There's Always A Way To Compete: Competing With Google By Being Human

from the you-can-compete dept

All too often, we hear people complain that it’s “impossible” to compete in some manner. “You can’t compete with free.” “Big companies will steal your ideas and you can’t compete with big companies.” And yet, time and time again, we’ve seen that this isn’t actually true. Every company has its weaknesses, and there are always ways to compete. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every competitor will succeed. It doesn’t mean that competition is easy. But there are always ways to compete, no matter how many advantages you believe another player has.

We’ve talked in the past, for example, how Google’s closed nature could be its Achilles heel. But another area in which Google has a clear weakness, as we’ve documented over and over and over and over again, is that it’s horrible at customer service. From the outside, to the average user, Google often appears as a big white monolith, with little hope of getting a human response to issues. This is not universally true, of course. I’ve seen many Google employees personally reach out and respond to problems, but it often feels sort of ad hoc, and the number of stories of problems falling through the cracks is certainly noticeable.

So it doesn’t surprise me that others are beginning to recognize this as well. JJ sent over a blog post by Jesse Noller, picking up on this point and suggesting that the way to compete with Google is by being more human, friendly and personable. That is, building up brand loyalty by actually being nice, rather than technically efficient but cold (as Google often appears). It’s a good read for anyone in a space where they may end up competing with Google (actually, it’s a good read for anyone who thinks that there’s any company that is competition proof). Here’s just a snippet, but I recommend reading the whole thing:

You can only do these things — building a brand — and building a “cult” by doing the things Google — given its robotic failings — cannot do. Love your users, infect them with your passion — not just your technical prowess or ability to scale or release new web codecs, or give them the right search results, or giving away source — infect them with your passion for what you do. Support them, respond to them — even if you’re giving it away for free — after all, nothing is free.

Passion, compassion — connecting with other humans, people are always looking for a place that accepts them and makes them feel welcome. They want to get real support instead of emails that get sent to unknown voids and are never answered. Making things warm, inviting both in language and in the feel.

Of course, there was a time that Google created such passion, but mainly from the quality of its products, not from its human touch. But that’s the point. Every company has its weaknesses, and no company is competition proof.

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Comments on “There's Always A Way To Compete: Competing With Google By Being Human”

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ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Apple gets it.

If you read there’s a constant stream of “holy crap the Apple Store went above and beyond” posts (and, to be fair, a few “I did NOT get my iPhone wet” posts.)

Point being, Apple seems to get that treating a customer right, *even if you end up upgrading their computer for free* is going to pay off in the long run, since that person, their family, their friends, and everyone in their social network (which can be a long tail indeed these days) will take that into account the next time they buy a computer. Or phone. Or pad. Or whatever.

ChronoFish (profile) says:

Re: Apple gets it.

True – the one thing you can’t fault Apple for is effort put into the end-user experience. This may mean higher-costs for hardware, add-ons, software, etc….

But then Apple (traditionally) doesn’t compete on price. When you buy an Apple product, you know that what it does it will do very well.

Where-as many of today’s walled-media gardens are nothing more than a toll-booth – Apple’s garden actually looks and smells nice.


Josef Anvil (profile) says:

Sorry I wasn't FIRST with this post

I’m going to have to agree with ChurchHatesTucker. When I got my first iPod, I didn’t really think about Apple’s service. In the store they were helpful and it was a very pleasant shopping experience.

Then I got my first macbook from an Apple reseller and it crashed within a week. When I went back to the reseller they were less than helpful, not offering me a refund or exchange. It was only after I raised a huge stink that they referred me to an Apple store. I went into the Apple store heated and only armed with a receipt from the reseller. Apple immediately exchanged the macbook and through in AppleCare which I hadn’t purchased.

Over the next 7 years and several more Apple products, the service has always been exceptional. I can’t think of any other company that has been so customer-centric. Yes, I’m now a die hard Apple fan even though I really think that Windows 7 has caught up and maybe gone a bit past OSX.

Before switching to Apple, I’d had horrible customer service issues with competitors like Dell and Gateway. So I would have to agree that good customer service adds value far beyond the price of the product.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Sorry I wasn't FIRST with this post

Apple has incredible customer service. That much is true.

It has become something of a cult, in more than a few negative meanings of that word, that gets overlooked by the cult. (I’m far from saying you’re a member of it!)

There’s the increasing control over just what and how you can put things into or onto your Apple iPod, iPad and so on. Things that only meet the approval of Steve Jobs et al. Approved apps, approved this and that.

Of course, it’s their right to recommend things but I’m leaning towards Apple taking too much control over a device that once I buy it is mine, not Apple’s.

Microsoft hasn’t been much better just far less direct.

Ultimately customer service is the key. Remember WordPerfect? It was renowned for customer service. And rightly so.

The company and it’s developers knew that not only was good customer service vital in it’s own right but that it was vital in market research as well. It told the company what was wrong, what features really were in demand and just as importantly, what was right.

That’s behind most of the reason that WordPerfect was able to hold off MS Word and MS Office for so long. In spite of the problems people and companies had integrating the two WordPerfect had a product that understood them, understood their needs and made it possible to easily customize it without losing it’s power.

Then WordPerfect Corp was sold. The first thing that went was the customer service. In short order WP went from being a viable competitor to Word to virtual disappearance. They lost their edge because they tossed the most important connection they had to their legions of users and fans by closing down the customer service they’d given previously that resulted in the best market research tool anyone has. (The horror called Borland Office certainly didn’t help even though, at the time, the parts of Borland Office were far superior to the parts that made up MS Office at the time.)

Incidentally, when Dell got started they were also very good at the customer service thingy. It was only when they became a tier one maker that customer service died and with it much of Dell’s reputation for making quality machines.

Google’s customer service is worse than horrific. Microsoft’s is merely horrific. Adobe’s is somewhere in between.

All are vulnerable there.

Yet each have their own cults some like Adobe’s are based on their product line which is usually, without fail, of very high quality. Microsoft, in some ways, are still trading on tiny MS vs huge lumbering IBM though they’ve learned far too well from IBM how to exclude others from their market(s). Google’s because they still do come up with things people seem to need in the Internet age simply because they understand it better than any other large company out there. They were born an Internet company, expanded as an Internet company and remain one.

For customer service these days, though, in spite of their own legions of flaws, Apple is the champion and so most of their customers will forgive the failings and control freak attitude Apple has.

Urza9814 says:

Re: Sorry I wasn't FIRST with this post

Huh. Last time I had to go to Gateway support, they replaced the motherboard on a desktop for free, about two years after the warranty had expired. And they were quite nice about it…though that was quite a few years ago.

Last time I had to talk to Dell support was quite recent, again a motherboard issue. Called their phone support, and within 15 minutes they’d given me an RMA number and had a box on it’s way. Sent it back, had it back in perfect condition in less than a week. Excellent service. Though perhaps the fact that I bought a business laptop helped with that, I don’t know. I do know that I’ve had some trouble with them in the past (_long_ ago) – really weird glitch with a dial-up modem – it would pick up any incoming calls – and they kept trying to say it was a virus.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google’s so bad at customer service I can’t do business with them. There is no phone number. That’s kinda like selling an item without a price on it. The customer has no idea what you are going to spend. That’s not good for business. Plus ‘Pay per Click’ is a joke! Nobody clicks! Google’s business programs are a joke. I call Google a money pit.

Ryan Diederich says:

Thats the problem with the machine....

When any company gets to the point of corperate machine, customer service goes down the tube.

The heads of companies like Microsoft, Adobe, and Google, dont really run the company as much as design the money equation.

If we do this=this much money

When customer service was factored into the equation, it was discovered that it would cost them 20% less, but 15% of customers would leave/they would do 15% less business. Thus, no customer service.

And they were right, they are still making money, and not worrying about customer service too.

Not that I agree with it, but Google is still my homepage, this is an HP laptop, and Windows 7.

I didnt pay for Windows 7 though 😉

Michae says:

The root of the problem

I hope no one reading this takes offense (seeing as this is a site devoted to technology, my comments may apply to certain members of the group of people I am about to make mention of…).

You nailed the issue, as did Jesse Noller (suggesting that the way to compete with Google is by being more human, friendly and personable). I used to work at Google and have worked in the High Tech industry in the SF-Silicon Valley area for over fifteen years.

And I have to say that in my opinion, the issue boils down to the type of person in charge. Specifically, Software Developers.

Ok, get it over with: I am going to burn in hell, I know I know…but the truth, as I have seen it, is that this is a group that may be brilliant in certain areas (very very brilliant, ok?) but not great when it comes to the area of emotional intelligence or “people smarts”).

I truly believe that Google means well…I’ve worked with these people-on a very high level-and I can tell you with certainty that they really believe they are doing good for the world and not creating evil. They simply don’t know how to communicate this and what is worse is that they don’t know this is even a problem. If they did, they would hire some people who know how to communicate with both customers and with the press and media.

No offense, just some insight…Thank you so much for your post.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: The root of the problem

It’s an overly broad brush of course, but not totally off target. I don’t think we can really say if these decisions are due to poor social skills (unless you know the decision makers personally). It could be that the founders are just enamored of the idea of a company that succeeds because of its technology and efficiency. Great customer service can’t be done just with technology and efficiency (though they have to play some role). That singular focus is also a trait of many software developers though, and they may need to broaden their vision to have continued success at the level they desire.

chris (profile) says:

"humanity" has a shelf life

the patience and sensitivity required for good customer service rarely lasts long enough for a person to learn the ins and outs of the job. once you do customer service long enough to be good at it, you’re basically jaded and cynical and don’t really belong in customer service any more.

this is compounded by the fact that customer service capabilities and technical abilities are mutually exclusive. you just can’t have a good understanding of technology without some basic intelligence, and that basic intelligence sort of precludes the warm-fuzzies. there are exceptions out there of course, but for the most part an effective technician has a lousy bedside manner. once you become aware of the line between basically intelligent people and the sort of people who need hand holding, it’s really hard to stay focused on being patient and understanding.

and you see this in way more than just the tech sector. after a certain amount of time, and answering the same questions over and over and dealing with the same issues over and over, you get this sort of “service fatigue” that makes it really hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. i’ve seen it in health care, like ER staff who assume everyone that comes in is faking it to get drugs, or legal types that assume everyone is guilty, or food service types who assume that everyone is a petty tyrant.

if you ask me, good customer service is about picking the right customers. if your product or service is not right for a given sector of the population, you should have a simple mechanism for refunds that lets you free yourself from unhappy customers as quickly and painlessly as possible. that mechanism should be available to your first tier support personnel to make the whole process short and sweet.

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