Saturday, February 13, 2016

Free online services often mean there’s no problem-solver to talk to - February 12, 2016

One of the reasons many online services are free is they are automated to the hilt.

Removing people from the process saves vast amounts of money. Microsoft charges for Office and has an army of support reps to help out on the phone. Google offers Google Docs for free, but it has no one for you to call if you cannot format your document.

What happens if you have to speak to a person?

A friend once contacted me and said her child had been bullied at school into behaving in an embarrassing way and the bully had posted the video to Youtube. To the casual viewer, it looked like kids being goofy. It was not apparent the kid in the video had been coerced into his actions. To the child’s parent and the child when asked, it was a humiliating recording.

Youtube has a report button, but who knew how long it would take for a person to review the flag? And you flag the video from a list of choices, such as violent, sexual content, repulsive, etc. There was no space for explaining the reality behind the video.

If you search Google, you will not find a phone number easily. There is no customer service department I could find.

Finally, I came across some legalese about Google services and buried deep in a 30-plus page document, I found a phone number for the legal department.

The number was answered by voicemail. My friend explained the situation and referred to her child as “her minor child” several times, accentuating “minor.”

Within the hour, she got a call back from a nice attorney at Google. The video was removed.

Recently, my wife received a text from Uber, asking her to complete a driver profile. The problem was my wife never signed-up with Uber as a driver, nor did she have its app or an account as a rider. In the text, it shared who the person was by their first name and a suggestion to “stop in,” listing a particular city and state, to complete a background check.

She sent Uber an email asking it to remove her phone number from its database. She received an automated response that began with, “Sorry to hear about the unwanted text messages you are receiving from Uber” and asked her to provide a number she would prefer to use or a screenshot of her phone from the settings menu so it could take care of it. She refused.

A frustrating email exchange between my wife and someone at Uber, who may have been an automated script responding to emails, ensued. It was sort of a new circle of hell for today’s high-tech world.

My wife poured through Uber’s Terms of Service and other documents, and discovered an email address for its legal department in the Privacy Policy. She cc’d them on the next email. She pointed out when it used the name of the driver, the city and state where that driver lived in the text, it violated its own Privacy Policy.

Uber removed her number from its database.

Another time, a text I sent my wife from the Google Hangouts app was delivered to her 32 times. Online search of its help pages didn’t offer any help, oddly. Apparently I had discovered a new bug.

But then I saw a Google+ post announcing a new version of Hangout. The author was someone I’d known since he’d been an intern at my then-employer during his senior year at Stanford.

I sent off an email, and he was happy to help. They’d heard of this, but I was able to give his team access to my account so they could review my data and fix the problem. But how often do our problems have neat solutions like this?

So the moral of my story is: Know there are some nuclear options available if you cannot get help any other way. Use them sparingly so as not to diminish their effectiveness.

If your problem is one that could have legal ramifications for your vendor, seek contact information for its legal department and use it. Do not threaten, but explain your issue calmly and with as much information as you can. It will see the legal threat and hopefully help you as Youtube and Uber did.

If you have technical issues that seem unique and you cannot find information about similar problems online, then address your questions where the developers or support staff of the product will see them.

Certainly ask the question of other users on Reddit, for example, but mostly make an account on the app developer’s own support forum and ask the question there. If they have problem reporting, open a ticket there and report the problem.

Asking the question publicly can also get you help. Join Twitter and find its Twitter handle. Ask the question there.

Comcast has a Twitter account that is kind of its special operations customer service department. Telling @ComcastCares of a problem makes the problem public and often gets a fast and favorable response, or so I’m told.

It is too bad that companies make it so hard to get help from a real person. I guess in many cases we can’t expect to have our cake and eat it too: that is, receive free or low-cost services and an easy solution to problems when they arise.

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