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Customer Disservice Spotlight On: Adobe
Customer service representatives should be required to identify themselves and their superiors.

April 30, 2007

This is the first in a series of articles about the horrible customer service that Americans tolerate on a daily basis.

My name is Aaron Greenspan. I run Think Computer Corporation. It's a small business—tiny, in fact—but I like to think that I do a good job writing software, and that I treat my clients with the respect they deserve. It's no secret that this isn't the case at most companies that people deal with. As a general rule, the larger the company, the worse one's prognosis for having a reasonable (let alone enjoyable!) customer service experience. Even companies that were once high-flying have suffered lately from what seems to be a contagious phenomenon: brain-dead customer service.

I have been using Adobe software for more than ten years now. I have been an Adobe shareholder during many points throughout that period, and for a long while I held the belief that Adobe produced some of the best software available on any platform. (This is a separate issue, but that's also no longer the case. I hate Adobe Reader 8. It turns Helvetica into Arial, shrinks pages in ways that Reader 7 didn't, and runs impossibly slowly.) Unfortunately, Adobe is just one of many companies whose customer service has also sunk to levels that are abysmally low by any standard.

My first indication that there was something wrong at Adobe came when my mother, who uses Photoshop and Illustrator for her business, told me that she needed an upgrade. Adobe Creative Suite encompasses both Photoshop and Illustrator, so I figured it might make sense for her to upgrade to Creative Suite. I helped her purchase it on-line through buy.com, where searching for something along the lines of "creative suite upgrade windows" yielded several results, all of which looked absolutely identical, and which had identical product descriptions. The only difference among the choices was price. Naturally, I chose the cheapest one, at $149.

Lo and behold, when the box arrived a few days later, it didn't work: the upgrade was actually an upgrade for the Acrobat component of Creative Suite alone. Never mind the fact that its packaging was exactly the same as all of the other boxes, and that it was labeled "Creative Suite Upgrade" on the distributor's web site.

The people on the phone at Adobe customer service were so confused about whether or not the program I had helped my mother purchase was actually the correct one, it was impossible to get a straight answer. Calling the first time, the woman on the other end of the line said "no." The next time, it was "yes." And then "no" again. All that was clear was that Adobe's representatives were unclear. When they began speaking in a tone that insinuated that either my mother or I was stupid, it was hard to take. I didn't design their boxes or harebrained upgrade paths. They did.

After at least six such phone calls and two months of wrangling, my mother finally was able to talk to the Public Relations people at Adobe's office in Newton. They paid for the difference necessary to make it up to the proper upgrade, and my mother had what she wanted, but it took two months of fighting. It shouldn't have.

Only a few weeks later, I ran into my problems of my own. This newer situation, still ongoing, is slightly different, in that no mistake was made on my end. Think owns Photoshop, Illustrator, PageMaker, and Flash, all major software applications, and with the exception of PageMaker, all are components of Adobe's Creative Suite. (InDesign, which has taken PageMaker's place, didn't exist at the time that we bought PageMaker.) Think's Adobe software collection is worth approximately $3,000, spent on these various products and their upgrades since 1996. However, due to Adobe's upgrade policies, Think doesn't qualify for the upgrade pricing that previous Creative Suite owners do, even though it effectively owns all of the core components.

Explaining to Adobe's customer service people that I owned all of the same software was much like talking to a brick wall. One woman, who admitted that there was no functional difference between owning the suite and merely the components, informed me that there was "no one else to talk to," refused to identify her supervisor, and refused to even identify which department she worked for within the company. When pressed further, she said that the only difference was the serial number, since (of course) one would have one number instead of four. She hung up on me after 18 minutes and 31 seconds, when I asked how it was possible that there was no one else in the entire company that I could talk to, and which department she worked for a second time. (I had originally asked the receptionist at Adobe's San Jose's offices to let me speak to the office of the company's CEO, Bruce Chizen.)

Why go directly to the CEO? I had already talked to two customer service supervisors, who admitted (A) that the current upgrade scheme made no sense, (B) that the company's web site was cluttered and only worked intermittently, and (C) that they valued feedback such as mine. Despite these assurances, supervisor Keith was unable to return phone calls as promised (twice), and neglected to mention that he doesn't work on Mondays or Tuesdays. Even though he said he had written notes about the case in their system under my customer number, a second supervisor couldn't find any notes, and though he refused to explicitly state it, he could do nothing further to assist me. When I asked if he could call up someone at the company's headquarters, he explained that he has no means by which to contact Adobe managers using a telephone. "All requests are answered in 24-48 hours, though," he assured me. "I contacted Keith for the first time on April 20th, two Fridays ago," I responded. "How is that 24-48 hours?" The answer I got was disjointed at best: "Well, I don't have access to Keith's e-mail, so I couldn't tell you." Apparently, somewhere in Keith's e-mail lies the secret behind a warped space-time continuum. Either that, or the people who currently run Adobe are simply incompetent.

To make matters worse, at the end of each conversation, I was asked, "is there anything else I can help you with today?" Where I come from, it is rude to ignore a person's polite request and then immediately ask if perhaps you would like to make a different request, as if the first had already been addressed. Of course, this is exactly how customer service works now, and not just at Adobe. Even supervisors read from scripts, and since our calls are very important to them, we thank them for allowing us to hold (since they said "please"), and accept it as typical when there is absolutely no accountability accrued to individuals working at companies.

In this case, Adobe is particularly negligent because their upgrade policies actually favor customers who have been loyal to them for less time, and who have spent less money on Adobe products. It never made sense for me to buy the full Creative Suite because if I had, I would have duplicated some of the software I already owned. Yet if I had started as an Adobe customer five years later (and spent less on the suite than I did on the individual components), I would qualify for the upgrade pricing—some $1,000 less.

Tune in next week to see where the spotlight will go next!

Aaron Greenspan is the CEO of Think Computer Corporation and author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of the FaceCash mobile payment system, ThinkLink business management system, and PlainSite legal transparency project.

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Herb Gilliland (www.youtube.com)
May 5, 2008 at 8:35 PM DT

I disagree. I don't think Adobe has ever really had that great customer service you allude to. I think you've just come to realize that all of the major tech companies are based on the fascism of monopoly. Adobe has never really offered any dialog between the customer and the software engineers. This may explain why Adobe's product offering has changed very little since 1994. Ask yourself: What ever happened to FracPaint, the 1996 competitor to Adobe? The answer: abandonware.

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