Poor Customer Support: The Hidden Cost of “Free” Software

This is a guest post by Elmer Thomas from ThinkingSerious.com.

It has probably happened to you before, but now it is getting worse. If you have ever made an impulse buy of a no-name “productivity tool” from the end-rack at the checkout lane at your local office superstore or some random website on the Internet, you know what I am talking about.

After investing your time installing and then trying to use the program, you realize the product doesn’t work as advertised–or worse, you encounter unexpected error messages or other technical problems. You find no support number to call and the Support FAQs are of no help if they even exist at all. But then, what did you expect? How many support call minutes does $10 bucks buy you? You could take the package back, but chances are you agree it’s too much trouble and there is no guarantee that you will get your money back, let alone your pride. So you write it off.

Now, with the advent of the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, the cheap software ditch has gotten steeper with tons of free software now available. Many free software products work really well, and as advertised. For example, Google yields search results, often finding just exactly what you were looking for in zero seconds.

But just try to get some customer support when things go wrong or if you can’t figure out how to get something to work the way you’d think it would. Facebook doesn’t offer a way to talk directly to a customer service person. And features and functionality change over time with no warning or guarantees that any investment you made in understanding or using the software will pay off in the future.

Many free SaaS offerings (such as RememberTheMilk.com, but there are hundreds of other examples) have a fee-based upgraded service level which offers priority support. The free service level is offered as an effort to get you hooked, but always with the view toward selling the service, not just giving it away.

Since satisfying customer support needs beyond an FAQ generally costs money, you can pretty much count on getting what you pay for. Downloading a free game is low risk–what have you really lost if the game doesn’t work? But for office productivity software/services, online data storage or mobile connectivity services, “free” services may not be the most cost effective in the long run, as errors, learning curve breakdowns, service interruptions or data loss can be costly. As a result, assessing the cost of a software package must include, not only the purchase or license fee, but also the learning cost in time and frustration in order to obtain maximum benefit from the product.

Which products and services require great customer support? How do you feel about community based support? Have you been a victim of extremely poor customer service personally? Share your story and ideas with us. We appreciate your contributions.

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Elmer blogs primarily at ThinkingSerious.com which focuses on programming, design, business and productivity content for tech entrepreneurs living in a 2.0 world. That is, when he is not tickling his entrepreneur itch or consulting.

  • Bystander

    Honestly, I expect no support from free software. No one should: you’ve paid for nothing, expect nothing. If it works, more power to you, but if it doesn’t then uninstall it and move on.

    The bigger problem is no support from expensive, “professional” grade software and hardware companies. Too many companies are impossible to get on the phone, don’t answer their e-mails, and are too quick to abandon a product when THEY decide it’s obsolete. My most recent experience was with a company called Spectrasonics who produce music production software. I had an older copy of one of their products and was interested in upgrading to the latest version. There was a deal online where registered users could get a discount on the upgrade and I was more than willing to pay the price. Unfortunately the online system wouldn’t accept my previous registration information. After a couple of e-mails back and forth they just stopped responding to me. Needless to say I didn’t buy the upgrade. I didn’t want to deal with a company that wasn’t even willing to fix a problem in order to make a sale.