37signals’ failed case for customer service by email

We use Basecamp in the Corbis Marketing Department as our project management tool. In my opinion, and for how we use it, it’s a great piece of software that allows us to track projects in a consistent, timely and organized way. It’s especially good at keeping our teams on the same page and aware of everything going on.

But last week, we all tried to log in and no one could. I was the first in (I’m an early riser who likes to get to work before 7am, when I can), so I made the first attempts and working with 37signals customer service.

After plowing through the site, it became clear that sending an email is the only way to work with their customer service department. So I wrote to them with a description of the problem and went about seeking a phone number for them. I prefer customer service by phone and am generally pretty tenacious, so I accepted the challenge of finding a working phone number.

While I never did find a number, I did find a 37signals blog post about how they will never use phone service and why they find email customer service superior. After reading it, I couldn’t disagree more.

Their premise, if I’m summing it correctly, is that with phone, you could end up sitting around on hold for 45 minutes wasting your time when you could write a simply email and go on about your business.

But there are a few problems with this:

1. They imply they’ll return your email in 15 minutes, but it took them a few hours to get back to me. That’s a few hours in which my entire team couldn’t use the service without having any idea why or when it would return.

2. Their assumption that all phone customer service takes 45 minutes or longer is largely false, in my experience. Within the last two days, I’ve had to deal with DirecTV and Comcast, and in each case, I only had to wade through less than 3 minutes of automated direction before finding a person who helped me.

3. My biggest objection to only allowing email is that I rarely have a customer service experience that doesn’t involve a lengthy and unpredictable set of questions and answers between myself and the representative. If I’m trying to resolve a problem, and I have to have a 20 email exchange with a company representative, that could easily last several hours and end up taking far more mental energy as I have to shift my focus in and out of that conversation while I try and accomplish other things.

4. Patience. It is there belief that they’re being more efficient, and while there’s an argument to be made that they may be right (though I disagree), if you’ve got a pressing problem or you’re impatient, it’s far more frustrating to have to wait for someone to respond to your initial email (not to mention all of the subsequent emails). At least with waiting on hold, you feel like someone at least knows you’re there – even if they can’t get to you right away – and you can always have the hold on speaker while you work on other things.

On a personal, customer level, what I really don’t like is the tone of their post. It’s written as if email is definitively better, and since I think it’s definitively not, I leave frustrated because I’m the customer, and I know what I like best.

But regardless of whether email or phone service is decidedly better, isn’t the best and simplest answer to provide both? Then you are able to accommodate customers who like email AND customers who like phone.

I guess I could write this to the 37signals folks, but who knows how long it would be before they answered me. And even if they did, I’d probably have several follow-up questions, but I don’t feel like taking the time to organize my thoughts and put them in writing in an email.

– My name is Jon Friesch, and I’m a customer.

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