Where has all the service gone?
by Gordon Quayle

There is an old adage that goes, “You get what you pay for.” We have all heard it, most of us have probably even said it a time or two. It is so pervasive that we accept it as immutable truth. It rings true doesn’t it? Sounds logical, no? Say it again, “you get what you pay for.” Who could argue with that? Well, me, I guess, when it comes to software support and customer service.

You see it used to be that when you bought software you automatically received a couple of things, such as a printed users’ 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 ten to twenty years. Economists tell us that we have shifted from a society that predominantly manufactured 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, we have reduced costs by such things as replacing printed manuals with on-line help and substituting media with file downloads from the Internet. We began to charge nominal fees to offset the cost of technical support and then we began to charge higher fees in order to make a profit. Now, product support and services, for many software companies, is their main source of income, or at least a substantial profit center.

Companies now look at every service they provide as a potential source of income. Software companies now charge for such things as annual support, phone calls, bug fixes, replacement media, etc. Microsoft has taken this transfer of costs to the extreme. They have convinced others to pay them to write documentation and provide training. Computer professionals now pay Microsoft to learn their products, to become Microsoft Certified Professionals, so that they can in turn charge users to teach them how to use Microsoft products. Others pay Microsoft to be able to write and publish books about Microsoft products, which users then pay for in addition to the cost of the software itself. A pretty nice setup if you can get away with it. Tom Sawyer would be proud.

The other day I got a call from a woman, a potential new client, who had recently bought an existing storage facility on the west coast. The facility came with a storage management program from another vender (names will be changed or omitted from this article to protect the guilty) and she had just learned that they wanted $3,200 a year for support. Flabbergasted, she was able to secure a special discount, because she was a new owner, of $395 for the first three months before having to pay the standard price. She agreed because she knew that her new manager was going to need some help and because it would buy her some time to find another vendor. She was further dismayed to find out that on the two occasions her manager did try to use the support she had paid for, he was unable to get through. Do I need to ask it – did she get what she paid for? Would she have gotten any more if she had paid even more? Well, yes, if you consider what she got was frustration and sense of being ripped off.

One of the reasons that companies can get away with charging so much for support is that 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 company has established a sizable customer base, they become the richest (not to mention easiest) source of steady income, especially if they 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 that 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 that they get away with it is that we allow them to do it to us – we have bought into the fallacy that we have to pay for it. It’s expected, like tipping. Do you remember the time when tips were just that – a reward for extra, special or good service? Remember? It made you feel good to express your genuine appreciation for something special. The person receiving it also felt good because they had earned it and it meant something. Then it became expected that you leave a ten percent tip, then a fifteen or twenty percent tip. Anything less and you were “cheating” them. I’ve gone to places that automatically charge a fifteen or twenty percent gratuity right in the bill. I have no say, they just take it. Where’s the appreciation in that? Where’s the incentive to provide good service? With rising prices and the higher percentage being paid out in tips, our costs for service has certainly gone up, but does anyone honestly believe that the service we receive has increased proportionately? Most of the people I talk to actually think that service has declined. So are we getting what we pay for?

I recently participated in a software seminar at a state self storage convention. A lot of attention was being focused on the varied support plans touted by the various vendors and their attenuating charges. At one point, when it became clear that the audience was not pleased with the “service” they were paying for, the moderator broke in and tried to explain that support charges were necessary and that we just needed to accept them. 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 bothered me from the outset. I have thought about it often since then and I think it misses the point. We buy insurance for our cars to protect us from material and financial liabilities that may result from an accident or theft. We want service and support for our software to teach us how to use it and fix it when it doesn’t work. And it’s the vendor who best knows how to use the software and most likely bears the responsibility when it doesn’t work. So why should you have to pay for something that is their responsibility to begin with. I will admit that annual support fees are like insurance premiums on one way – most people do not receive equivalent value back compared to what they paid in.

By charging for support, software companies are fomenting situations that are not in their (nor 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 a rich relationship.

First of all, it does not foster a feeling of trust from their customers. When a company tells me that they need to charge me for support, they are telling me that they do not have confidence in their own product and they expect it to break. Several years ago, I was car shopping for my very first new car (I had always bought used cars up to that point), and I had finally narrowed it down to two vehicles. The deciding factor became that one car came with an extended warranty and the other required that I purchase a warranty as an add-on to the cost of the vehicle. One interesting thing to note is that the cost of the one car plus the add-on warranty was about the same as the other car with the included warranty. And yet, because it was a separate charge, it gave me the feeling that they did not stand behind their product, whereas with the one that had it included, I felt that they believed in what they were selling. So I bought the one with the included warranty. Thirteen years and over 200,000 miles later, I still believe I made the right choice. I think it is an indicator of the kind of company you are dealing with. In this case, the company I chose did stand behind their product when something went wrong. The other company, as it turned out, ended up fighting its customers in a lawsuit when something went wrong with its vehicle. Image or impressions matter because they often reflect substance.

Secondly, it introduces enmity between the company and its customers. When I call up technical support because I can’t get their software to work and the first thing they ask for is my credit card number, I’m already crossing them off my holiday greeting 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 web site knowledge base, I get frustrated. And when e-mail inquiries are responded to with form letters, wrong answers, or, worst of all, by silence, I get angry. We have all had these experiences. We have all longed to just talk to another human being that will understand our question and give us the needed answer. These practices drive customers away. Just to make sure I don’t leave the wrong impression, I am not opposed to phone menus, e-mail support, and knowledge bases on the web. 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 that company values it customers.

Thirdly, it builds barriers to essential feedback. When companies make it difficult or expensive for their 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 them, I was told that they would charge my credit card fifty dollars; if later they determine that my reported problem was indeed a bug in their software they would credit the fifty dollars 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 they made it difficult for people to give them the feedback they needed. I believe you build a superior product by listening to your customers. Hearing how they are using the various features. Learning how they think and how they 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 way get ideas for program improvements come from 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.

And finally, it’s a bad idea because I say so. You know how as a parent, you sometimes give an answer to your child that you can’t completely backup with logical reasoning. You are just older, wiser, and have more experience so you tend to trust those “gut feelings” you have. And when your child keeps asking why or why not, you finally resort to that infamous parental retort, “because I said so!” So after being in the software business for 25 years, providing free and unlimited support just feels like the right thing to do. Because I said so!

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 they provided). A week later, I got a message back 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 back. Two weeks later, I got a message identical to the first one. I wrote back. A week later, I got a message identical to the second one. I wrote back and back and back. After three months, they sent me a telephone number, which I promptly called and explained the problem again. The customer service person 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 email 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. I recently bought their highly touted new and improved updated version. However, the new version no longer handles the simplest of tasks – copy a file from the CD regardless of the date or version of the file it is replacing on disk. Just copy the file, no more, no less. They tell me it can’t be done. I happen to know it can because I found an article in their knowledge base that says it can and I’ve tried it and it works – mostly. But I am waiting to see if they figure it out. So far I have received four messages from them telling me that it can’t be done, that it is not a problem because it is working the way it was intended to work and that it does not do what it used to do 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 refund.

So remember, the next time you hear someone say “you get what you pay for”, don’t you believe it, because it’s not always true.


Next Step

What to look for


Where has all the service gone?
Long time passing.
Where has all the service gone?
Long time ago.
Where has all the service gone?
They now charge them for ev’ry call.
Oh, when will you ever learn?
Oh, when will you ever learn?
(My apologies to Pete Seeger, author of “Where have all the flowers gone?”)

This article was first published in the May 2003 issue of Inside Self-Storage