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As the basic features of cloud computing commoditize, buyers looking to migrate their old infrastructure to the cloud could elevate customer support alongside features and pricing as a key factor.

Photo: DigitalVision via Getty Images
Analysis

New battleground for AWS and Google: customer service

Cloud companies are starting to think differently about customer support as competition for customers unfamiliar with the tech heats up.

Cloud computing is a story of scale, and of the incredible power that a vast network of machines can deliver. Turns out people don't scale as easily.

The newest generation of cloud customers needs more help understanding how the cloud works than the early adopters, and cloud providers are scrambling to catch up. The startups and rogue IT departments that built the cloud played as much a role defining cloud best practices as the providers themselves, but the customers who have come on board over the last couple of years have different needs and face a steeper learning curve.

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There's evidence providers are taking the challenge seriously. Google just announced Google Cloud Premium Support, which allows smaller companies to purchase enterprise-level support features rather than languishing in the queue for tech support with everyone else. Meanwhile, AWS is hiring hundreds of "solutions architects," asking them to help new customers get up and running in the cloud. As the basic features of cloud computing commoditize, buyers looking for a reason to choose a provider could elevate customer support alongside features and pricing as a key factor.

"Over the last 10 years, since I've been in the public cloud market, the support has gotten to be much better," said David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer at Deloitte Consulting. But, he said, "I've seen people not pick a cloud provider because they were not fast enough in returning their calls."

And there are more companies using the cloud than ever: Amazon Web Services has doubled its revenue over the past two years, and its rivals have been growing even faster. Not that long ago, you didn't necessarily have to be a big spender to get cloud product executives on the phone. But these days, even high-rollers don't necessarily get that level of personal touch.

That all makes for a crowded technical support queue at most cloud providers, perhaps most noticeably at AWS, which runs the most sizable cloud operation by a significant margin. Few people enjoy the technical support process, but it's one of the most important ways that cloud buyers interact with their providers and maybe the easiest way to bolster or tarnish a brand.

"Different people with different backgrounds have different support expectations, and in the cloud, you need to reshape those expectations," said Corey Quinn, analyst and chief cloud economist at The Duckbill Group.

In general, cloud providers are pretty good about paying close attention to their biggest customers in the Global 2000 ranks, Linthicum said. But, as with many customer support experiences, things tend to be different for small- and medium-size businesses looking for support.

Customers at the very low end of annual cloud spending tend not to bother with technical support from cloud providers, because they know how the pecking order works, Linthicum said. That has created an enormous opportunity for systems integrators, consultants, and other services organizations to help clients navigate the support system through a larger institution like Deloitte.

"[Cloud providers are] dealing with the latency that comes with any saturation of resources," Linthicum said. "Everybody's trying to scale up, and there's always a latency in the last three to four years in terms of the talent you need and the talent you have. [That means] phones are going unanswered, emails are going unanswered."

That's a frustrating experience for anyone trying to run a business where downtime and bugs can cause disasters, and some of the businesses that fall into this category are still spending millions a year on cloud services.

By contrast, it's often easier to get support from traditional data-center hardware and software providers, which can be a dispiriting realization for companies that just made a multiyear bet on moving their applications to the cloud.

"The traditional hardware and software vendors have the luxury of not having a market that's expanding as quickly as the cloud market is," Linthicum said. "They're able to maintain the talent levels of the people to support it, so they're able to keep up."

Given the flexibility and long-term cost benefits of cloud computing, even top-notch technical support might not be enough to keep potential cloud customers using their own servers, especially when trying to compete against nimble upstarts built on the cloud. But it does signal that cloud providers need to up their game when it comes to providing technical support, because when the underlying services are a commodity — as is the case with traditional servers — other aspects of the customer experience become more important.

One of the aspects that's getting more attention now is deployment. In the old days of packaged software familiar to a lot of the enterprise companies just now making the jump to the cloud, customers were more or less responsible for getting the software they just bought up and running on their own servers, said Jon Schrader, senior vice president of customer success at Skytap, a Seattle cloud services company.

In the past, companies "might go spend $5 million on some technology, and if they never get it deployed … that was not that uncommon" he said. "In the [cloud infrastructure] world, if it doesn't get deployed, we don't get paid."

To address some of this need, providers like AWS are hiring solutions architects who teach customers how to renovate their older applications for the cloud. That type of help is generally contingent on a commitment to spend a certain amount of money over a certain number of years, but cloud providers have every incentive to make sure their customers' applications are running correctly because the meter is on.

One job ad on AWS' career page describes the "architect" role as the conduit back and forth between customers and AWS product engineers. "The successful candidate will get the opportunity to work with a wide array of AWS infrastructure architects and specialists, as well as being brought in as the compute expert to meet with customers and partners."

Demand for these skills will only grow as older companies with challenging migration problems start using cloud services in greater numbers. Skilled infrastructure engineers have been a hot commodity in cloud circles for over a decade at this point, but in the next era of the cloud, people skills might be even more important.

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