An open letter to Nest Labs - please don't outsource your support

Dear Nest,

Yesterday, you launched your new Protect smoke detector product. Pretty much my entire social feed is filled with people lusting over the device, especially those — like me — who already have enjoyed the Learning Thermostat and want the amazing experience that comes with a Nest product.

You have another experience beyond your products that also receives massive accolades, and rightly so: your product support. From what I understand, you’re about to do it a terrible disservice.

I recently had to do some minor home repair that required me to remove my Nest from the wall. When I reattached it, I had thought that I’d properly rewired it … lo and behold, things were not acting quite as they had before. After some futzing around, I decided to call for help.

Normally, I don’t do that. I’m one of those people who don’t read manuals, who love figuring things out for themselves. (I don’t even ask for directions if I happen to get lost.) That alone should give you an idea of how willing and happy I am to call someone else.

Nest’s support amazed me when I first called last December. Your representative stayed with me, ever so patiently, for over an hour as we worked through my somewhat odd heating system. Eventually, the unit was working and we were on our way to intelligent heating.

The experience I just had — over nine months later — was, dare I say, even better. Not only did the representative (a different one, I should add) quickly get my unit working again, he helped figure out a problem that had dogged me since first installing the unit — the fan on my furnace never fully shut off. It’s a variable speed fan. Which the Nest officially supports, I know, but it never seemed to work properly. Yet, despite not knowing how my heating system works, he — patiently — worked me through tracing a bad wiring job that led to the Nest being confused by voltage. And suddenly — fan control. You have no idea how happy this makes me.

Then, after receiving my high praise, he told me that he was not long for his job, because you’re outsourcing support somewhere else. To be very honest, that made me sad.

It made me sad not for your representative — I’m sure he’ll land on his feet elsewhere — but for your future customers who will not receive the same level of attention, and for the inevitable impact on your company’s reputation. Because no matter how well you’ve been sold on the idea, or given metrics on cost savings, or promises that there will be no change to Nest’s support capability, your company is going to suffer for this decision.

And lest you think this is just an armchair plea, please understand that I do know what I’m talking about.

I’ve done the outsourcing/offshore thing. I’ve been at the other end. And I know the difficulties that will be posed by moving a Canadian/American service to anywhere else on the planet. And yes, I mean “anywhere”. Because if it’s not in either Canada or the United States, it will always fail expectations.

Americans — and Canadians, whether or not we Canucks want to acknowledge it — are arrogant, brash, demanding, and impatient. We’ve become this way over decades, pushing ourselves to bend and break rules (not to mention a few laws) in the interests of getting business done as quickly (and supposedly as efficiently) as possible to benefit our companies’ bottom lines. Within the confines of these two countries, such behaviour is tolerated (if not accepted and even encouraged).

Outside of our little island of hostility, that’s a different matter. The rest of the world operates on a different schedule, and businesses — even those ostensibly run as extensions of American/Canadian companies — operate differently. They operate by local culture, and most other cultures tend to be less uptight than we are.

That’s not a criticism of other cultures, incidentally — that’s a direct criticism of Americans and Canadians. It is we who are the problem in this equation. The people who will be answering your phones will not be Canadian or American. They will not understand the urgency or impatience that Americans and Canadians express when they call for help. We want answers now, and we want someone we can relate to. It’s that latter one you’re going to have problems with, because we don’t really relate to anyone but ourselves. Heaven help the poor soul who isn’t already a metre in the air when we say “jump”.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Years ago, I was talking with Akamai (for those of you unaware, a company that helps distribute content over the internet). We were working with the account person from California, who understood our need to get a service up and running as quickly as possible. He very eager shortcut process and side-stepped policy, with verbal agreement that we would follow up immediately with written authorization, to get us what we needed.

A couple of months later, our account was transferred to a different representative, based out of India. Suddenly, all the flexibility we had become used to had vanished; the Indian group played by a different set of rules — rules that are common in India — because they weren’t familiar with how Americans and Canadians behave. I, being a typical brute, was unpleasant. (I would not learn my lesson until two years later…)

Another one. When you’re working in IT, you often have to call large vendors to deal with licensing problems, or because a certain piece of software is misbehaving. This particular example is with Adobe. If you live in either the United States or Canada (and possibly other countries, but I couldn’t find out for certain), you’ll get an offshore support representative. And it’s frustrating.

I know this, having had many conversations with people setting up or maintaining offshore support services when I lived in Costa Rica. Short version: those people do not work for Adobe, or AT&T, or Bell, or whomever is contracting the service. They receive access to libraries of information, and have to work through scripts to find answers — they don’t have the hands-on knowledge that real support delivers.

Irony: If you live in Costa Rica and call Adobe support — which I had to — you’ll get someone in the United States. Which, when I heard the voice, left me stunned (I half-expected to get one of the various call centres near the company I was working at). Apparently, you could actually get American support staff when you weren’t in America, and I’ll tell you: it really helped me understand the difference.

These days, I deal a lot with Rackspace, a hosting vendor based out of Austin, Texas. They maintain a large support base in Austin, whom I’ve spoken with many times (we do a lot of server work; when you do enough of a thing, you’ll eventually run into trouble). I chat with them online, over the phone, and through email — and in all cases (I think; I have actually checked several times), I’m dealing with someone who understands pressures and demands, and is amiable to the personalities of Canadians/Americans.

This is the problem you’re going to face, Nest — making support work for your American/Canadian customer base. I’m not saying we’re the only ones who can do support, nor do I suggest we’re the best, but we are most certainly the loudest and most caustic to when support doesn’t meet expectation.

Something to consider,

One of your current (and likely repeat) customers