Does the Google Vending Machine Work for Everything?

Lots of money and legions of online followers can generate a lot of successful business models. Ask our friends at Google, who have delved into everything from search, to email hosting, browser software, OS developer, and mobile hardware building. Google has applied their infrastructure to a lot of different businesses, and frequently finds success.

Having a person on the other end of the phone to solve problems? Unfortunately, that is not part of the Google toolbox. And when it works, few of us are likely to complain. We respect the idea of thoughtfully engineering activities to the point where human support isn’t required. It sounds good, at least in principle.

One of the problems that strikes me about this model, however, is that the company hasn’t engineered humans out of the equation. Instead, they’ve re-created the business concept from scratch; which makes sense if your goal is to create an innovative offering, but it also creates unfortunate gaps. Not fully valuing the service elements formerly delivered under the human model.

Take business directories, as an example. A topic more than a few of us here at Slaw can identify with. Google’s local business directory Places has become incredibly dominant, very quickly. But for the business owner trying to claim their listing, there are a host of problems that could be cleared up with a single phone call:

  • Google crawls other directories across the web, frequently causing duplicate records — isolating your company’s official record, and getting Google’s algorithm to recognize that decision, is painfully slow;
  • Google pulls reviews from other business directories, downloading the responsibility for quality control;
  • Claiming your business listing outside of the US market (still!) requires a snail mail postcard to confirm ownership.

Not having a fail-safe contact point, like a 1-800 number to call, makes this vending machine approach to service very frustrating. The business model may be profitable, but it also fails to deliver the levels of consumer service that most of us have grown to expect.

All this makes me ask two questions:

  1. How long before other mass-market vendors move towards mimicking this low-service, but profitable, model? Think: telecommunications, gas companies, and electricity.
  2. How long can web companies conceivably get away with diminished service levels, before they (again) are forced to change their business?

The instinctive response is to say they’ve got us ‘over-a-barrel’, but think long term here. Web-supported business services are less than 20 years old (at best). Engineering will obviously get better; but so will the competition levels.

It’s tough to believe that customer service for mass-scale companies can be ignored forever.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Steve.

    It reminds me a bit of how certain airlines require you to book online. If you want to talk to a human, they make you pay a surcharge. I’m of two minds about this.

    On one hand, it’s a million times more convenient and pleasant to book online — no half-hour waits in static elevator music hell. In theory, encouraging people to use self-service keeps costs down for everyone. In theory, when these self-serve systems are designed to be easy to use and work properly and consistently, everyone wins.

    I mean, generally, customer service by phone is so unpleasant and inefficient that I would almost sooner pay a surcharge to book online! Trust me – given a self-serve, “vending machine” option, I’ll almost always take it. If I know it works, that is.

    But on those occasions when I actually NEED to talk to a human, should I be required to pay a premium? If there’s a transaction I actually can’t do online, or that I legitimately need assistance with, should companies essentially be penalizing me as their customer? It is cost recovery, or just another revenue stream?

    It’ll be really interesting to see where customer service goes over the coming years.