EDITOR’S NOTE: Since I published this post, I discovered that Sonos has since offshored its customer service to multiple countries overseas. The company under CEO Patrick Spence has lost its way since going public. I no longer endorse Sonos or its products. It’s unfortunate because Sonos’ early success was predicated on stellar customer service.
Technology has long been my enemy. The torment began in junior high when I was forced to take a computer science class and master an understanding of now obsolete punch cards used to store digital data. I hated that class more than I hated shop, and the tech gods have been punishing me ever since. I estimate that I spend more than one week a year resolving tech related issues not of my doing.
As a perfectionist, I’ve refused to accept the tech mindset and vocabulary. The nerd culture operates on the premise that being first is more important than getting things right. Tech companies routinely introduce products they know aren’t ready for prime time but plan on fixing them on the fly with “upgrades” and “patches.” The media and the public are so seduced by Silicon Valley’s perceived genius that nerdspeak is part of the American lexicon. What used to be called a malfunctioning product is now a “software glitch,” a device to enable spying is called a “cookie,” and stolen information of personal data is called a “security breach.”
What galls me most about tech is the industry is overrun with product design people lacking common sense. I’m frustrated with the ubiquity of “Cousin Rob” products, my name for devices that require me to call my cousin Rob, who is tech savvy and loves that he can be 3,000 miles away and engage his robo vacuum cleaner, lower his thermostat, monitor his house, turn his lights on, close his garage doors, and perform a host of other household functions all from his iPhone X. Cousin Rob embraces so-called smart technology, whereas I feel increasingly held hostage to it.
Google’s Nest, which came with the house I bought, is one such product. The thermostat mysteriously began changing the temperature throughout the day and night, causing me to fear that perhaps it was possessed. Cousin Rob explained that my Nest was trying to anticipate the house temperatures I wanted but even he couldn’t explain the frequent 80-degree target setting. I like my house chilly.
Houses often have multiple people living in them with various temperature preferences. And Nest thermostats can be adjusted from a smart phone, so even if you’re too lazy to get off you butt you can still alter your house temps without Netflix interruption. Nest’s anticipatory feature should be a readily understandable option, such as a prompt that asks, “Would you like Nest to anticipate your temperature settings?” That, of course, would take common sense.
Surprisingly, Nest was founded by Tony Faddell, a designer and engineer involved in the development of Apple’s iPhone and iPod. Apple founder Steve Jobs was my hero because he made certain all the company’s software incorporated a logic that even a technophobe like me can understand. I’ve never had to call Cousin Rob for help with my various Apple products because I can figure out the functionalities I want on my own. On the rare instances I’ve needed to call Apple support, it’s because of a product malfunction. Apple’s customer support overall is stellar, in part because its call centers for North American customers are located in the U.S. and Canada.
Sonos, the consumer electronics manufacturer that pioneered wireless speaker technology, resisted from its founding in 2002 Silicon Valley’s “almost is good enough” mindset, perhaps because the company is based in Santa Barbara. Sonos was slated to launch its first product for the 2004 holiday season, but the founders decided it wasn’t up to the standards they envisioned and missed the deadline.
“We had decided, after working with our target consumer, that our products wouldn’t be like most consumer electronic devices,” recalled John MacFarlane, who served as CEO for 14 years. “Typically, the day you bring one of them home is the best day, and then it gets progressively worse from that point on. We wanted a product that got better with time, and that was the challenge to the team. It was hard to do, so we couldn’t go to market fast.”
I became an early adopter of Sonos speakers when a savvy Best Buy salesman informed me the company’s technology would allow me to listen to Brian Delp, the overnight announcer of New Jersey’s WBGO jazz station, in the comfort of my then San Francisco home. With Sonos you can listen to any radio station in the world that streams on the internet, which most stations do.
I had some technical issues with my Sonos early on but calling tech support was a pleasant experience. In those days the company was quite small, and the entire workforce was housed in the company’s Santa Barbara headquarters. Sonos was among the first companies to adopt the technology that allows tech support people to access a customer’s computer. I hadn’t been so wowed by a technology since I saw my first electronic scanner at Wegmans some 40 years ago when it was just a local Rochester supermarket.
The Sonos customer support people were all laid-back California dudes, and I pictured an office with surf boards lined up against the wall. They knew their product cold and they could explain the simplicity of the architecture with a clarity that even I could understand. I developed the knowledge, and more importantly the confidence, to troubleshoot the few problems that have arisen over the years.
Unfortunately, Sonos began showing growing pains a few years ago. In December 2016 I had an issue I couldn’t resolve and was taken aback when there was more than an hour wait for customer support. In a pique of anger I sent an over-the-top message to MacFarlane, whose email was listed on Sonos’s website, offering my views on how Sonos had sold its soul to private equity (KKR was one of the backers) and the company’s management was only interested in going public so it could further enrich itself and its investors.
Within minutes I received a deftly written FU message from a company founder explaining that it was the Christmas season and that sales had far exceeded expectations hence the long customer support wait time. He assured me that Sonos was committed to reducing wait times and pointedly noted that Sonos management still had a majority interest in the company. The founder said he would arrange for a customer support agent to call me at the time of my choosing, which I thought was quite gracious given my accusatory email.
Maybe my cynicism wasn’t misplaced. As best I can tell, all of Sonos’s founders are gone. MacFarlane resigned in 2017 and was succeeded by Patrick Spence, one of his deputies. An email address for Spence is listed on Sonos’s website but neither he, nor anyone else senior at the company, appears to monitor it.
A day after sending Spence an email confirming some facts, I received a response from some guy from “the communications team” whose response was as generic as his name. He didn’t confirm whether Sonos’s customer support is entirely based in the U.S. Sonos’s PR department didn’t respond to my inquiry.
Deceiving customers into believing they are contacting the CEO or someone very senior and then routing the message to a junior person or an AI response program is a practice I associate with ethically challenged companies, like Bank of America and AT&T. While the deception seems minor, it signals to employees that a degree of dishonesty is okay when engaging with customers.
I can only hope that Spence doesn’t stray too far the ease-of-use and reliability standards of Sonos’ founders. I’m screwed if he does. Despite my recommendation, Cousin Rob opted to go with Denon’s HEOS wireless speakers for his home sound system. I’m on my own with Sonos.