The TechCrunch Exchange - Who you gonna call? Good question

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By Anna Heim

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Welcome to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It's inspired by the daily TechCrunch+ column where it gets its name.

Young startups often thrill early adopters by offering outstanding customer service with a personal touch. Many Big Tech companies, on the other hand, are notoriously hard to get a hold of when running into any sort of problem. Let’s look into why this is happening, and whether it might change any time soon. — Anna


Image Credits: Nigel Sussman


“Customer complaints handling at scale is broken at most tech companies,” author and engineer Gergely Orosz wrote in a blog post.

Like many tech employees, Orosz learned of customer service struggles firsthand while working at Skype and Uber: “As soon as you update your LinkedIn profile to the new gig, you start to get messages from friends of friends asking to solve one of their problems.”

If people are desperate to find a connection inside tech companies who can help them with an issue, it is because of how hard it otherwise is to get a human in the loop. Meta is a blatant example of this: “Facebook and Instagram serve nearly 3 billion users a day with a help desk that numbers closer to zero,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Self-service support works well in many instances, but not always. For example, when a user is hoping to understand how to regain access to an account that may have been closed for unclear reasons — in addition to Facebook’s Community Standards, the company’s outsourced content moderators follow guidelines that haven’t been made public.

Opaque standards and simple mistakes often leave users wondering how to recover a suspended account they sorely miss, something especially important when they are also creators. As a result, the desperation can be real, opening up space for all sorts of dodgy hacks and scams.

NPR noted in 2017 that “searching for ‘Facebook customer service’ can lead to a scam.” Meta may have improved its SEO game since then, but scams are still happening, driven in part by a particular search query that remains popular. And one thing is for sure: It leads to loads of pages and recommendations that aren’t created or endorsed by Facebook.

Some of the advice being floated on how to contact Facebook about account issues seems reasonable; for instance, contacting the company via rival network Twitter. Other suggestions, such as reporting your own profile, are even more counterintuitive, and perhaps ill-advised. And you do you, but sleeping with Meta employees to get an Instagram account unsuspended, like an OnlyFans creator said she did, probably isn’t for everyone either. (Meta previously declined to comment.)

A common complaint among users cut out from their accounts is that they can no longer be reached by their audience and customers. Which makes sense, considering how much of a cornerstone Meta and its properties have become for customer relations, even more so since the 2018 launch of the WhatsApp Business app. The Menlo Park firm even acquired CRM platform Kustomer for no less than $1 billion to expand into customer service tools. A bit ironic, don’t you think?

Well, maybe someone at Meta heard that tune, too. In December of last year, Meta announced some testing inside the Facebook app of a “live chat help for some English-speaking users globally, including creators, who've been locked out of their accounts.”

Meta’s contradictions make it an easy target, but its customer support isn’t worse than the average Big Tech company’s — with the exception of Amazon, Orosz pointed out.

Indeed, the e-commerce giant makes handling customer complaints a priority, in a way that isn’t common for companies of that scale. Yet, consumer-facing startups do it on a daily basis, with far fewer resources. So what’s the deal?

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Scaling, and things that don't scale

In one of his most popular essays, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham argued that startups should “do things that don’t scale.” Outstanding customer service is one of these, and a way for young companies to differentiate themselves from larger ones.

“Tim Cook doesn’t send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can’t. But you can,” Graham wrote, addressing startup founders. “That’s one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can.”

I am not going to dispute that proper customer service at scale is a challenge, and that a “wow” effect seems even more out of reach the larger your company becomes. But then again, I know that TechCrunch regularly covers startups that create products and services meant to make customer support more manageable for companies of all sizes. And while a lot of these are automation-centric, some also have a human component.

French startup Onepilot, for instance, offers outsourced customer care that unites people and technology. Its co-founder, Pierre Latscha, told me he is convinced that this is what end users want and need. “Of course, a brand must give its users the opportunity to be autonomous in their purchasing process. However, most of them want to be accompanied by a human before, during and after a transaction.”

If you think startups are the only type of companies that can give customers the hands-on experience they want, think again: Onepilot also works with scaleups, including three unicorns, Latscha said. Outsourcing helps here, but it isn’t the only factor: An understanding of customer service’s ROI potential also plays a big role.

Bad customer care causes churn, with data indicating that 60% of consumers across the U.S. and U.K. say that they would stop buying from a brand after a poor customer service experience. And this is when customers haven’t already chosen to direct their spending elsewhere based on reputation alone.

Maybe the crux of the problem, then, is that Big Tech companies are so hegemonic that they don’t really need to differentiate themselves from nonexistent competitors. Or that end users aren’t their customers; in most cases, advertisers are.

Then again, people using Big Tech solutions in a professional capacity aren’t exactly feeling supported, including advertisers with large budgets. In the blog post I mentioned earlier, Orosz highlighted a full-page newspaper ad from an agency saying it was having issues with its Google Ads account despite spending $865,346 on the platform in 2021.

As an individual, some hope that becoming a paid customer will help them get better support. But in the case of premium offering Twitter Blue, there are no such shortcuts. “Twitter Blue subscribers receive dedicated support for subscription-specific issues, only,” an FAQ page explains.

Twitter justifies its decision not to offer VIP treatment to Twitter Blue subscribers when it comes to issues like content moderation, saying that it is working toward “providing the best customer support in [its] industry” and “committed to treating everyone fairly and equitably.”

Fairness is laudable, of course. But since we are talking about big principles, shouldn’t it be mandatory for companies to put customers first and let them choose the channel through which they request help? Unfortunately, the European Court of Justice doesn’t think so, and in 2019 ruled that there is no obligation for online sellers to provide a phone number to consumers.

I am calling this unfortunate because not being able to get someone on the phone to sort out a problem with a Big Tech company is detrimental to society as a whole. It contributes to a sense of powerlessness that erodes trust in a broader way (“Black Mirror” episode Smithereens makes this point much better than I ever could.)

Call me naive, but I think that social cohesion is more important than balance sheets. If you don’t, maybe we can agree on something else: that neglecting users is ultimately bad for business. If you lost access to your Facebook account tomorrow, how hard would you fight to get it back? That’s a question I hope Big Tech companies ponder.

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