The New York Times had a pathetically funny article in its business section last week that highlighted a common misperception about what constitutes a customer – and thereby, what constitutes customer service – in the age of free.
The article tells the tale of Gmail users and their travails as they try to find a human being who can figure why their Gmail accounts are no longer working as expected. Days, hours, weeks even pass before resolution takes place.
Meanwhile Google representatives stick to their guns, insisting that the poor sap who complained to the New York Times about the four weeks it took him to get help with his Gmail problem was actually the beneficiary of the company’s strict security policies, which are intended to prevent unauthorized use.
Take that, victim.
Actually, the real problem with the article is the notion that people using Gmail – or any of the other users of Google’s free services – are customers at all. That’s an unfortunately fallacious assumption that many users make when they think of their relationship with their free Web-based service providers.
This assumption is equally absurd whether you’re a user of Gmail, Yahoo mail, eBay, Craigslist, or any of the most popular and unpopular free services.
Ready for a dose of reality: If it’s free, you’re not the customer, you’re the mark, as in, to quote Merriam-Webster’s, “a victim or prospective victim of a swindle.”
Okay, that was a little hyperbolic: It’s not all a swindle, by any stretch of the imagination. But you, the user of free services, are actually the one every vendor is betting on to be begged, cajoled, marketed to (or yes, even defrauded) into buying goods and services that they’re peddling on the Web sites of the eBays and Gmails and Yahoos, et al. You are definitely something in the view of these free service providers, but ‘customer’ is not the right word.
In other words, the real customer is someone, or something, that is paying well for the privilege of being a customer – unlike you – and, in most cases, is getting the high-touch customer service that the “marks” in the New York Times article mistakenly think they deserve as well.
Over at Google, the customer is the advertiser, as is the case at Yahoo. In Craigslist-land, the customer is either the buyer of advertiser of employment opportunities (in most of its primary markets), or broker-offered real estate in New York City. At eBay, the customer is the seller, and, in particular, the 13 million premium sellers who are doing major business on E-bay.
That’s not to say there isn’t some version of customer support out there in freebie land. Unlike some, eBay actually has a number you can call when you have a problem, and it’s not even that hard to find on their website. But don’t mistake phone support for customer support: eBay may support its buyers, but it absolutely coddles its sellers, I mean customers.
Against this backdrop of who is the real customer, there’s a bit of a crisis going on in freebie land, and that was exemplified by the announcement on October 6 that eBay was laying off ten percent of its workforce, which totaled 16,000 before the cuts. Part of the reason for the layoff was a certain problem with, to quote the Times, “declining single-digit growth rates while online commerce has been growing at a double-digit clip.”
The Times attributes this drop to a shift in buying preferences away from eBay’s auction model to a fixed price model, but I have a different take. eBay, which has preferred to pass the buck, literally, when it comes to fraudulent dealings on its site, is having a bit of a brand erosion problem. Particularly against arch-rival Amazon.com, which has an entirely different attitude about the quality of the transactions it enables on its web site.
In other words, Amazon spends a lot of effort knowing who the buyer and seller are, and, in general, ensuring that the kind of fraud and bad dealings that go on over at eBay aren’t permitted at Amazon. It’s not about auction or fixed price, it’s about, well, customer support.
And over at Amazon, by the way, guess who they consider the customer? You only get one guess.
So, don’t be dismayed if you’re treated like last month’s chopped liver by someone you’re getting a free service from: after all, why should they invest in your well-being when there’s money to be made worrying about the real customers?
The bottom line is that if you want customer service and support, you’re going to have to pay for it. And if you’re not paying for it, stop complaining. After all, you’re getting exactly what you pay for. And not a drop more.