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What does customer service have to do with innovation? Everything.

You return to your car and find that you’ve locked the keys insides, or lost them — what do you do? Most likely you pull out your smart phone and use Google to find a nearby locksmith. But according to a recent investigation by The New York Times, shady locksmiths are gaming Google’s local search results, then gouging customers.

This is a nationwide problem, and Google is aware of it. The scam involves plugging phony business addresses into Google Maps; addresses are an important part of the algorithm for Google local search. But Dan Austin, a former volunteer editor for Google Maps who battled the locksmith-business spammers, told the Times that Google isn’t really focused on the issue.

Initially, Mr. Austin regarded Google as a benign Goliath that cared about consumers and small businesses. But about 18 months after his campaign began, pessimism crept in. He realized, he said, that spammers were changing tactics much faster than Google was adopting countermeasures. …It wasn’t a priority, he said. The company is dominated by software coders, and they want to solve the most interesting problems, or create the coolest products. “Fighting spam is boring,” Mr. Austin said. “The employees who cared didn’t have the political clout in the company. I’d hear Googlers say, ‘Maps is a mess. It’s known at the highest levels, but we don’t talk about it publicly.’”

customer-service-for-innovation-successWe are innovation evangelists, preaching to all who will listen that innovation is not an event but a process; not a topic for weekly meetings but a way of life. However, balance is essential. No organization should let the pursuit of new ideas blind it to other priorities, like customer service.

As a B2B company, we think about customer service differently than a B2C organization would.

For us, customer service is almost entirely proactive, not reactive. Our job is to anticipate problems and fix them before the product reaches the market. We don’t get do-overs. Companies like Google do — and to be fair, Google constantly tweaks and refines its search algorithm to produce useful results. But if Austin and others who spoke to the New York Times are correct, the flaws in Maps have not attracted the attention they need within the company.

Proactive and reactive customer service will be especially important in the growth of the Internet of Things. As online security expert Brian Krebs recently warned,

“Before purchasing an Internet of Things (IoT) device — a thermostat, camera or appliance made to be remotely accessed and/or controlled over the Internet — consider whether you can realistically care for and feed the security needs of yet another IoT thing. There is a good chance your newly adopted IoT puppy will be chewing holes in your network defenses; gnawing open new critical security weaknesses; bred by a vendor that seldom and belatedly patches; tough to wrangle down and patch.”

In our view, Amazon stands out as a company that’s excelling at both innovation and customer service. In 2015, business news site 24/7 Wall St. and polling company Zogby Analytics named Amazon to their Customer Service Hall of Fame for the sixth straight year — and that’s one of many such awards for the company. A big part of this success is the Amazon Prime membership package, which offers a range of benefits, from free shipping for many products to free streaming music and videos. RBC Capital, an investment bank, recently noted: "The two ‘killer’ data points, in our view, are that Amazon is building up significant loyalty amongst Prime members and that the longer Amazon Prime members stay around, the more they engage/spend with Amazon.”

But Amazon also broke new ground with the Echo, a voice-controlled Bluetooth speaker that can play music, answer questions and serve as the brain of a wired home. Amazon keeps adding new features or “Alexa Skills” and is allowing third-party developers to come up with more. “Alexa Skills” offer unlimited potential for functions created simply by using your voice. One enthusiastic reviewer wrote, “it’s now the most-used gadget in my home.”

When designing and building a skill, you define intents that a user invokes with their voice. You also create a cloud-based service that accepts these user interactions in the form of structured, understood requests, and then acts upon them. You do not need to do any parsing or natural language handling yourself — the Alexa service takes care of that.

And soon you’ll be able to see one in a brick-and-mortar Amazon book store.

In the end, innovation is always about people. Consumers may appreciate an elegant design, or marvel at a new engineering solution, but ultimately, they just want the product to work and not get in the way of their lives. It’s important never to let the search for the new interfere with providing what’s expected.


Topics: Alexa Skills, customer service, google, News, Alexa, Amazon, business innovation, Commentary Piece, Echo, Internet of Things

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