Google Attempts Customer Service Rebound With Small Biz Clients

It all depends on whether SMBs are willing to learn online marketing.

Google's Joe DeMike
Google’s Joe DeMike

Google began making a concerted effort to improve small-to-medium sized businesses’ digital ad performance five years ago.

Prior to 2011, the search giant didn’t offer customer support, and that led to poor customer satisfaction rates. But now, as the local ad dollars are starting to shift to digital platforms, Google executives believe they know what it will take to improve performance from SMBs: being able to discern which marketers are willing to spend the time to learn digital marketing from those who aren’t, and coaching SMBs on all the right things to make them successful.

In a presentation at Borrell Associates’ Local Advertising Conference on Tuesday, Google’s Joe DeMike offered a timeline of the company’s attempts to help SMBs with its AdWords system, the highly valuable pay-per-click direct response ad platform.

Despite the extensive reach of Google Search and Google Maps to every corner of the globe, the lack of digital sophistication and disconnect that often plague the relationship between ad tech vendors and SMBs was writ large with AdWords from the very beginning, said DeMike, who leads Google’s Customer Experience Lab, where his team of marketing consultants test new methods for helping companies reach their online advertising goals.

“Larger companies and agencies are very happy with AdWords,” said DeMike, who has held a number of product development roles at Google the past five years. It was designed for them, not for SMBs — we’re not there yet. But we’re trying very hard.”

Google Maps
Google Maps

Culture Clash

More than 70 percent of SMBs are over 40-years-old, DeMike pointed out. That means that they’re not digital natives and technology for many of these businesses is akin to learning English as a second language.

At the same time, the digital content market is going to be dominated by the millennials. It’s an interesting dichotomy that Google, with its younger, engineering culture, has been trying to work with for years.

Five years ago, DeMike was working on Google Maps. He worked on a new ad product within Google Maps with a focus on local, independent SMBs, who represented an under-represented market for the search giant.

“We worked on an idea for an entry-level ad product that would help small, independent businesses,” DeMike said. “And we offered it for $25 a month.”

An Incentive Backfires

The product was aligned with the free Google Places offering, which highlighted local businesses for the sake of ensuring a better, comprehensive search experience. In exchange for a $25 monthly subscription, local businesses would get a little yellow flag that would pop up next to their Google Place pin listing.

Google opened a sales team in Tempe, AZ and offered commissions on every Tag that was sold..

The incentive backfired.

One day, marketing executives from a large company dialed the Google sales team’s number and said they wanted to put those tags on every one of their locations.

“The sales rep thought that she was going to win a trip to Hawaii,” DeMike said, shaking his head as he paced across the conference stage. “We did not align our incentives properly. We really were trying to be altruistic. Unfortunately, the product didn’t work, because the savvy businesses ended up buying it — and they weren’t the ones who needed a ‘set it and forget it’ product like this.”

Google Boost
Google Boost

Get Up And Don’t Go

Around this time of that program’s demise, DeMike was tapped to lead product introduction on another SMB-facing venture called Boost in December 2010.

It looked nearly identical to an AdWords text ad, it appeared on Google search engine results page, if there was a local intent, it appeared on Google Maps, and it also appeared on mobile format.

However, the first problem arose quickly: Boost would have to be renamed. As soon as the ad results appeared on mobile devices, it created a conflict with cell phone carrier Boost Mobile. Google reps were fielding support calls from people who wanted to pay their cell phone bills.

The product was rechristened “AdWords Express.” It had the benefit of known brand name in AdWords, but also emphasized that you could use it to get up and go, quickly.

“Here’s the problem we realized: Small business owners do not want to get up and go quickly,” DeMike said. “They think, ‘Geez, I’d like to take my time to learn this!’”

“One thing we don’t emphasize enough is the control that comes with AdWords Express,” DeMike said. “It comes with a monthly budget in place. We cannot spend more than you pre-set. That is very appealing to older business owners who are nervous about putting their credit card number in and getting a mystery bill three months later.”

Joe DeMike, on stage at Borrell's LOAC2015
Joe DeMike, on stage at Borrell’s LOAC2015

(Can’t Get No) Customer Satisfaction

The next project that DeMike worked on was dubbed, very simply, “Get Your Business Online.”

He and his team did outreach in all 50 states, held over 230 local events, and invited small businesses to come in and take classes on how to set up a website.

“It was 2012 and these were businesses that still didn’t have a website,” he said. “So you can understand how far behind they were technologically. We were really helping them.”

We knew it would be a long-shot to get them into online advertising. But we did it because we wanted the search experience to better. We want more businesses to appear so people looking for businesses on Google would find them.”

On April 5, 2011, Google offered full phone service to every AdWords customer. Over the next three years, we grew the support globally. The name was changed of the group from Advertising Operations to Global Customer Experience.

With GCE, the customer is immediately surveyed. Only a six or a seven is considered satisfied.

“Today, our customer satisfaction is 92 percent in North America and our goal is 94 percent by the end of the year,” DeMike said. “It took three years, but we did it.”

For its larger look at customer satisfaction outside of those who called for support, Google found that many of its SMB customers were still struggling with AdWords. Google found that offering an intensive, personal training program over a video call could overcome an SMB owner’s struggle with learning AdWords.

“We package consultations into 45 minutes, and we give them homework assignments,” DeMike said. “If they have a high willingness to learn, we have a high willingness to teach them.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.