Don’t know something? Google it and you are likely to find the answer.
But if you are an SME who wants to get in touch with Google, Facebook or PayPal, a simple internet search is unlikely to be much help.
The omnipresent internet giants are surprisingly difficult to contact and speaking to an actual person at any of the organisations is often impossible for SMEs.
Paul Wallbank, business writer and blogger, told SmartCompany that what is happening is simply “the web 2.0 way of doing business”.
“It’s to reduce costs,” he says. “The core of their business model is that there is no contact. Rather than having a call centre helping they will have a web page with frequently asked question and web forum where users can crowd source a solution.
“That’s their idea of support. Customer support is really hard work and a lot of these companies don’t like doing it.”
SmartCompany has discovered several Australian small businesses which have resorted to writing open letters on the internet, creating entire websites and ultimately commencing litigation in order to get a response out of the threesome.
Google: Don’t Be Evil
Google is known for its motto “don’t be evil” but when evil does happen it can prove very difficult to contact the internet search engine.
This evil can happen in a number of ways, a business can have its Google rankings penalised for search engine marketing violations, Google Adwords accounts stonewalled or Google Places accounts blocked.
Wallbank has had his own Google Places accounts suspended for over a year now. He says he tried making changes to his account in order to address any potential breaches and contacted Google, only to eventually receive an email response in standard style telling him that the account had been suspended for violating Google Places quality listing guidelines.
The email did not give any further details of the violation.
“There were no contact details on it and no accountability; just an anonymous email and not even the actual reason for the suspension,” says Wallbank.
“The really worrying thing about this is they don’t even tell you the account has been suspended, it just happens. Facebook and eBay do the same thing.
“I have no idea where I have fallen foul of the rules and as far as I can see I am complying with all of them.”
“This is one of the problems as the application of Google’s rules appears to be very arbitrary as it is very inconsistent.”
“One person will never have a problem but someone with an identical problem will have plenty of issues.”
“I call this the Soviet support model – anonymous bureaucrats airbrushing history.”
Mark Bowyer, the owner of a travel advice website Rusty Compass, ran into trouble when Google believed he breached its search advertising policies.
Google suspended Bowyer’s AdSense advertising account in September last year and withheld $131 in payments, citing concerns the site “posed a risk of generating invalid activity”.
Bowyer told SmartCompany he believes Google was concerned that he was scamming its system by generating invalid clicks and traffic.
Bowyer ended up complaining to New South Wales Fair Trading in order to get a response out of Google when it shut down his Adsense account.
“I went into this problem with Google absolutely certain that I had not done anything wrong and that conviction gives you a certain confidence when you have to face down a problem,” says Bowyer.
“Australia does have laws against unconscionable conduct which protect small companies from big companies and I was very fortunate that New South Wales Fair Trading took an interest and the press did.”
Bowyer says although his site has been reinstated in Google’s Adsense network he is still concerned about the ongoing lack of human interaction when dealing with Google.
“At the end of that whole experience and to this day I have not really had any human contact with Google.”
“There is potential for good publishing businesses to be disadvantaged if Google is not careful as there is a lot of power to be wielded there.”
“Many of Google’s defenders say these are all free services and they are, but many of us would be delighted to pay $100 a year or more for some kind of human interface.”
“But there is just no way to do it so that raises questions about getting all these things for free and in exchange you throw away all your rights and ability to talk to a human being.”
Google issued a statement following Bowyers’ case which said: “If a publisher feels that the decision to suspend their AdSense account was made in error, and if they can maintain in good faith that the invalid activity was not due to the actions or negligence of themselves or those for whom they are responsible, they can appeal the disabling of their account.
“Accounts will be reinstated on a case-by-case basis.”
Former health researcher Dr Janice Duffy also struggled to contact Google after discovering defamatory comments about herself on a US-based website called Ripoff Reports.
Duffy claims she has been falsely accused on Ripoff Report of blackmail, computer hacking, fraud and stalking. Ripoff Report has refused to remove the comments.
She told SmartCompany that the resulting stress has meant she has not been able to work since August and it has destroyed her career.
“It’s ruined my life. I was forced to leave my last job… and I don’t know who would employ me now,” she says.
Duffy is now suing Google Inc and Google Australia in the South Australian District Court for defamation after the search engine refused to remove the links.
She has also started her own website, DrJaniceDuffy.com, refuting the allegations in a bid to clear her name and get Google’s attention.
“It took me months to even find how to get in touch with Google and request to remove the defamation. I was trying for many months before I filed proceedings,” says Duffy.
Duffy says Google has a URL removal tool but in order to use it you have to sign up to an account which indemnifies Google from any action.
“Basically you spend months trying to find a way to contact them and then they refuse to do anything.”
“Even people who advertise with Google have trouble contacting it for answers. I think it is because Google thinks it is above national laws and individual rights.”
“If it looks like something is going to embarrass Google they will do something about it but otherwise they just blow people off,” says Duffy.
The only way to get in touch with Google if you have a problem is through its contact page http://www.google.com/contact/ which only offers communication through email forms and help forums.
Further contact details for Google such as a telephone number and email address are not provided.
Google was contacted several times for comment on this article but failed to respond.
Facebook: Let’s be friends
Facebook has built its business on connecting people around the world but the social network can be just as difficult as Google to get a hold of as Victoria Buckley discovered.
Buckley, who owns a high-end jewellery store in the Strand Arcade in Sydney administered a popular Facebook group for her store with thousands of fans.
The Facebook group included photographs of the jewellery displayed next to a tiny nude porcelain doll, images which Buckley used in her advertising for the store.
Buckley told SmartCompany that “out of the blue” she received warnings from Facebook saying pictures which included the doll on the site constituted “inappropriate content” and breached the site’s terms of service.
“The problem was that it was so opaque, I had no recourse to get back to Facebook and find what grounds [the classification of the photographs] was made on,” she says.
“As a small business owner they work to attract our business but as small business owners we have no way of contacting them.”
“It just takes a couple of those complaints to have your whole group closed down.”
Facebook eventually withdrew the complaint as the story became world news in over 60 countries.
“Facebook apologised and said the images would be allowed but I have chosen not to put the same images on there again as I am not trying to be inflammatory,” says Buckley.
“The images were very appropriate and tasteful for my business.”
“Under Facebook’s frame of reference images such as Michaelangelo’s statue of David would not be allowed.”
“It is very grey what Facebook allows, there is no dialogue – it is simply thrown in the too hard basket and closed down.”
Buckley claims her experience has destroyed her trust in Facebook.
“I don’t trust them because I have learnt from experience that they can arbitrarily make changes that can put you in a bad position or even jeopardise the trust of your clients.”
“I think it is a mistake to put all your eggs in one basket with social media.”
“Facebook has been great for me but I would not want to invest too much time or money in it.”
Buckley says she believes her problem was only because the case received worldwide media attention.
“If they are inviting us to use that platform as a business tool we have a right to some sort of point of contact if some issue jeopardises us,” she says.
“We have a right to defend our business.”
Facebook’s contact page lists five ways for Facebook users to get help from Facebook, however these methods are limited to a “database of common questions” and “discussing” your problem with the “Facebook community” in a user forum.
Facebook does not provide any telephone or email contact details on the page.
Facebook was contacted several times for comment on this article but failed to respond.
PayPal: The safer, easier way to pay
PayPal promotes itself as “the safer, easier way to pay” but there is nothing easy about getting in touch with the internet payment processor.
Influential blogger Darren Rowse resorted to publishing an open letter to PayPal on the internet in order to get a response to a request for payment data
After trying repeatedly to contact PayPal to request a payments report required for tax purposes the author and founder of the Digital Photography School blog and Problogger took to the internet.
Rowse drew on his 158,000 Twitter followers and 78,000 Google Plus circles and posted an open letter to PayPal on the social media networks.
“My tax lodgement is now overdue and I am likely to be charged a fine for being late,” it read.
“My business puts around a million dollars in payments through your services every year.”
“You take your fee (a substantial one as each payment involves currency exchanges) and I expect a certain level of services in return for that.”
“By my calculations I’ve had contact with around 10 of your customer service staff, have received three customer service surveys, have emailed you without getting a response at least four times and have spent hours on this.”
“This issue is now hindering my ability to run my business.”
Rowse’s open letter received numerous comments and shares on the networks, with many commentators reporting similar problems with PayPal.
Eventually Rowse resolved the problem through PayPal’s @AskPayPal Twitter account.
He says he is investigating using alternative payment methods for his businesses in the future.
For PayPal users without thousands of social media followers, James Omond, partner at the law firm Omond & Co advises that a complaint with the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) in Australia is necessary to get PayPal’s attention.
Omond tried to complain to PayPal about being paid in Australian dollars and then having the payment converted into US dollars by PayPal at a fee and then back into Australian dollars when the funds were withdrawn.
“I tried communicating with them by email, there are no phone numbers,” he says.
“The responses appeared to be computer-generated, as they bore little resemblance to my specific questions.”
Omond then discovered that PayPal is a member of the FOS and so he filed a complaint through the Ombudsman.
“This is where it got interesting, because they had to involve real people – who at one stage communicated directly with the FOS and said the complaint had been resolved, when this was far from the truth”, says Omond.
“The happy ending is that they eventually paid me the full amount of my claim, with nothing withheld for their multiple currency conversions.”
Adrian Christie, spokesperson for PayPal, told SmartCompany it was “alarming” that Rowse had to resort to writing an open letter to PayPal on the internet in order to get his problem solved.
“I can’t speak directly to the customer’s experience but I think in that case in the end the customer service via Twitter worked as an avenue to resolve the issue.”
“Tracking your account should be a simple thing. We are addressing that directly with the customer and investigating it to see where the errors lie.”
“Whenever we are aware of any potential issue we dive in to make sure we don’t just address one customer’s issue but also sort out the back-end.”
Christie denies PayPal is a faceless corporation which is difficult to contact.
“It is hardly the case at all,” he says.
“It is disheartening, because we don’t have branches or a physical footprint, beside our head office, that people would think that.”
“One of the strategies we used last year to let people know that we are here and listening and available is that we did a road show.”
“Our long-term business is to continue to enable commerce for our merchants.”
“It is not a short-term business that we are looking at.”
Christie claims PayPal is working hard to address communication problems.
“We have opened up new channels via the @AskPayPal Twitter account and we are open to being contacted through email, phone and social media,” he says.
In contrast to Facebook and Google, PayPal Australia’s contact page actually gives email and telephone contact details once logged in.
“Around the world we have over 5,000 [customer service] agents and the Australian ones are based in Arizona, Dublin, Omaha and Manila,” says Christie.
“We were not at a level we were happy with a couple of years ago and we have been constantly improving that to get to a level where we are proud of the customer service we offer.”
“Customer service is something we have been really focused on for the last two years.”
Christie acknowledged there was a level of disenchantment with PayPal which has lead to sites such as the US based “Screw PayPal” website which acts as a forum for complaints about the payment processing company.
“What is most important is whenever we hear of an issue that someone has with our service we don’t take that lightly.”
“We take that responsibility quite seriously in Australia as we now have over 4.3 million customers here.”
“We really have to live up to the expectations that consumers have of us because for many of them their businesses rely on us.”