In search of customer service: Yahoo, Google and Microsoft

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"Just so you know, that proposal will cost $199."

Those were the words that came out of the Yahoo sales rep's mouth last week after I presented a slam-dunk opportunity with a Fortune 1000 firm. I just about dropped the phone.

What bizarro world had I just landed in? I suddenly understood what the Yahoo Peanut Butter memo meant when it described the organization as "overly bureaucratic."

Despite improved technology and offerings, it is customer service, or the lack thereof, that continues to smear the search industry's reputation.

A few years ago it was Google with the nose in the air while Yahoo doted upon direct and agency clients alike. Today, there has been a role reversal, with Google dedicating individuals to key accounts and Yahoo sending my client and I to the bowels of inside sales. (For a full transcript of said conversation, we'll have to take this offline.)

One might say that Google has learned a few things from Yahoo. And it wouldn't be the first time, if you remember a little company called Overture. In previous years, Yahoo wooed Fortune 1000 names by selling the big picture with the powerful "Closing the Loop" presentation.

The deck clearly demonstrated that offline activities, as well as online display, do drive search. Suddenly search made sense to the old-school chief marketing officers. Clients ate it up. I ate it up. It was brilliant.

Apparently those days are long gone. In addition to last week's incident, Yahoo recently stumbled when I brought the world's largest real estate franchise to its doorstep for an introduction.

A late entrant to search, the firm had just approved a new budget for a targeted effort. I believe the initial response from Yahoo was, "Sorry, we are down people and just don't have the bandwidth right now."

After begging and pleading, I managed to get the gentleman on the phone for a conference call, during which he seemed terribly burdened.

Google, on the other hand, eagerly jumped in the picture by appointing a lead with real estate experience to pitch the ever-growing suite of offerings. Last I heard the account is doing well.

One might ask where Microsoft is in all of this.

After a big launch earlier this year, the phone lines went dead and e-mails went unanswered. Given the firm's slow entry to the market, I had visions of all hands on deck, coding away. That is, until I spoke to the folks at Search Engine Strategies Chicago.

"So what exactly is going on with your sales force?" I had to ask. The Microsoft rep was refreshingly candid in his response. "We are focusing much more attention on clients and sales leads than in the past."

Sure enough, he followed up on the request a day after the show closed. Perhaps there is hope after all.

Now that service firms, such as search engine marketing shops, have traveled the long, bumpy road towards building technology, it is now time for the technology firms to learn a bit about service. And despite our love for the automated, remember that not everything, and most certainly not customer interactions, should be.
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