Google Uses Hangouts As A Virtual Genius Bar To Sell Google Devices

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In 2013, Google expanded its Hangouts video conferencing service into a commerce platform called Helpouts, where people buy and sell services like cooking or technical advice via live video. Now Google has developed another new service based on its Hangouts infrastructure. It is running a live video chat service for would-be buyers of Google smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks (but not Nest products) to ask Google Device Experts questions and chat about the products before sealing the deal.

(And unlike Helpouts, this service is free.)

We were tipped off to the service by some of the people working on the project, and Google has confirmed some of the details.

“We’re always improving features to help our users,” said a spokesperson. “We’re in a limited trial of an experimental support feature and gathering feedback, so we aren’t ready to share full plans yet.”

Our sources provide some more information. The service, which went live quietly in November, is initially being run as a test through the Devices channel of Google Play, but Google wants to extend the idea to more places, both virtual and physical.

“They are also planning to go into retail stores with a virtual help desk to enhance the shopping experience,” a source tells us, who described the bigger project as “Google’s virtual Genius Bar,” referring to the Apple Retail in-store operation where Apple employees, lined up behind a bar, offer in-person technical support on Apple devices. It’s not clear yet how far along Google is in implementing this concept of a virtual help desk in retail locations.

It also bears a resemblance to Amazon’s Mayday service, the company’s tech support system introduced in 2013 that currently works only on Kindle Fire HDX, Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″, Fire HDX 8.9, and Fire Phone devices and in a limited number of countries. Unlike Mayday, Google’s video helper currently does not cover straight tech support.

The feature for now is only live between 6am and 6pm Pacific time, and to get to it, you navigate through the online Google Play Store to the Devices category. There, you select the help icon in the upper right corner, and if you indicate you are interested in buying a device, you are given the option of making a video call to ask more questions.

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In my test of it, my call was answered within seconds. The smiley woman at the other end of the Hangout knew I was calling from the UK, and was happy to answer all of my questions about Google devices and to show me more details if needed on a second video demonstration screen. Also, she didn’t seem disappointed at all when I told her I wasn’t really buying anything, and was just a journalist trying out the service.

Google Device Experts is being run within Google but with contractors from an external company called Milestone Technologies. Milestone also partners with Apple, Cisco, Palo Alto Networks and others and provides various services like IT support, contact center services, and professional services.

Developing a service like this pulls together different businesses and strategies for Google in its move to diversify away from its core business as a search engine. It emphasizes its cloud-based, live video technology. It’s aimed at driving more sales of its hardware. And (potentially) it brings Google deeper into the physical retail commerce. It would be interesting to see if Google, in its growing suite of enterprise services, eventually offers some part of a service like this to other businesses.

We’ll provide updates on the service as we learn more.