In 2009, after one of Facebook’s major UI changes that invariably ignited a volcano of tantrums from users who liked it how it was, Mark Zuckerberg allegedly sent round a memo to Facebook employees stating that:
“The most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers”
Whether this memo was real or not, it highlighted a point about Silicon Valley’s attitude towards its users that has only become more entrenched since then. A couple of years ago I tried to communicate with Facebook’s advertising team about an ad that had been disapproved, and despite several tries never got a response, at all. Not even an auto-response.
I had similar experiences with Google and Twitter, my favourite (!) being an episode where some Russian company had wholeheartedly and unashamedly copied my Google ad text word-for-word and bid slightly higher to feature above me for the same search terms. I contacted Google to complain. Their eventual reply? “Sorry, nothing we can do”.
Speaking to other business owners, I have learned that this is a fairly common experience, and the smaller you are the more pronounced the problem. It feels like the big tech companies simply don’t give a damn about you unless you’re a big spender. What’s going on?
The numbers don’t lie
I decided to look into this, to see if there was any substance behind these anecdotal assumptions.
There is a website called Customer Service Scoreboard that tracks customer feedback on major brands and ranks them according to how many positive and negative reviews they get. Companies get a score out of 200 based and an overall rating along a scale from Terrible to Excellent. Here’s how some of the biggest tech companies are rated currently (I will call this set of companies Group A):
- Facebook: Terrible (16.8 out of 200)
- Twitter: Terrible (19.6 out of 200)
- Google: Terrible (22.27 out of 200)
- LinkedIn: Terrible (22.29 out of 200)
- Uber: Terrible (23.03 out of 200)
Ouch. Damning evidence on the surface. But let’s not get too carried away just yet; we all know that people are far more likely to leave a review in the first place if they have something negative to say (this is called negativity bias), so one would expect most companies to have a generally higher proportion of negative reviews. What’s interesting, therefore, is to compare these companies to the highest-ranking (or should I say less negatively ranking) tech companies on the same platform (Group B):
- Microsoft: Disappointing (31.69 out of 200)
- Apple: Disappointing (47.37 out of 200)
- Netflix: Acceptable (73.08 out of 200)
- Asus: Acceptable (74.36 out of 200)
- Amazon: Acceptable (80.48 out of 200)
This is of course a very unscientific assessment, but it does show a certain pattern. On closer examination there is a general difference between the two groups of companies: who the customer is.
For Group B, the setup is pretty simple. They have products and they sell to the customer in a very direct way, be it via a physical store or an online eCommerce system. Their revenues are directly tied to the number of people who use their service; the more users they get, the more sales they get. Simple.
For Group A however, the millions of people who use these services are not the customers at all. The services themselves aren’t even the product. No, the product is the data that those millions of users generate, which is packaged up and sold to the real customers: the advertisers, salespeople, recruiters and other middlemen who want access to it. For these companies, user numbers are more comparable with television viewers in that the higher the numbers, the more they can make in advertising revenue. Charging the users directly – as is the case with cable TV – is optional.
Here’s where it gets complicated though.
In the world of television, there is a very clear divide between the viewer, the supplier and the advertiser. The viewer is the average Joe or Jane who consumes the content, often for free; the supplier is the content maker, for example the production house that makes television series, and the advertiser is normally a marketing agency that has a direct relationship with the television company.
Barriers to entry along this chain are incrementally higher the further up you go. Being a viewer is pretty easy, making a TV show or series is much more expensive and skilled, and being an advertiser requires buckets of money depending on how many viewers the television company has. The television company makes all the decisions on what content is broadcast and what advertisers are used. In the world of modern tech companies, however, there are no barriers to entry for either users, content makers or advertisers. Anybody can be any of these.
Take social media for instance. Access to Facebook, Twitter et al is open to anybody and everybody with some kind of internet connection, and use of the platforms is free. Much like television, in that sense. Unlike television, however, most of the content on social media is produced by the users, without curation. This allows for the mass generation of content at scale (the billions of posts published on social media are the hook for users), with the human management cost reduced to policing complaints about content rather than approving every bit of content (which would not only cause a fatal delay in gratification for the users posting, but would also require an insanely large editorial team). When you have almost two billion users – like Facebook – this is pretty much the only feasible way of handling the volume, but it does mean sacrificing customer service for all but the most serious complaints.
The customer is always expensive
One could argue that this is fair enough given that these platforms are free for users; it’s hard to justify spending money on customer service for users who won’t make you revenue. Right?
Well, the first argument against that is that users are the reason advertisers spend money on the platforms, so generally speaking you should be incentivised not to piss them off too much or the value of your platform could plummet if users abandon ship. But we are dealing with somewhat unprecedented numbers on these platforms so I feel the approach, as is, is probably the correct one. Where it gets sticky, though, is the fact that any standard user can make use of the automated advertising tools to become an advertiser. This is a fantastic innovation which has benefited many small businesses and entrepreneurs, particularly in the early days when competition was still light, but it does present a bit of a dilemma for the platform: any user can also be a potential revenue-generating customer, but which ones will make that shift and how much will they spend?
These are the kind of data points you need to properly plan a customer service function, and no matter how sophisticated your platform, this will always be a hard one to predict if you own a social media site. A user could spend anywhere from £0.50 to several thousand pounds at a time, making it tricky to consistently allocate customer service cost.
And so, most of these companies employ a couple of tactics to reduce customer service cost. The first is to automate as much as possible by building comprehensive FAQs and knowledge bases that they can refer people to for answers, rather than taking up a customer service rep’s time. The second is to make it really quite tricky to submit a complaint, which is achieved by presenting the user with a series of gatekeeper questions, not providing phone numbers or direct email addresses, and just generally making it as non-straightforward as possible to get in touch.
But even then, if you do get through to a customer service rep, you get treated like a nuisance – or just plain ignored – unless you are a big spender. While I understand the probable mechanics of why that happens, it doesn’t make it okay. Social media advertising is a $31billion industry, there should be enough cash floating around to invest in indiscriminate customer support. Same applies for the other tech companies guilty of this behaviour.
If these companies want to encourage people to grow through their platform, to go from free user to potential big spender, then they need to start recognising that customer service applies to everybody. If the boundaries between user and purchaser are removed, there is no excuse for falling short on customer service compared to the eCommerce platforms in Group B.
The customer may not always be right, but a company can’t live without them. Ask MySpace.