It used to be that when you bought software, you automatically received a couple of things, such as a printed user's manual and free technical support. It was expected. For the customer, it was just part of the price of the software. For the software producer, it was just part of the cost of doing business. However, things have changed over the last 10 to 20 years.
Economists tell us we have shifted from a society that predominantly manufactures goods to one that predominantly provides services. Increased competition and foreign manufacturing has systematically reduced profit margins on the goods we produce. As the profit margins decreased, companies had to look to other areas to bolster profits. In the case of the software industry, vendors have reduced costs by doing things like replacing printed manuals with online help and substituting media with file downloads from the Internet. They began to charge nominal fees to offset the cost of technical support, and then began to charge even higher fees to make a profit. Now, for many software companies, product support and services is the main source of income, or at least a substantial profit center.
Software companies look at every service they provide as a potential source of income. They charge for such things as annual support, phone calls, bug fixes, replacement media, etc. Microsoft has taken this transfer of costs to the extreme. It has convinced others to pay to write documentation and provide training. Computer professionals pay Microsoft to learn their products, become Microsoft-certified and, in turn, charge users to teach them how to use the company's products. Others pay Microsoft to be able to write and publish books about its products users pay for in addition to the software itself. It's a pretty nice setup, if you can get away with it. Tom Sawyer would be proud.
Consider this example. A woman bought an existing storage facility on the West Coast. The facility came with a storage-management program it cost $3,200 a year to support. Flabbergasted, she called the vendor and was able to secure a special discount--because of her status as a new owner--of $395 for the first three months before having to pay the standard price. She agreed because she knew her new manager was going to need some help. She was later dismayed to find out that on the two occasions her manager did try to use the support, he was unable to get through to anyone. Did she get what she paid for? Would she have gotten a better response if she had paid more? All she got was frustrated and ripped off.
One of the reasons companies can get away with charging so much for support is they have a captive audience. Once you have invested the money, time and effort in setting up a database for your facility, it is not easy to change. Also, in a specialized market such as the self-storage industry, the pool of potential customers is fairly small. Therefore, once a vendor has established a sizable customer base, it becomes the richest (not to mention the easiest) source of steady income, especially if customers are required to pay a sizable annual-support fee. It's like the large printer companies selling thousands of printers for almost nothing because they know once you buy their printers at a discount, you will have to buy their ink at a premium, again and again and again.
Another reason software companies get away with charging for support is many operators have bought into the fallacy that they have to pay for it--it's expected, like tipping. Do you remember when tips were a reward for extra, special or good service? It made you feel good to express your genuine appreciation for something special. The person receiving it also felt good because he had earned it, and it meant something. When it comes to software, the cost has gone up, but has the service has increased proportionately? Most of the people I talk to actually feel it has declined. So are you getting what you pay for?
I recently participated in a software seminar at a state self-storage convention. A lot of attention was focused on the varied support plans and their attendant charges. At one point, when it became clear the audience was not pleased with the service they were paying for, the moderator broke in and tried to explain support charges were necessary and should be accepted. She likened them to paying for car insurance--just as we won't drive a car without buying insurance, we shouldn't operate a management program without paying for support.
The analogy bothers me. I think it misses the point. An operator wants service and support for his software to teach him how to use it and fix it when it doesn't work. But it's the vendor who best knows how to use the software and can offer solutions for problems. Why should the operator pay for something that should be the vendor's responsibility? I admit annual support fees are like insurance premiums in one way: Most people do not receive equivalent value compared to what they paid.
What It Says...
By charging for support, software companies are creating situations that are not in their--or their clients'--best interests. By eliminating human contact and relying on phone menus, e-mail, web searches, etc., they are isolating themselves from the very people with whom they should be cultivating rich relationships.
First of all, such practices do not foster a feeling of trust from one's customers. When a company says it needs to charge for support, it's saying it doesn't have confidence in its own product. Several years ago, I was shopping for my very first new car, and I narrowed it down to two vehicles. The deciding factor was one car came with an extended warranty and the other required I purchase a warranty as an add-on. The cost of the car plus the add-on warranty was about the same as the other with the included one. But because it was a separate charge, I had the feeling the manufacturer did not stand behind its product. I bought the one with the warranty included. Thirteen years and more than 200,000 miles later, I still believe I made the right choice. As it turned out, the company I declined ended up fighting its customers in a lawsuit when something went wrong with its vehicle.
The concept of charging for support introduces enmity between companies and their customers. When I call technical support because I can't get a company's software to work and the first thing I am asked for is my credit-card number, I'm already crossing them off my holiday-card list. When I get lost in the labyrinth of phone menus and options, I get annoyed. When I can't find what I'm looking for on a website, I get frustrated. And when e-mail inquiries are responded to with form letters, wrong answers or, worst of all, silence, I get angry.
We have all had these experiences. We have all longed to just talk to another human being who will understand our question and give us the needed answer. These practices of automated support drive customers away. To be clear, I am not opposed to phone menus, e-mail support and web support. On the contrary, I find them quite useful and rely on them heavily. Nevertheless, there comes a time when your question doesn't fit into a nice cubbyhole and you need to talk to a real live person. When that time comes, the speed and ease by which you can reach a human voice is a direct indicator of how much a company values it customers.
Automated support also builds barriers to essential feedback. When companies make it difficult or expensive for customers to communicate with them, they are denying themselves access to the very information they need to make a better product. I uncovered what I thought was a bug in a well-known software program a couple of years ago. When I called, I was told they would have to charge my credit card $50; if it was later determined that my reported problem was indeed a bug in the software, they would credit the $50 back to my card. I told them "no thank you."
The next year, when the new version came out, the program still had this bug. Eventually it was fixed, but how many customers had to put up with it--and for how long--just because the company made it difficult for people to give it the feedback it needed? You build a superior product by listening to your customers--hearing how they are using the various features, learning how they think and do business. What areas of the program tend to cause more problems or confusion than others? Where is their time being spent? One of the best ways to get ideas for program improvements is by just watching or listening to customers as they use the software. Software companies cheat themselves when they don't spend the time to get to know their users.
I purchased a CD-mastering program last year for the express purpose of initiating CD copies from within another program. This feature was advertised by the company, so when I couldn't get it to work, I contacted customer support via e-mail (the only option provided). A week later, I got a return message containing a link to a web page; but when I clicked on the link, it said it couldn't be displayed. I wrote back. A week later, I got another message containing a document that had nothing to do with my problem. I wrote again. Two weeks later, I got a message identical to the first. I wrote again. A week later, I got a message identical to the second. After three months, I was sent a telephone number, which I promptly called to explain my problem. The customer-service rep responded, "Oh, we don't support that. The program is supposed to do that, but no one here knows how to do it." He gave me the e-mail address of the engineer in Germany who wrote the program, who simply responded, "It should work." Did I get what I paid for?
I'm currently involved in an interesting dialog with a company that sells installation software. So far, I have received four messages from the company telling me a very simple task cannot be completed, that it is not a problem because the program is working the way it was intended to, and that the fact the program does not handle this task is Microsoft's fault. Each message concludes with the phrase, "We hope you find this answer satisfactory." Am I satisfied? Did I get what I paid for? I've asked for a refund.
So remember, the next time you hear someone say, "You get what you pay for," don't you believe it, because when it comes to software support and customer service, it isn't necessarily true.
Gordon Quayle is half of the father-and-son partnership comprising Quayle Computer Concepts of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. For more information, call 949.364.6314 (Pacific), 715.832.2614 (Central); visit www.quayles.com.
Quayle Computer Concepts
Contact: Gordon or Calvin Quayle
Product(s): SWAMP (Storage & Warehouse Asset Management Program)
Software Type: Management software
Price Range: $495 new, $50 upgrade
Designed specifically for storage? Yes
Current version on market since: October 2002
New version to be released: Summer 2003
Tech support: Always free. FAQs availalble via website. Support available via e-mail or phone during waking hours, seven days a week.
SWAMP (Storage & Warehouse Asset Management Program) makes an operator's storage-management life easier at a reasonable cost. The program manages: automatic generation of rents, late fees and notices, rate increases, prorated and partial payments, credit-card billing, gate-system interface, general-ledger accounting, waiting lists, mail merge, extensive reports and more. Free and unlimited support, and friendly and courteous service provided by a father and son team that has been in the storage and software industries for 25 years.