A business I know well asked for some help this week.
For some time they have been using a well known online file storage service - let's call it "Product A" to spare its blushes - at a premium price and service level, and have experienced some problems with its reliability.
So far, so unsurprising: fast-growing consumer tech services do experience many glitches.
The more interesting and disappointing part has been the way that Product A has dealt with the various detailed and carefully written support requests my friends have submitted. The replies have almost all been standard pieces of text, based, it would seem, on an algorithmic scan of the text content of the support request received. Possibly completely automated.
The client business regards Product A as of strategic importance, and has therefore invested in a premium service level monthly fee. They have been hugely disappointed by the very limited human intervention by Product A in a series of problems that is causing them to question their continued use of the service.
What's more, there is no process available to them to escalate the problem to a human being in a position of authority, short of sending in an email with "COMPLAINT! IMMINENT CLIENT LOSS! PLEASE WAKE UP!" as the subject line. Which would perhaps be a little extreme in the circumstances. They just want the problems solved.
This story is an insight, I think, into the normal approach of large, fast-growing businesses to the challenge of supporting their customers when questions or problems arise.
Traditional operational management thinking encourages us to funnel support through processes that minimise the impact on our "human resources."
Hence the widespread use of help desk automation technology, and the bane of all our lives - queueing for the privilege of a conversation with a human being in a call centre. Help and support on the service provider's terms, not ours as the customer. The result: faceless support.
It's understandable at the sort of scale that Product A has reached that they are adopting the approach of "support management by exception" and perhaps anyone choosing to use a product that's clearly going stellar should expect to be held at arm's length when they have a problem.
But to my mind, all of this does raise a cultural question mark over Product A, and increase the likelihood of my friends moving away in time.
The whole experience forced me to think carefully about the support culture at Webreality. We take great pride in our response times and the way we help and support our clients with the technology we've supplied and their digital marketing strategies.
We do make use of a help desk software system, but not because we want to avoid human contact - simply to make sure that we get full written details of any problems our clients are dealing with. But we are always more than happy to take a call when things really can't wait. And escalation is absolutely not an issue - Dave, Mark, Tom and I (the directors) are always keen to hear directly by phone from any client who wants help or has a problem.
We regard every support call as a chance to deliver value, and historically we have found that the clients who have made greatest calls on our support service have ended up using more and more of our full service set, because we've impressed them with our responsiveness and insights. It's common to hear things like "Thanks - I hadn't thought of that," or "I wasn't expecting it for nothing," or "Wow - that was quick!" We like to be challenged.
We don't always get it right, but I have often observed the Webreality team absolutely at their best when something goes wrong and a quick solution is needed.
It's a cultural thing, a passion. We're very proud of it.
We'll never be as big as Product A, but that's the point - the very human level of service we aim to offer isn't easily compatible with global scale.
Support isn't a burden, but an opportunity.