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Google: The Monolith

[Editor's Note: today's blog post is by guest author William Seebeck. During the 1980's, Bill and I worked together at Lexis-Nexis in Dayton, Ohio. Bill has a wealth of experience in online systems, banking, publishing, and public relations. Bill also blogs at Seebeck's View.]

By Bill Seebeck

Google, a household name. I use it everyday. I google this and google that and get a nice result. Google is my friend. I trust Google. Until...

Earlier this week, I needed to speak with someone at Google. You know like customer service. I wanted to ask them about some confusion I had about one of their online products that I use called AdSense. I had received some e-mail requesting very, very personal information for my AdSense account that those of us that are concerned about online privacy teach others never to respond to when they receive them. So, I was very confused when Google asked me for such data by e-mail. I needed to verify first that it was indeed Google that was making such inquiries -- and then why?

So, I went to the Google website and searched all over the place for information related to what I wanted and was unsuccessful. Then I looked for a telephone number so I could call and ask my questions. No phone number. You could send an e-mail, but since I wouldn't give anyone the information they were requesting, I wanted to hear a human voice tell me what this was all about. All of a sudden, I realized that the Google website was designed to keep me and others away from the company.

Then, I checked my BusinessWeek online, looked up Google, it is after all a public company, got the local phone number, checked the list of key employees, found the person in charge of products and services and gave them a call.

The call went something like this:

Google: Hello, this is Google, how can I help you?

Me: May I have Mr. X please?

Google: What is your business with Mr. X?

Me: I need to ask Mr. X about one of Google's products.

Google: If you have questions about Google products, you need to go to the website and use the e-mail.

Me: I don't want to use the e-mail, I need to speak with a person please.

Google: I'm sorry we don't do that.

Me: Well, let me speak with someone then in corporate communications.

Google: We don't have a corporate communications.

Me: Public relations then.

Google: Do you have a specific name in public relations?

Me: No.

Google: Well then I can't help you.

Me: Then, can you connect me to investor relations.

Google: Do you have a specific name in investor relations?

Me: No.

Google: Well then, I can't help you.

Me: Listen, this is crazy, are you saying that there is no one to talk to at Google?

Google: I have a very short list of people that people can speak with but, if you don't know their specific names and can't tell me what specific business you are doing with them, then I'm sorry I can't connect you.

End of conversation.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines a monolith as, "a large and impersonal political, corporate or social structure regarded as intractably indivisible and uniform."

So, when you call Google, the monolith, it responds, "Welcome to Google. Go away."

Now I've been in the online business for 27 years and I have never experienced such behavior.

My next step took me to their most recent earnings press release and yes, I found a name of a person in corporate communications. I called but got their voice mail. I left a message and said I had two questions. First, was why was Google making itself so unavailable to the public, and second, I needed to ask some serious questions about their product AdSense. Well, I have yet to hear from them.

I have to admit that Google is not alone in its Internet strategy. They and others use their websites to inform but also use it to block the public and as a way to control access.

Now, I am sure that Google or others that have such a strategy will say that thousands of people will call if they give out a phone number. Maybe that is true, and maybe that's good. How do you know what your marketplace is up to? What are people feeling? Are you satisfied that e-mails provide you with the true trends with which to gauge your business in the future?

Thirty years ago, my boss at the time, J. Peter Grace, CEO of W.R. Grace & Company, put out a memo to all employees (numbered in the thousands) and told us to answer our own phones. None of us, he said were too big to do that and in our humility, we might learn something about our business. He also said that some of the calls might not be pleasing, but then that was the way we took responsibility for our actions in the course of doing our work.

Now, I realize that many things have happened since those days, but what hasn't changed is that when you sell to the public, you are responsible to the public. When you think that you are better than the public you serve, then someday it comes back on you.

Take a look around Google, you can see the carnage of many companies that didn't think they needed to be responsible to the public.

What do the readers think about this? Let us know below.

Copyright 2009 WBSeebeck. Reprinted with permission.


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Adele Berenstein

I have a few suggestions.
1. Try submitting your question through their website at At least you can say you tried that route. Don't provide that personal information they asked for but just ask about the validity of the process and is it really them.
2. If they don't respond, fax a letter to Google Executives with your complaint (sensitive information and lack of personal contact) asking to have someone call you back, give them a deadline by when you expect a response. Give them the details of your attempts to resolve the problem. (that is why you have to try the email approach first).
Threaten that if no one calls that you will take the issue to the press. (eg PC / Internet related magazines. Sometimes these magazines have 'ombudman' columns, or a local newspaper in your town or in San Francisco.) Also threaten that you will bring this flaw to the attention of their competitors (Microsoft and Yahoo) who can use this failing to help their marketing efforts.
3. If that fails, take you story to the internet based magazines and maybe write the editors at Business Week who write articles on them.
4 Try getting some help from Google Watch.. at ..see if they know how to get to Google
5 If that doesn't work, you could write an email to the authors of the books on Google., eg Search, What would Google Do, The Google Story, Planet Google, etc and I would ask them if they know why Google won't answer the phone and tell them about your problem and ask them if they know how to get you an answer. All those authors know the key executives at Google and can probably get by the gatekeepers.

Just a few ideas. I hope one of these work.


Dear Adele,

Thanks so much for your note and the valuable information you provided.

What I wanted to point out through my article, however, was that no customer of Google or any other entity for that matter should be shut out of their ability to communicate any kind of issue that relates to their account. No one should have to do back flips or threaten in order to communicate. It's not only bad business but in the long run it is just plain stupid on their part.

One day, as head of corporate communications at LEXIS/NEXIS, back in the mid-80's, I received a call from the CEO of a major corporation. He said that he had asked his assistant to have the company's information center perform a NEXIS search on a particular company. It was reported back to him that the search didn't turn up any information. He asked me if that was true. I quickly checked NEXIS and found a wealth of information. He then called me back and said that after checking with the information director, he was told that they didn't do a NEXIS search but searched a competitive online service. Why, he asked and the information director said that NEXIS was too expensive. He said, what about that? I said, how important was the information to you? He said very important, it involved a $20 million deal. So, I said, please understand that while the information director was being a good steward of corporate funds, you just let the information director make a $20 million decision for you.

So, I say to GOOGLE, your "gatekeepers" are making key decisions for you every day and you don't even know about it. If you do know about it, you should be taken out to the woodshed.

Thanks Adele so much for writing. Keep reading and responding, we appreciate your views very much.

Bill Seebeck

Adele Berenstein

Thanks Bill.

I agree that any company needs to keep in touch with its customers and ensure they are satisfied. I spent the last 19 years of my career, promoting customer satisfaction strategies and programs at a large multinational company. I just retired.

I also think that consumers need to understand that they can get responses from companies that are not 'responsive' such as the Google example you wrote about. There are techniques the average person can use, often with remarkably good results. I have been thinking of writing a book about those techniques. Having been on the other side, ie seeing how customers complain and how large companies respond, I think I can provide some value to the public to help get thier problems fixed fast.

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