Can you help your customers too much? Have you ever wondered where to draw the line when providing support / customer service to your customers? Or how to react when support starts becoming the focus of every waking moment, much less the thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night? Consider the question below. Once again, the context is software, but these business model structural design failures can just as easily face your plumbing firm, Crossfit gym, or mortgage brokerage.

I have a question about supporting my end users of my software. How do you take care of users who call about their printer not working, or they can’t get the software to open up because of a networking error? Do you charge for these things? Do you somehow let them know it’s not your problem but do it nicely? I feel like we are getting way too many calls that have nothing to do with our software. Just today a customer wants to print to a different printer and I asked if it was installed on her computer. She answers “I don’t know how to check that.”

You might be wondering how you’d get into a situation like this. Maybe you don’t clearly define what your business does and what it doesn’t do. Perhaps it happened because we’ll often do “whatever the customer asks” during the early days when you’re clawing for business. In that mode, you’ll do (almost) anything to please a customer & get/keep a sale. Trouble is, you may eventually find yourself trapped because this kind of business model doesn’t scale well. Even if you’re being paid for the help, it can create a large support infrastructure. Is that the business you designed?

Once you’re in this situation, the far more important question is “How do I get out of this mess?

Help! We already do too much.

There is some good news. If you’re being asked to help, it usually means they trust the advice you’re giving them. The challenge with this is that you’re often doing this for free, which is another reason they’re asking you for help. While you could start charging then by the hour for help that is not directly related to what you do, is that the business you’re in? Looking forward, is that the business you want to be in?

Let’s rewind a bit. When you selected a market to enter, did you also consider the type of customers involved? Did you consider what sort of help they would expect? Consumer users need a lot of help. Most of them aren’t tech people. They depend on tech to remove problems, not create them. When the latter happens, it usually coincides with use of other technology, like yours. It’s the nature of the beast.

Your consumer users need your products / services to help them, heal themselves and when that fails, communicate all pertinent details to you as automatically as possible. Anything else creates a situation where you’re buried in a pile of conversations with frustrated users who don’t know how to answer your legitimately nerdy questions that your software should’ve already figured out.

Understandable. It’s not difficult to get buried by consumer or small business support / service. The consumer issues are noted above, and the small business ones aren’t much different. Few small businesses have an IT staff. Some have their brother-in-law the IT guy (translation: maybe a gamer, maybe a real IT person somewhere), and a scarce few actually have a professional firm contracting this sort of help. Even for the latter and most proactive group, this help can be quite expensive. Result: They’ll still try to get you to help before falling back on the external IT group.

So how do you fix it without aggravating your entire user community?

Most likely, you don’t. There is no shortcut here. Admit that you can’t do it any longer and decide what you will do, then communicate the situation to your users. At the very least, you have to communicate it to the ones who are consuming the most time on things that are ultimately not “owned by you”.

What you can’t do: Continue being your customers’ service desk for HP, Microsoft, Dell, etc. There’s too much hardware changing too fast that’s affected by too many things. Remember, this isn’t the business you’re in (unless it is).

No easy answers

This support / service load has a cost – sometimes a substantial one. You have a few choices, including these:

  • Shoulder all of it and raise prices across your entire customer base.
  • Shoulder none of it and take the heat. Probably a lot of it.
  • Choose a solution somewhere in the middle and stand firm on the things you simply can’t afford to do without being paid, if you do them at all.

If your software demands hardware (such as point of sale devices), then choose a very short list to support from specific vendors, certify it with your product – and support it very well with your hardware partners’ help. Make it clear prior to purchase that you cannot support other hardware, unless you’re willing to accept the cost of doing so (You probably can’t).

No matter what you decide, you MUST communicate your decision and new support policies / approach to your users. This is not the time to “get all corporate” in your communication. Be clear and real about it. Small businesses may not like it, but they’ll understand that you have to contain it. Enterprises will likely begrudgingly accept it – knowing that they’ve been getting a screaming deal for some time. Consumers won’t like it, but you simply can’t replace vendor support for every piece of hardware &software ever made – much less whatever you sell. It’s not feasible. It’s time to stand up for yourself – and the future of your business.

Overwhelmed by the enterprise?

Enterprise customers usually don’t need help with printers and other rudimentary things. The exceptions are those with an IT team that’s difficult to deal with. They’ll call you first because you actually help them. You have to be crystal clear (in advance, on paper) about the details of support / service with enterprise clients or the sheer volume of questions can bury your support team. Badly structured pricing of support can create severe pain and impact your ability to support the rest of your customers.

This is the situation “shadow IT” ultimately grew out of. It happens when a department gets fed up with IT & rolls their own solutions. They go to this trouble because they’re fed up with the inability to get help. You might end up being a part of a department’s shadow IT solution. Is your sales process designed to detect how purchasing and support are delivered to internal customers at your prospective customer? If you’re part of a shadow IT solution, your price better reflect the real needs of that department.

As with consumer solutions, a self-healing, self-diagnosing solution will save a ton of time, money, and frustration for everyone. These self-healing, self-diagnosing solutions don’t have to be perfect. If they can handle the most frequently reported issues, it will give your team breathing room to make headway on the rest. “Oh, that’s common sense” you might say. Yes, it is. Does your product do it?

Avoid doing too much for too little

Think hard about the future of what you’re building. How will your team, product, service, delivery, operations, & accounting look when you have 100 or 1000 or even 10000 clients? When you’re scraping for revenue, it may seem silly to consider how your business model will look at 1000 clients. Do it anyway, as it’s much easier to design a model that works at any size while your office is the kitchen table. The investment in time and thought will pay big dividends 9999 customers from now, if not before. You can get by on seat of the pants management when you’re small, but that sort of business model will create pain well before you’re ready to redesign it.

Operations will look different at 10 clients than at 1000, but the business model doesn’t have to. You can do it, but it’s hard to change your business model while 1000 customers are on board. Invest even a little bit of thought up front to make sure things make sense five years from now.

You may not remember 10, 15, 20 years ago when software companies provided perpetual licenses and never charged for support. The boldest proudly offered “lifetime support”. What most customers didn’t consider was that it was the vendor’s lifetime, rather than theirs. Vendors suffers the same shortsightedness. Their business model flipped over when their ninth year sales pace didn’t match that of their second year. Suddenly, they had updates and support to provide to more people every year while revenue slowly dropped off. Their market penetration rose, but their annual revenue didn’t.

Decide what your business model will support and price accordingly. Communicate clearly what you do, what you don’t do, and how you charge.