If Facebook wants to woo businesses, it should try a little customer service

The company is making billions, and its real assets are all of us users that it's constantly abusing

I had to laugh when I read about Facebook's latest effort to woo businesses. While Facebook wants to look like its well ahead of Google+ in the commercial uses of social networking, its track record of dealing with users suggests that businesses should not rely on it.

Of course, when you rely on a free service, you should expect to get what you pay for. But when the free service is provided by a highly profitable company like Facebook, you have to think that at least a modicum of customer service and responsiveness would be in its best interests, especially when it wants to convince people to choose its service over a fast-rising competitor.

I have run into the stone wall of Facebook "customer service" in the past, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating this time around. The current problem arose when I was asked to assist the administrator of a Facebook group for users of a home fitness program that I belong to. The group has more than 30,000 members.

It seems that Facebook is going to shut down groups that were formed under an "old" format. What is this old format and why is it so bad? The old, original format differs from the new format in look and feel, and it lacks an enhanced chat function. That's it. Some groups will be allowed to migrate, while others will not. The criteria used for this decision have not been disclosed. I was informed that the group will be "archived." This gives the admin two choices; 1) let the group be archived, and then "unarchive" the group, for lack of a better term, which reloads the thousands of pictures, discussion strings, posts, etc., but lose all of the 30,000 members, who will have to find the "new" group and rejoin, or 2) start a new group, notify all group members that they need to join the new group, and lose all of the hundreds of thousands of contributions that make the group so valuable.

I tried contacting Facebook, but couldn't find out how to do that as a group admin. Instead, I contacted Facebook through its press e-mail as a Computerworld columnist. The response, when it finally came, was that they would not answer any questions on the matter. The PR person did, however, provide me with a link for contacting Facebook as a regular user, but I never received a response, and neither did the many other people who tried to contact Facebook to support the group. Facebook's attitude appears to be that it can do whatever it wants with anything on its site and not have to explain itself to anyone. I suppose it has that right, but we all have the right in return to say, good luck with that attitude, we'll be going elsewhere.

You might shrug all this off. After all, the group I'm talking about is only intended as a support group for an exercise program. But other groups being archived include cancer support groups, groups devoted to businesses Facebook is trying to recruit away from Google+, groups keeping extended families together, groups supporting computer security research -- really just about every type of interest you can imagine. In talking to various admins, I learned that many of the people in their groups, especially older cancer patients, do not understand the issues and will likely not join new groups. Hundreds of thousands of group members have been affected.

In addition, many people and companies using Facebook for business purposes have been harmed, and probably will be harmed in the future, by random changes in Facebook operations that the company chooses not to disclose or justify.

As I said at the outset, Facebook is a free service, and you should expect to get what you pay for. But Facebook made approximately $2 billion last year. Can it really not afford to hire some people to help people deal with issues like this? It could outsource that customer service to a low-cost company and still have plenty of money on hand.

Facebook isn't the only social network service to refuse to offer its users any semblance of support, even during a security crisis. The hacking of Fox News' Twitter account demonstrates how helpless a company can be when it relies on free social networks. A hacker was able to take control of Fox News' main Twitter account and send out false tweets discussing the assassination of President Obama. Fox News realized it had been hacked, but the false tweets continued for two hours because Twitter would not respond to its pleas for help. If a company as large, powerful and fully lawyered-up as News Corp can be rendered helpless in such a situation, what would happen to the rest of us?

Countless people have had their Facebook accounts hacked, and similar things have happened to Yahoo users, but unless you are Sarah Palin, you don't have a prayer of getting human help. When I tried to help a friend whose Yahoo account had been hacked, I called up and asked for the security department. This is what the customer service representative told me: "We have no security." That is a bracing bit of candor, but if I hadn't had contacts in Yahoo's general counsel's office, I never would have been able to get in touch with people at the company who could actually do something.

I don't know whether the new social network player, Google+, will be any better. Certainly, its unilateral decision to terminate pseudonymous accounts doesn't bode well (there was no way to appeal the decision). At least the competition should keep Facebook on its toes. Nonetheless, a recent incident suggests not only that Google can be equally unresponsive, but also that sometimes even paying for a service is no guarantee of good customer service. After security company HBGary Federal's CEO declared that he would identify several of the leaders of the hacking group Anonymous, Anonymous hacked his email account and that of Greg Hoglund, CTO of parent company HBGary. As Hoglund explained to CSO, company officials could only watch as the Anonymous hackers downloaded gigabytes of mail from their Gmail accounts. HBGary uses the paid version of Gmail. Hoglund was able to reach Google customer service and ask that the accounts be shut down, but, he said, "Google was trying to get me to put a file on my Web site [to authenticate my identity]. You see the chicken-and-egg problem there. [HBGary had pulled its site down.]"

Facebook and the other social networking sites can certainly provide benefits to businesses. But the shuttering of groups shows that the benefits can evaporate based on what amounts to a whim, and without a word of explanation. I think everyone would agree that Facebook should first demonstrate that it can take care of the businesses that already use its services before it tries to recruit new ones away from Google+. In the meantime, if you need help with home fitness, you can still friend me on Facebook. That's easy.

In the end, though, all I can say is that I am glad I didn't need the cancer support group. Unfortunately, 1,800 other people did.

Ira Winkler is president of Internet Security Advisors Group and author of the book Spies Among Us. He can be contacted through his Web site, irawinkler.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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