posted by Barry Smith on Mon 10th Nov 2003 04:09 UTC
IconCommercial software companies across the industry have an often well-deserved reputation for poor customer service. Unfortunately, companies that sell Open Source Software are well on the way to establishing a reputation for being even worse than commercial firms. I believe I know why. The reason has its' roots in the origin of the free software movement, and in the cultural bias of the geek world. Here is my take on the subject, for whatever it might be worth.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

The root of the problem is based on the fact that OSS companies are not marketing a product, they are marketing services. Many firms seem to have trouble coming to grips with this fact. A commercial software company like Microsoft, or Novell, or any other company that produces and sells a proprietary software package is actually selling a combination of product and service, wrapped in one bundle. OSS companies are selling service, period.

Unfortunately, the operators of OSS companies tend to be refugees from the commercial software world, and they are conditioned and programmed to think in terms of proprietary code. Even when the company officers at various Linux distros consciously recognize that OSS is not proprietary, their conditioned reflexes still get the better of them. They can't help it, they were raised that way. It is the only paradigm that they understand.

A company which sells a particular flavor of Linux is not selling a product. You can't sell what you don't own. So the Linux distributors resort to rather plaintive attempts to take free software and make it semi-proprietary, all without quite violating the letter of the GPL. Sorry, but taking someone else's work and tweaking the graphics a little, perhaps adding a new installer and/or a new control panel, and then stamping your company logo on it does not turn it into your private property.

The "product" is free for anyone who cares to look. The only thing that an OSS company has to offer that is worth paying for is convenience. Pointing a newbie to the user forums for answers is acceptable if you are talking about software that is freely downloadable. But pointing a CUSTOMER to the forums, after they have given you money in return for the expectation of technical support, is not acceptable.

Customer service is it. This is all you have to offer. If your customer service is poor, then it doesn't matter how good your graphics, or your installer, or your control panel might be. Because the OSS community is constantly working to improve the product and if the free community hasn't already released a free version that is as good or better than yours, you can rest assured that they soon will.

Microsoft is desperately trying to come to grips with the simple fact that you can't compete with free. And you can't. The only way you can compete sucessfully is to build customer loyalty. And you don't build customer loyalty by making an especially well-tweaked version of someone else's work. You build customer loyalty by making your customers feel special, by convincing them that they truly matter to you. And that is the only possible way to do it.

As someone who has spent dreary years working with and for the public, I can say that there are some basic principles that every person who works in customer service has to keep in the forefront of their mind. These basics are not optional. You must follow these if you want to survive. Prospering is another story, I am talking about keeping a company from going under. And a sad number of Linux companies appear to never have heard of these.

Principle #1: The customer is always right, even when they are wrong and acting like an a**hole about it. No matter what, they are still the customer and without them you don't have an income. If they are livid, just make soothing noises and pat them on the head until they calm down. But never, ever, under any circumstances let them get under your skin. And never allow yourself to react to anger with more anger in return. No matter what the provocation.

The difficulty with this one is that geeks are not good with people. It's a Catch-22 situation. The very qualities that make a person good with numbers and programming tend to interfere with people skills. It is a rare individual indeed who can handle both well. Most Open Source Software companies tend to be relatively small, ranging from a small handful of developers up to a medium size basketful of developers. Very few OSS companies can afford to employ dedicated public relations personnel. Usually, when you manage to contact customer service (if you manage to contact customer service at all) you end up talking to a programmer. This means that your main contact with the company will be someone who is not superb at confrontation. Most geeks react to anger with more anger. Once tempers rise, customer care goes out the window.

I will offer a real world example of what I mean - I tried to contact a Linux company last year with a networking question. To avoid causing unnecessary friction, I will call this company "M****ake". I had been having some issues with network hardware that was supposed to have been supported out of the box, and I repeatedly sent emails to customer support requesting advice . It took me four repeated attempts to finally get a response from someone, which did not help my temper any.

Finally I was contact by email with the suggestion that I should ask someone on the user forums about my problem. I responded that I had already checked the user forums, and moreover I had not purchased the software from anyone on the forums. I had purchased the software from "M****ake" and I thought "M****ake" should take responsibility for helping me with the installation support that they had promised. I made mention that I had in fact purchased two separate boxed copies of their software. The customer support representative replied, and I quote, "That's nice. Thats why I bothered to answer you in the first place" . I haven't purchased "M****ake" since. Nor do I intend to.

Table of contents
  1. "Grasp The Concept, Page 1"
  2. "Grasp The Concept, Page 2"
  3. "Grasp The Concept, Page 3"
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