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.

A woman in a server room

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

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.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

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.

Entertainment

'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Workplace

Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Workplace

It's OK to cry at work

Our comfort with crying at work has changed drastically over the past couple years. But experts said the hard part is helping workers get through the underlying mental health challenges.

Tech workers and workplace mental health experts said discussing emotions at work has become less taboo over the past couple years, but we’re still a ways away from completely normalizing the conversation — and adjusting policies accordingly.

Photo: Teerasak Ainkeaw / EyeEm via Getty Images

Everyone seems to be ugly crying on the internet these days. A new Snapchat filter makes people look like they’re breaking down on television, crying at celebratory occasions or crying when it sounds like they’re laughing. But one of the ways it's been used is weirdly cathartic: the workplace.

In one video, a creator posted a video of their co-worker merely sitting at a desk, presumably giggling or smiling, but the Snapchat tool gave them a pained look on their face. The video was captioned: “When you still have two hours left of your working day.” Another video showed someone asking their co-workers if they enjoy their job. Everyone said yes, but the filter indicated otherwise.

Keep Reading Show less
Sarah Roach

Sarah Roach is a news writer at Protocol (@sarahroach_) and contributes to Source Code. She is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where she studied journalism and mass communication and criminal justice. She previously worked for two years as editor in chief of her school's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet.

Enterprise

Arm’s new CEO is planning the IPO it sought to avoid last year

Arm CEO Rene Haas told Protocol that Arm will be fine as a standalone company, as it focuses on efficient computing and giving customers a more finished product than a basic chip core design.

Rene Haas is taking Arm on a fresh trajectory.

Photo: Arm

The new path for Arm is beginning to come into focus.

Weeks after Nvidia’s $40 bid to acquire Arm from SoftBank collapsed, the appointment of Rene Haas to replace longtime chief executive Simon Segars has set the business on a fresh trajectory. Haas appears determined to shake up the company, with plans to lay off as much as 15% of the staff ahead of plans to take the company public once again by the end of March next year.

Keep Reading Show less
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a senior reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.

Latest Stories
Bulletins