GMail's Achilles Heel: Terrible Customer Service

Losing access to your GMail account is tantamount to banishment from the internet, but Google’s non-existent customer support makes it nearly impossible for rightful owners to regain control of their accounts. The New York Times asked Google why they couldn’t afford to offer phone-based customer support, a simple question Google needed three people to answer.

Mr. Glotzbach began by saying that “one-to-one support isn’t always the best answer” because it would take Google too long to collect lots of data about a problem that is affecting many users simultaneously.

For systemic problems, data collection is important. But not for other categories. Account recovery could be slow for a locked-out customer who doesn’t have a backup e-mail account, and who declined to provide a security question and answer because of concerns that someone else could use it to get in (which is what someone did to Gov. Sarah Palin’s Yahoo Mail account).

Mr. Badros argued that Google asks so little personal information of a new Gmail customer that it’s hard to determine identity when the genuine user and the impostor both present themselves to claim the account, and neither can produce the verification. He said more information could be asked of users when they sign up, but the inconvenience would dissuade them from trying the service.

Mr. Gilbert added that proving identity with only minimal information is a problem, whatever form of communication is used to reach customer support. He said, “Even if they were standing right in front of us, it wouldn’t help.”

So what can you do to protect your account?

  • Address your dependency issues. Download your GMail to a proper email client, where it’s safe from the ravages of the internet; sync your contact lists and calendars; backup your OPML file from Google Reader. If your Google account is compromised, sure, you’re going to want to beat the internet with the angry hammer, but at least your data will be safe.
  • Associate other accounts with your primary GMail address. Do you have a work email? Tell Google. It will drastically improve your ability to verify your identity.
  • Answer the security questions. Answer them well; nothing that’s easy to guess.
  • Always login securely using SSL. Our sister site Valleywag has instructions for automating the process.
  • Shell out $50 for Google Apps Premier Edition, which comes with phone-based support.

There is a world of difference between bad customer support and no customer support. Surely the company claiming to organize the world’s information can at least organize which of their users owns which accounts.

Can’t Open Your E-Mailbox? Good Luck

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