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The Price Of Free And Google Voice

There’s an update – and positive resolution – to this saga.

What’s the price of free? It’s not a trick question like “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb” but a dead serious one, particularly if you’re a small business relying on inexpensive business solutions to succeed. You might use Zoho CRM for your customer database, Evernote to take important business notes, and Skype to communicate with your employees or contractors. All of these options are free (though some have paid, upgraded services) but I argue not without cost.

For me, I’ve been a user of Google Voice since back when it was non-Google GrandCentral. It was a great solution for me, providing slews of neat features all for free. There was even a time when I went on a working vacation and accidentally left my cell phone at home. No worries – I went to the online settings and had all my working calls forwarded to the vacation house. How cool is that?

These past couple of years, I’ve been a happy user…until this week when I discovered that the free service came with a high price. It turns out that I haven’t been receiving my calls to my Google Voice number for the better part of a month. When someone calls the GV number, they go to a generic voicemail and can leave a message. Except the message enters a black hole. The individual thinks they’ve successfully left a message for me but I never receive it. So for all intents and purposes, the caller thinks I’m not interested in their business (which couldn’t be further from the truth!).

So what to do when things go wrong? In my case, I have two recourses: 1) I can go to the public forum and log a question. Or 2) I can go to a private troubleshooting form, describe my issue, and wait..and wait…and wait. See, when a service is free there are no SLAs that a company has to worry about. There’s very little we can do when a problem is urgent. We’re at their mercy which is a tough spot to be in when you’re struggling to build a company or consultancy. I’m into day #3 and haven’t heard a peep from Google about this problem that is entirely their fault. Talk about feeling helpless. And personally irritated that I left something so damn important as a communication channel in the hands of a free service.

This is a situation very similar to one my friend, Paul Hudson, at Intersperience talks about in a recent article called Hidden Cost of Self-Service. I would also argue that even though Google Voice is free and that imparts risk for us users, it really doesn’t matter whether the service is paid or not. A failure to provide even an adequate level of service will tarnish your reputation and significantly diminish the customer experience. I’ve learned the hard way to not be so trusting of Google’s entire service suite or the free services from other companies. The cost to me has proved far too high.

A show of hands – are you using Google Voice for something important like your business or job hunting? Are you okay with the consequences when things go wrong? Before you answer, think carefully about your own reliance on free services (you can also take a look at some of the issues listed at the Google Voice Support Forum…it’s a bit scary).

Friends, protect yourself when it comes to the important things like phone numbers, email addresses, websites, etc. Don’t be lured by free when the cost could be lost customers. And business executives, don’t casually walk down the path of free and self-service. When things go wrong, will your customers still trust you to care for them when it really matters?

Anyone else have experiences with free services costing them more than you bargained for?


Update 07.20.10
After a few days of trying to line up a call, I finally spoke to Craig Walker, a Product Manager for Google. Turns out the major issue here was my request to move my GV number from one Google account to another. There’s an account transfer request form available through the GV help forum but it’s not exactly supported (which raises questions about why its still in existence). Associating a current GV number with a new Gmail address presents some hairy technical issues so word of warning: When you sign up for a Google Voice number, make certain its associated with a permanent account because it’s pretty much locked in.

But once I finally nailed Craig down, he was responsive in getting my call history and voicemails transferred to my Bailey WorkPlay gmail account. And he was generous in offering me a few perks including a sparkly new – and rather easy to remember – number: 512-827-9000.

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