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Nexus One a test of Google's customer service

Google tends to handle customer service inquiries through message boards and e-mails, eschewing phone support. That might not work in the smartphone business.

The launch of the Nexus One is giving Google's approach to customer service a workout.

Problems with the Nexus One? Might be hard to get a hold of someone at Google. CNET

Days after Google started selling the Nexus One exclusively through its Web site, IDG News Service noticed that Nexus One support forums were flooded with questions, complaints, and more than one rant about distribution and technical problems. It's always hard to tell the size and scope of a problem from Internet message boards, but comments were flying in at an astonishing rate: almost one a minute around midday Pacific on Friday.

Much of the confusion stems from T-Mobile's upgrade policies for existing customers, which makes it nearly impossible for current customers to get the $179 subsidized price of the Nexus One. But people are using the support forums for everything from questions about their eligibility to complaints about orders that have not been delivered as well as questions about error messages that appeared onscreen.

This could be a big problem for Google. Google wants to change the way people buy phones with its Nexus One strategy, hoping eventually to break the lock that wireless carriers have on customers with exclusive phones locked into multiyear contracts.

But Google's approach to customer service is very automated, relying on user support forums, FAQs, and e-mail for more specific inquiries. That may work for free services like search and Gmail, but when people spend hundreds of dollars on a product they tend to expect a higher level of service. Even if that results in just another frustrating support call with a bored call center employee, it's at least a neck to wring.

Of course, you don't call Best Buy when your PC has a glitch, even if you bought it there. And even then, PC makers themselves are the ones who troubleshoot problems with Windows. But Google has invested a lot into branding the Nexus One as its own, even if all it really wants to do is be the software developer and retailer.

If demand for the Nexus One really takes off, Google might have to invest in customer support for the phone or try and convince its partners to pick up the slack, as they are currently doing by encouraging Nexus One customers to call T-Mobile or HTC. Those partners could be reluctant to do so indefinitely, since after all, Google is the one disrupting their business model.

As one poster put it, "Welcome to direct sales, Google!"