Google e-mail confuses paying Apps customers

Google confused Google Apps Premier Edition users with an inaccurate e-mail about their billing status

Google recently confused administrators of Google Apps Premier Edition with an e-mail that misstated the number of accounts they will be billed for.

On Thursday, Google sent Premier Edition administrators an e-mail reminding them that the free trial period for this fee-based suite of hosted applications ends on May 31.

Afterwards, several Premier Edition administrators complained in discussion forums that Google's message stated they would be billed for 10 accounts, even though they had signed for fewer accounts. Premier Edition costs US$50 annually per user.

In this discussion forum thread, an administrator that signed for only one account fretted about getting hit with a US$500 charge.

"As a small business with tight cashflow, an unexpected $500 deduction would be a serious problem. I expect that this issue will be resolved prior to this fee being charged," wrote the user, who signed his posting as Mick Jones.

On Friday, a Google official posting under the name Google Guide acknowledged that the erratic e-mail went out to "many accounts" but that administrators will be charged for the actual number of Premier Edition accounts they signed up for.

"We will send a follow-up message with the correct number of requested user accounts to resolve this issue," Google Guide wrote.

The message was also criticized by others who misinterpreted it to mean that Google was planning to cancel their Premier accounts on May 31. In this thread, Google Guide attempted to clarify this misunderstanding.

Google didn't immediately reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Since launching Google Apps, a suite of hosted collaboration and communication applications for organizations, Google has faced complaints from users who say that it doesn't respond promptly to support queries and that it doesn't communicate frequently enough with them.

For Google, this market of hosted applications for businesses is a new one that involves dealing with users that have different needs from consumers and marketers, its two traditional constituencies. Google Apps users are often IT and business managers who are accustomed to quick responses from their technology vendors.

These users also assume that their technology providers have a solid understanding of how they work and what are acceptable maintenance practices. Less than a month ago, Google scrapped a planned 13-hour maintenance of Google Calendar, which is part of Google Apps, after hearing from users concerned about possible disruptions. Google also caught some flack at the time for scheduling the maintenance for a weekday and during work hours in the U.S., as well as for not specifying the time zone for when the work would be done.

The incident triggered a review of how Google Apps software is maintained. "We are actively working on changes in routine maintenance procedures for other products on the Google Apps platform so updates such as these will either take place outside of peak hours or not impact our customers at all. We are sorry for any confusion this has caused," Google said in a statement at the time.

In March, an undisclosed number of Premier Edition customers suffered three significant Gmail outages, although Google guarantees them 99.99 percent Gmail uptime.

The incidents represent some of the challenges Google faces as it attempts to become a business software provider to organizations of all sizes.