Losing Company Honesty
Something the Internet has been good at is helping create companies that go through a tremendously fast growth. Within the span of just a few of years we can observe what use to take 20 or 30 years in a company’s life cycle. When the customer experiences that kind of pace from a service, changes that were subtle become easy to see. Some of the first things to change are openness, honesty and accessibility.
Internet startups tend to be more open than larger companies. They have little choice. Their survival depends on building a trustworthy customer relationship, word-of-mouth endorsement, and they don’t have a lot of spare resources to bury unpleasantness. You can see this when you need to report a problem or get special assistance if the information for contacting them or submitting problems is easy to find on their web site. Even more when you can get a hold of the very people responsible for supporting or creating the software/service you are using.
But unless a company has a very good product or reliable service, their growing customer base can over-whelm them with problem reports and support demands. Sometimes they’ll hide their email address in favor of an online form, or make it impossible to find out how to contact them at all. Their FAQ becomes a controlled PR tool – existing just to give answers to obvious things while not even mentioning the problems the majority of users are experiencing. These are practices designed to make a company look good (perhaps to lure in a buyer) rather than sustain a long-term reputation of customer satisfaction.
I experienced this just today with Facebook. Large numbers of my photos “vanished” from my profile, probably for the 3rd time in 2 years.. Their FAQ is filled with things like “How do I do this?”, but nothing about reporting the repeat problem of lost photos. A problem very visible to users and frequently discussed on the Internet. None of the links on their site are a “contact us”. It took me 20 minutes of full site searches to find an online form for submitting a problem. I was happy to find it, but it was so generic that I have no idea if it will get seen by anyone in a position to act. It did not assign me a request number or say that anyone would be in contact. It did not even allow me to classify the type of problem I was reporting. [UPDATE: It sent me a confirmation email that the problem was received. I never got an answer back from a person].
Compare that with Disqus or Google. Google does have “contact us” on their company page, and their project pages usually have Internet groups, forums, or Wikis so any knowledgeable person can help. Disqus also is known for the developers responding to requests for help, even from Twitter.
Whether a service is free or paid, customers do not appreciate being treated like they are an annoyance. If your company does not have the resources to respond to their customer base, set up forums and wikis and help people help each other – but keep it honest. Don’t hide problems people need help with. Appreciation for providing help is great PR. Let FAQs actually be driven by the frequently encountered problems. Give fixing frequently reported problems priority so they go away from public discussions on their own. If a company doesn’t provide these resources themselves, the community may do it anyway, and when they do your company will have less of a voice in it.