Why is there a greater imperative for Google to consider direct consumer support, since the company has certainly done fine up till now without it? There are three reasons in my view. First, Google is making a bigger push into the consumer hardware segment, so it needs to start thinking differently about the consumer experience, including distribution and support. Second, Google has focused on making its myriad services work more harmoniously in an integrated fashion. It’s a big focus of Google Now, forthcoming AI and intelligent assistant related products, and some of its current and announced physical products. I suspect many users ‘underutilize’ the rich features and capabilities of Google products and services because there is so little in the way of initial hand-holding and ongoing support. Third, if Google is going to be serious about the consumer business, it needs to broaden its base beyond the younger, more tech-savvy crowd, who are a little more accustomed to being “on their own” in the digital world. As an illustration, Android’s share in the U.S. among those over the age of 30 under-indexes its share among younger users and it’s not just about price.
The breadth of products and services Google offers and has in the pipeline is impressive. Though monetization will continue to be heavily dependent on search and advertising, Google is clearly delving deeper into the consumer realm. But even though Google is a huge part of consumers’ daily lives, consumers don’t have much of a ‘relationship’ with Google. Given some previous missteps in the consumer hardware business, Google needs to rethink distribution and customer support if it hopes to become an important consumer brand on the scale of an Apple or Amazon.
Intelligent/digital/AI assistants are great but consumers occasionally need an analog assistant.