Google Plans Expanded 24/7 Phone Support...Just Not Yet

Google has always been known for fast and easy-to-use Web services loved by consumers. Google has never been known for the kind of dedicated support enterprise IT shops demand from technology vendors.

Yet Google has pushed forward into providing office software with Gmail, Google Docs and Calendar, and now even desktops with the just-announced Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer. To make the offerings more business-friendly, Google is planning to extend 24/7 phone support to more customers, Google enterprise chief Dave Girouard said during an interview at last week's Google I/O conference.

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For Google consumer services, such as the Android Market, the only support option is often email and community discussion boards monitored by Google employees. But businesses that pay the $50 per user per year for Google Apps already get 24/7 phone support "for severe issues where you can't access the system," Girouard says.

A Web-based ticketing service is designed to handle non-urgent Apps issues. But Girouard says, "We are going to change that within a few months so it's 24/7 phone for any type of issue."

If it comes to fruition, 24/7 phone support for all problems would be a major upgrade over Google's current support. Email support for business users is available only Monday through Friday, with response time estimated at one business day. There is 24/7 access to online support forums, and phone support is also 24/7 -- but only for "system critical event emergencies."

Google defines those emergencies as "Any situation where Customer is unable to access or use the Services for the majority of its End Users or where Customer's network is not receiving any inbound email (and/or outbound email from the Services)." If taken literally, that means as long as 51% of users can receive email a customer cannot call Google on the phone.

Google's service-level-agreement, which details the circumstances under which customers may receive credits, also defines downtime loosely. "A five percent user error rate" must be reached for an outage to be considered "downtime," according to Google's SLA.

Google understands that it needs to provide more robust support to paying customers, Girouard says.

"It's not realistic for us to ever have 24/7 phone for a free service," Girouard says. "But for paid services, you should be able to call us at any time for any problem, period, full stop. And we're working toward that."

Chromebooks will be sold to businesses in subscription packages starting at $28 per user per month, which includes hardware replacements and support. They go on sale June 15, and Google says that support for Chromebooks will be roughly the same as support for Google Apps.

Eventually, Girouard says he expects 24/7 phone support for all issues to be offered both for Apps and Chromebooks, but "I don't know exactly where we will be at launch."

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In an email statement released to Network World after the interview with Girouard, Google said its customer satisfaction ratings are above 90% and the number of support calls it receives has been declining.

Google also pointed out that the small business version of Microsoft's Office 365 advertises only "self-help and community support," although Microsoft's enterprise package does include 24/7 phone support.

Google also said it offers "higher-touch support for our demanding (typically large) customers, including appointing an account manager for on-site deployment assistance and to offer customers a direct line of contact for any questions or issues they may experience."

A Google spokesperson further stated that, despite the limitations detailed on the Google support website, "A Google Apps for Business customer may call our support line at any time ... For any issue that is disruptive to their business, we will transfer to someone who can resolve their issue."

Businesses that use Microsoft software and are considering moving to Google services will closely watch Google's evolving stance toward customer support. While Microsoft offers more substantial support offerings to business customers than Google offers, Microsoft software products and services are also far more costly.

Google's business products are primarily being gobbled up by small businesses and universities, but the company's increasing ability to compete against Microsoft in the largest enterprise accounts has been seen with recent customer wins such as the U.S. General Services Administration.

"We support the largest customers quite well," Girouard says. "It's harder to support the long tail of customers, the three-person companies."

Google, like any tech company, has been the subject of complaints about its customer service, from users of both its free services and its fee-based ones. But since its software is hosted entirely online, and Chromebooks provide little more than an inexpensive and convenient way to access the Web, customers have limited ability to fix problems themselves when things go wrong.

It's likely that Google can provide better uptime than many small IT shops achieve on their own, but meeting the "five nines" standard of mission-critical application availability is a work in progress for all cloud-based services.

Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud recently suffered a severe outage, and even the enterprise-focused Rackspace has been forced to apologize and pay out credits to customers in the wake of outages.

Microsoft's hosted email service went offline for some users this month, and Gmail has suffered numerous problems, including a recent issue that took some users' mail offline for several days. Customers have also complained about Google Calendar not reliably sending reminders before appointments.

Google has so many customers that downtime for even a small percentage can affect millions of people. Various backup systems ensure that even if services go offline, Google can restore customer data.

Once Google convinces customers their data is safe, there are other concerns. Can employees used to Microsoft products be trained to use Google ones? To that, Girouard counters that Google is providing online tools to train people in using Google products, and systems to automate the movement of users from Microsoft to Google.

In many cases, customers seem eager to switch from the costly and complicated Windows environments, he says. "Since we've been doing Google Apps, people say, 'That's wonderful, thank you, but when you can help me with the desktop?' I've heard that a couple thousand times in the last few years."

Microsoft still argues that Google Docs isn't capable of importing all Microsoft Office documents without losing formatting, a problem for people who have to share documents with users of the nearly ubiquitous Microsoft Word.

Google has steadily improved compatibility with Microsoft Office formats, but Girouard admits that it's not perfect and criticizes Microsoft for using the Office install base as a club against Google.

"Ownership of a proprietary format is the famous final stand," Girouard says. "At some point maybe we'll be saying, 'Oh my goodness, Microsoft Word is not very good at importing a Google Doc.' But that's the luxury they have of leaning on their format compatibility, having a proprietary format that everybody uses. But inevitably, in my mind, it's a terrible way to promote yourself to say, 'We have a proprietary format, other people can't handle it as well as we can, so you should use our products.' It's kind of an anti-innovation message that I think doesn't do the market justice and it doesn't do them justice. We'll get better very quickly at importing Microsoft documents because we have to. But if that's their angle to tell people you should stick with Microsoft, I think it's a dead end."

In addition to improving compatibility with Microsoft Word when importing documents into Google Docs, Google offers "Cloud Connect" to let users continue to use installed versions of Microsoft Word while syncing the documents online and collaborating on edits.

Although Google espouses a "100% Web" work environment, it will provide offline access to Gmail and Google Docs in the Chrome browser later this year and is partnering with Citrix to stream Windows applications to Chromebooks. Chrome computers aren't just for Gmail and Google Docs customers, either, Girouard insists.

"I feel like they should legitimately stand on their own," he says. "Of course, they work together really well. But I don't see us as the company that needs to get people to be 100% on Google and that's all they use. It's just not how we design products."

Google claims its own surveys show 75% of workers could be moved from Windows PCs to Chromebooks, but even Google isn't claiming that many people will actually make the switch. Enterprise IT moves slowly by nature because of inertia and hardware refresh cycles, and customers want to see others use a product successfully for a time before making the leap themselves, Girouard notes.

"We're providing bridges because we don't think Microsoft is disappearing from these companies entirely," he says.

Perhaps Google's biggest success in the enterprise is Android. When consumers started ditching their BlackBerries and "dumb" phones for iPhones and Androids, IT shops adapted relatively quickly, allowing access from new types of smartphones to existing corporate email systems. (See also: "The complicated new face of personal computing")

Android as a business tool "is happening with us or without us, frankly," Girouard says. "One of the things we just figured out recently is over 90% of Google Apps businesses are using Android phones. Not necessarily exclusively, but they're using some Android phones. Which, I think, is pretty cool."

Google will continue to improve Android phones, and now tablets, for business use. A Google Docs app was recently released for Android, although without offline access. That's likely to come later. Girouard isn't saying when, but he notes that the same HTML5 caching capability that lets iPad and iPhone users view Gmail offline is essentially what will be used to provide offline Google Docs access in PC Web browsers.

Google is providing a Web service for IT shops to centrally manage Android devices. But one thing customers probably won't see is business-level support for Android phones. Given the involvement of carriers and device manufacturers, who often install their own software on Android phones, it's unlikely Google would provide anything close to 24/7 phone support for Android, even for businesses that have deployed thousands of them. That kind of support will be reserved for Google Apps and Chromebooks customers.

"That's not a situation where Google is in good position to be the only support of choice," Girouard says. "We are providing a cloud service to manage Android devices, and Chromebooks as well. But the Android devices themselves, if you have a bad SD card, I don't think that's something we're going to get in the middle of."

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

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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