In the past few days all of Google’s many eyes have been on Germany. Not only did the German court request that Google reveal its top-secret algorithm, but it ruled that Google must now, by law, provide a way for German users to contact the company via email. Ignoring customer emails by coolly sending autoreply messages doesn’t count as adequate customer service.
Google has fallen foul of German telecommunications law, which states that companies are required to provide customers with “details which permit rapid electronic contact and direct communication with them, including the electronic mail address”. Basically: Google customer service now officially sucks.
Victory for customers world-wide
While some might see this as a petty and ridiculous application of the law, and one which unfairly targets Google – it’s no secret that Western European governments are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the all-seeing digital business and its apparently permanent memory – it could also be considered a victory for common sense. After all, it stands to reason that a customer service email should be used to provide customer service, right?
As it is, Google’s German customer service email, firstname.lastname@example.org, returns an automated email stating that messages sent to that address will not be read. The autoreply includes links to FAQs and other instructions, presumably so that users can solve their own problems without the company having to get involved.
The consequences for your SME
Now that the law is being publicised (you can find it here, search for ‘rapid electronic contact’), all companies doing business in Germany leave themselves open to potential legal action if they, too, fail to provide a means of direct communication. The question then becomes: what exactly is direct communication? And how rapid is ‘rapid’?
It’s not uncommon to receive a customer service autoreply that states that your email has been received but a response may take some time. Does that time delay constitute a ‘rapid’ response? Does offering Facebook customer service constitute ‘direct communication’, if no response is received?
The fact is, of course, that none of these questions are really relevant to you if you truly have your customer’s needs at heart. Businesses that provide truly stellar customer service (and we clearly can’t include Google amongst them) don’t need to worry about such legal technicalities: their focus is already on communicating clearly and effectively, with the customer in mind. And, to be honest, any decent business shouldn’t need a law to tell it to respond to customer enquiries.
Being truly helpful to your customer
But even if your business is following the letter of the law, are you actually in tune with the spirit of it? We’ve all encountered businesses that are clearly under the impression that they are good at customer service and at communication, just because they actually read (and send unhelpful replies) to customer emails. There’s nothing like a speedy, useless reply to make you curse a business – and then go elsewhere.
We could argue that Google can ignore this particular German law with impunity because they can easily afford to pay the potential €300,000 fine and, in any case, individual users are not where they make their money (plus with more than 750 million users of Google Chrome alone, they can easily afford to lose a few). It’s the smaller businesses who need to take careful note of this new ruling, and adapt their practices accordingly.
The takeaway? SMEs really can’t afford to ignore either the spirit or the letter of German telecommunications law, wherever they are in the world. Not because they are subject to it, but because without fast and effective online customer service, they are unlikely to survive.