Google founders were talked out of ignoring user email

In Google's early days, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin argued that answering email complaints would be a waste of time, according to a former Google employee who wrote a book about his time at the company

In Google's early days, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin argued that answering email complaints would be a waste of time, and that Googlers should fix problems behind the scenes without interacting directly with users, according to a former Google employee who wrote a book about his time at the company.

Google's customer service remains a problem today, with users complaining that a Google Calendar notification problem went months without being fixed while Google employees rarely responded to complaints.

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Even for fee-based services, Google support is limited, with 24/7 phone support for the Google Apps business edition available only for emergencies where you can't access the system.

While Google has improved customer service over the years, it hasn't matched the levels offered by rivals Apple and Microsoft.

"The company is largely managed by engineers," says Douglas Edwards, author of "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59." "I think there may be a deep-seated belief that if there's a problem you fix it yourself. That's what engineers do."

Edwards, who was director of consumer marketing and brand management from 1999 to 2005, says he had to convince Page and Brin that users would be happier if they received responses to complaints.

"There was a point [in 2000 or 2001] at which Larry and Sergey said we shouldn't answer any user email," Edwards said in an interview with Network World. "Their solution was we should just have a random reply generator, with replies that may or may not have been relevant. We persuaded them that that was not the best way to go."

Before being convinced otherwise, Page and Brin felt that if customers were writing to compliment Google, no response was required because "they were already happy," Edwards says. And if customers were writing to complain that something wasn't working, "we should focus all of our effort on fixing the problem, rather than spending time on resources emailing back and forth," he says. "The end result is the user would be happier if we fixed the problem than if we engaged them in a long email conversation."

The reasoning is logical, but it was eventually decided that, in addition to fixing technical problems, Google needed a customer relationship management (CRM) system to keep users happy. At first, Page and Brin went the cheapest possible route and bought software that wasn't stable and actually impeded Google's ability to answer email, Edwards says. A second attempt which involved hiring programmers to write code specifically for Google turned out much better.

Google got more interested in support during the years Edwards was on staff, he notes.

"They had pretty good support when they launched the search appliance," Edwards says. "They had a dedicated response team that was very responsive. Part of that was they didn't want customers mucking around in the box."

More recently, Google enterprise chief Dave Girouard promised that Google Apps business customers will eventually get 24/7 phone support for all types of issues, even minor ones, but no rollout date has been set. Today, even email support for business customers is available only Monday through Friday.

In general, "I think if you point out problems that are significant, Google will try to fix it," Edwards says. But overall, "I think they have a spotty record on customer support."

Co-founder Page recently replaced Eric Schmidt as Google's CEO, leading some analysts to wonder about the future of Google's enterprise products, given that Schmidt has a stronger enterprise IT background than Page.

Page didn't offer any reassurances in a recent earnings call, naming three Google priorities and not including Google Apps for businesses.

Edwards, however, says he doesn't think Page will de-emphasize Google's enterprise software.

"My sense of Larry is that what excites him is new technology, and it doesn't matter if it comes in the enterprise space or the consumer space. He just likes things that work better," Edwards says.

Edwards was 46 when he left Google, deciding to spend more time with his family after years of 16-hour days. Today, Edwards' work mainly consists of promoting his book, but he also serves as co-chairman on the board of Maplight.org, a group devoted to exposing the impact of money on politics.

When asked if he has any deep, dark secrets, like using Bing, Internet Explorer or Windows, Edwards says he's a fan of Google software and Apple hardware. While he uses Chrome for his browser, he owns a Mac, iPhone and iPad.

"I'm using Apple products, which these days is kind of like using Microsoft products, concerning Google," he says.

That's because Google's rivalry with Apple has grown significantly since the introduction of Android for mobile devices and, to a much lesser extent, Chrome OS for personal computers.

When Edwards was at Google, "they were much more open to using Macs than Windows. When I first started, you couldn't find anyone to give you help on Windows."

Linux usage was also big at Google. As someone with less technical experience than his colleagues, Edwards felt he could represent the common computer user inside Google.

"The reason I felt I should represent users in Google's internal meetings is because I was the only one there who couldn't name 10 operating systems and find them all preferable to Windows," he says.

Although most Google revenue still comes from search advertising, the company is becoming an all-purpose technology provider in heated competition against Apple and Microsoft.

Google executives always respected Apple, according to Edwards, but that won't prevent them from trying to one-up their rivals.

"In business, either you grow or you die," Edwards says. "They're going to have to keep moving."

Interestingly, the model for Google may not be Apple, but General Electric.

"One of the things Larry said to me early on was his goal was not to replace Yahoo and be the best search engine," Edwards says. "His corporate model was GE. I think with Larry in charge, he's going to be as diversified and as strong in as many areas as GE is."

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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Jon Brodkin

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