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."

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