Google adds online chat to Apps support options

Apps admins will be able to communicate with Google tech support staffers via online chat, complementing other existing options, including phone calls.

More than 90 percent of beta testers of the new Apps chat support service gave it a thumbs up recently, so Google has decided to roll it out for English speakers globally. Chat support will be provided in more languages in the coming months, Google said Tuesday, without specifying which languages are in the pipeline or the timeline for availability. Apps end users won't get access to the chat support.

Google Apps, a cloud suite that includes email, productivity apps and file storage, has been in the market for about eight years. It's not clear why Google didn't provide this support option earlier, given that it has become widespread among retailers, banks, IT vendors and other businesses. Clearly, a key consideration when prepping a new support service is to make sure that it can handle the expected volume of queries. There are currently 5 million Apps customers.

And at this point, Google is ahead of Microsoft in this area, since Microsoft doesn't offer online chat support for Office 365.

Asked for details about the level of knowledge and skill the online chat support staffers will have, and to what extent will they be able to help customers troubleshoot problems, a Google spokeswoman said via email: "We don't disclose details of our training and staffing but I can say our goal is to resolve cases on the first call; we have very well trained front-line support engineers to make this possible."

Even if some suggest that Google should have provided this earlier, the new support option is a good addition to the suite, because it's a method of communication that is familiar to and favored by admins in organizations that use cloud software, Jeffrey Mann, a Gartner analyst, said . "It's always easy to say, when someone does something good, that is should have been done earlier," he said.

Google also has to strike a delicate balance between the support it offers Apps customers and the support that its partners provide, according to T.J. Keitt, a Forrester Research analyst. Google has invested heavily in training its partners to deliver direct support to its Apps customers, so Google doesn't want to erode its partners' value. "I'm sure that this feature was the result of them listening to customer concerns and consulting with their premiere level partners," Keitt said.

Google also announced that it has finished rolling out what it calls "in product help" -- the contextual placing of relevant support documentation, help articles and contact options, like the support phone number, within each application's interface.

Overall, enterprises seem to be "reasonably happy, not ecstatic" with the support they get from providers of SaaS (software as a service) communication and collaboration suites like Apps and Microsoft's Office 365, according to Mann. A common complaint among these companies remains that SaaS vendors aren't as transparent nor as clear in their communications with them whenever their applications suffer an outage, he said.

Google started providing around-the-clock phone support for Apps admins in late 2011. Back then, Google also said it wanted to get its Apps customer support satisfaction up to 95 percent, from 80 percent among all business customers and 90 percent among large business customers specifically. On Tuesday, the company said it has achieved that goal. This satisfaction metric is based on a seven-point scale presented to customers after a support case is closed.

It's important for Google to emphasize this area of support. Many companies adopting Google Apps and Office 365 are migrating from on-premises systems, which they could check if something went wrong, so now they need reassurance that they have a direct connection with someone able to diagnose and remedy their problems, Keitt said. "Any steps the vendors and their partners can take to give their clients this peace of mind, the better," he said.

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