Logging on to Gmail or other e-mail services has become a routine of daily life, completed without a thought. What would you do, however, if you woke up tomorrow, plugged in your username and password, but then received an unfamiliar message: "Username and password do not match"?
If you are a Gmail user, what you would want to do is speak with a Google customer representative, post haste. But that is not an option. Google does not offer a live person to resolve the ordinary user's problems.
Discussion forums abound with tales of woe from Gmail customers who have found themselves locked out of their accounts. They were innocent victims of security measures, which automatically suspend access if someone tries unsuccessfully to log on repeatedly to an account.
Tom Lynch, a software entrepreneur who lives near Austin, Texas, discovered last month that he had been locked out of the two Gmail accounts he used; he had no idea why. He received boilerplate instructions for recovering his accounts that did not apply to his circumstances, which included his failing to maintain a non-Gmail e-mail account as a backup. He said it took him four weeks - and a lawyer - before he succeeded in having service restored.
A Google spokesman placed the blame on Lynch, saying he did not follow Google's guidelines. The spokesman characterized Lynch's ordeal as a praiseworthy illustration of Google's tough security: "We have had no cases of falsely recovered accounts."
Google does provide telephone support to Gmail customers who subscribe to Google Apps Premier Edition, which costs $50 annually and includes larger storage quotas and other benefits. Customers who use the advertising-supported version of Gmail, however, must rely solely on what Google calls "self-service online support."
Microsoft and Yahoo similarly offer telephone support only to their premium e-mail customers. (Yahoo says it offers telephone support for its free e-mail service "in some cases," but it does not publish the phone number. It is revealed to the user in distress only after e-mail communication fails to resolve the problem.)
As customers, we bring the same expectations to Google's personalized information services as we do to our bank's Web site. My bank recognizes that losing access for days at a time is unacceptable. It provides me with round-the-clock telephone support for account problems. So, too, should Google, even if I pay the company not in the form of a monthly account fee, but with my attention, which Google commercializes through advertising.
Last month, I contacted Google to see what the company had to say about my suggestion that it add telephone support. The company returned with a debate team of three: Matthew Glotzbach, who works with Google's business customers; Roy Gilbert, who handles consumers; and Greg Badros, who is an engineering director.
Glotzbach began by saying that "one-to-one support isn't always the best answer" because it would take Google too long to collect lots of data about a problem that was affecting many users simultaneously.
For systemic problems, data collection is important. But not for other categories. Account recovery could be slow for a locked-out customer who does not have a backup e-mail account, and who declined to provide a security question and answer because of concerns that someone else could use it to get in.
Badros argued that Google asked so little personal information of a new Gmail customer that it was hard to determine identity when the genuine user and the impostor both presented themselves to claim the account, and neither could verify their claims. He said more information could be asked of users when they signed up, but the inconvenience would dissuade them from trying the service.
Gilbert added that proving identity with only minimal information was a problem, whatever form of communication was used to reach customer support. He said, "Even if they were standing right in front of us, it wouldn't help."
This makes sorting out competing claims seem hopeless, although this is not the case; it simply means that standard security questions will not suffice. But if Google were to use real people to sort out identity problems over the phone, the only remaining consideration would be the one that Google's panel of experts did not mention in our talk: cost.
Randall Stross is the author of "Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know."
6 months ago