Google has recently started offering a new service called Helpouts for connecting consultants for various disciplines with people wanting help via video conferencing / IM in a sort of app-like marketplace online. This is a great use of their Hangouts platform to connect everyday people with other small business providers to provide a variety of consultation services. I received an early access invite to set up my own Helpouts listing, and thought I’d share my thoughts on it from a provider’s viewpoint.
- Setting up a Helpout Listing
- Helpouts Listing Review by Googler
- Live Helpouts Sessions Impressions
- Final Thoughts
Firstly, setting up the actual helpout listing was a breeze. Everything was basically a form wizard, and rates and so forth were easy to enter – a bit like a simplified Google Places for Business listing. Rates can either be for a set time block (eg, $10 for 15 minutes) or on a per-minute charge basis (eg, $1 per minute).
Unfortunately, both the Google Wallet setup for receiving payments and setting Helpout hours availability had issues.
For Wallet, Helpouts kept insisting that no payment method was associated with my Wallet, and clicking through to Google Wallet trying to select a listed payment method didn’t work. Instead Wallet just displayed the error message that “There are no valid payment methods” above both my credit card and bank account payment method listings. This mysteriously cleared up the day before Helpouts went live, which I only discovered by attempting to configure it again on the off chance it was working – I didn’t receive any notifications about it being fixed.
Setting Helpouts availability times was another headache. I received an email notice to set my Helpouts availability (which apparently is a Google Calendar interface, as it shows up in my Google Calendar). However the instructions provided in the email were simply wrong, as were the instructions in the FAQs/Help, and in the subsequent two (!) emails about the issue from Helpouts Support.
As an example, here’s the text from the support email:
Thanks for contacting Google Helpouts! To update your availability in your Helpouts calendar, follow these steps:
- From the Helpouts homepage, click Calendar in the top-right corner.
- When your calendar appears, choose the dates and times you’re available by clicking Add availability or selecting the appropriate time blocks directly from the calendar.
- Once you’ve added your availability, users will be able to select the best time to start a session with you. Both parties will receive a notification when a Helpout session has been reserved.
And here’s a screen shot of the Helpouts homepage (note the lack of “Calendar” in the top-right corner):
It was only on the fifth attempt to find out how to set this (the third email from support) that it was finally straightened out. I chalk this up to Google’s infamously poor product quality assurance and documentation.
This was actually a very helpful service whereby a Helpout was actually done by a Google employee to review and make suggestions for my Helpouts listing. My reviewer Nita was tactful, professional and helpful. There seemed to be a big emphasis on getting a video up, but so far I haven’t had any inspirations for that and so remain video-less… which I assume depressed my listing’s rank.
Another bug came up during the session in the actual Hangout – for whatever reason, the IM messages would not appear in the bar on the right hand side, although notifications of IMs appeared on the left. This was fixed by the time Helpouts went live.
The audio/video takes up the majority of screen real estate, in the center of the page. Quality is decent but not amazing – there are occasional lags and freezes for video. Audio was crisp and clear, without stutters delays or voice dropouts. Given that I use Firefox on a Linux box, I’m quite pleased that AV is supported at all.
Chat / Instant Messaging
Chat / IM appears in a side bar on the right hand side of the Helpout. This is not as well polished as I would have expected. There is no way to insert images that I can discern, and no way to insert line breaks to separate paragraphs or bullet points. There is also no way to change the width of the rather narrow right hand side bar, which would be handy for displaying long exchanges or verbose individual messages. Chat also occasionally freezes and the completely reloads the right hand side bar, unfortunately with the conversation scrolled up some random amount so you have to scroll back down to display the latest message(s).
Pro Rated Timed Sessions
This is a bit of a peeve, as I was bitten by this one: there is no automatic cut off for a timed session to prevent going into over time and thus providing service without getting paid, nor any indicator or alarm for when a session is reaching it’s time limit. If a consultant goes over, they take the loss. I checked with Helpouts Support to see what the options available were for this, and it turns out that:
- there is no way to extend the amount of booked time from within the Helpout (session has to end and a new one started by the client – very disruptive!),
- there is no way to switch from pro rated to by-the-minute charging, and
- there is no way to submit an invoice for any extra time afterwards for a client to approve for payment (such as PayPal offers).
That is very disappointing, and again something that needs serious review for making management of a Helpout more flexible for both consultants and clients.
Overall I think this is a great platform for connecting consultants with individuals who need help but don’t have the need or the time to go out and contract a professional in the business world. Unfortunately, I also think that as soon as it goes from close invite to open to the public it will be swamped with low quality listings drowning out all but the very top reviewed listings in any category, much like the problems the Android and iOS app stores suffer 🙁
Also, I find the fact that Google takes 20% off the top for advertising, providing the infrastructure and for payment processing to be pretty steep seeing as Google already provides the building blocks (Hangouts, Google Businesses) for free to the public already. Given that this will never be more than a drop in the bucket in Google’s revenue stream, I think it priced egregiously high.
Finally, Google really needs to add a desktop sharing app so that people can show materials to each other or control other machines easily – be it for tech support, going through a PowerPoint presentation file, showing an image or whatever have you
Nonetheless, the convenience for me as a consultant to be able to provide help via the Helpouts system is a huge bonus and I imagine that Google is counting on the cottage industry types such as myself to make this a success for them while providing easy, low entry bar access to Joe Average to get help from live people online.