Customer Services: OSS, Grasp The Concept

Commercial 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

The “product” is free for anyone who cares to look. The
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.

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.

Principle #2: Always
follow through on every customer complaint, no matter how trivial. This will
mean spending a large amount of time on what feels like a foolish waste of
energy, but you can’t escape it. The worst result that you can achieve, the very
worst thing you can do to your company’s reputation, is to convince the
customers that you don’t give a care. Even if it is silly, keep on top of it
until the customer goes away satisfied.

The thing to remember here
is that nobody feels unimportant to themselves. There is no such thing as a
trivial problem when it is your problem. I can’t count the times I
have read complaints about a particular Linux distro not supporting someone’s
sound card, or their video card, or printer, or some other thing. The (dreadful)
response that I most commonly see is ‘replace your (whatever) with one that is

Herein lies the difficulty. What if they can’t? What if the
customer lives in an area where computer upgrades are difficult to obtain? Many
people live in the country, miles from the nearest electronic store. Even more
likely, what if they can’t afford it? Fact is, computers are costly little
devils, even now when the prices are dropping. And for many people it is not a
trivial matter to drop a couple of hundred dollars on a new video card, or even
$50 on a new sound card. When your customer has a problem, no matter how
piddling you personally might consider it to be, remember that they are probably
operating under a different set of circumstances than you are. And quite likely,
they have fewer options available to fix things than you do. So do your best to
come up with a solution that they can use, not necessarily the one that you
would have chosen for yourself.

Another real world example here – I
recently acquired a copy of a (supposedly) newbie friendly Linux distro I will
refer to as “L****ws”. The version I got was release 3.0, and this particular
company had just released a new update to version 4.0. Not to worry, I was
assured that the license fee included the right to a free upgrade from the
“L****ws” servers. So I logged onto the “L****ws” web site and registered my new
distro. I then happily and innocently connected to the company ftp server and
began downloading. But then the fact that I am on a dialup connection reared
its’ ugly head, and I had to break the connection for an important phone call. I
wasn’t expecting any trouble, since I was using a download manager that
supported resuming.

Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the
institutional paranoia that is one of the hallmarks of “L****ws”. When I tried
to reconnect I was told that the password was wrong. I went back to the web page
and reconnected, and found that neither the “L****ws” ftp server, nor their http
server, allowed resuming a disconnected download. Apparently there is a time
delay on the connection, and after a few seconds the server resets and you need
a new password. I submitted a query to the “L****ws” support page (which
promised in writing to have a response within 24 hours) and then started
checking the user forums on my own to see if anyone else had this problem.

I discovered a fairly long thread in the user forums that showed not
only was this a known problem, but that multiple people have been complaining
about it for some time. A “L****ws” forum moderator had dropped into the thread
and said that customers had basically two options: 1) Get broadband, or 2) order
the CD-ROMs from the company. Since the full set of CD-ROMs for the upgrade
would equal the total price I had paid for the original package, I decided not
to go with that idea. And I do not have the option of broadband available at
this time. The “L****ws” moderator responded by airly declaring that price was
irrelevant, once you had tried broadband you would never go back to dialup.
Well, this might be true. But if you don’t use the internet for anything besides
web surfing, chat and email then broadband is an unecessary expense. And in my
case, I simply can’t get it. Physically impossible.

Did I mention that
the “L****ws” support page offered written assurances stating that all requests
fro assistance from registered customers who were logged in would be answered
within 24 hours? On day number six (6) I finally got a rather brief, very polite
response that “L*****ws” could not help me with the problem and suggested that I
check the user forums. Three days later I went back to check the status of my
support ticket and saw that it had been marked as “Solved”. If the problem got
solved, nobody told me about it.

However, not to worry. There are
several Warez sites out there…….

Principle #3: If one
(1) person complains about something, you can be sure that ten (10) more are
unhappy but haven’t bothered to tell you. If five (5) people complain, you can
be pretty sure that one hundred (100) customers are either quietly upset, or you
have already lost their business without realizing it. Every complaint matters.
If one customer has a problem, there is no possible way that you can escape the
certainty that other people have the same or a similar problem.

rare exceptions, computer related problems are not unique. Whether it be
hardware, or operating system, or applications, or peripherals, if one person
has a problem someone else also has the same problem. Even if it is user error.
The trouble is, many people are reluctant to make waves. Either they don’t think
that the problem can be fixed and they see no reason to put themselves to the
trouble, or they simply give up right away and try something else. Most casual
end users will not sit and hammer away at a recalcitrant piece of code or
hardware. They will snarl and toss it into the trash.

When this happens
you end up with diminishing user base, and a dropping rate of repeat business.
All without knowing why. This is where monitoring your customer service records
becomes critical. If a complaint comes in, pay attention no matter what
it is. User errors are common. But many users make the same errors so maybe you
should adjust the interface, or update the manual. No matter what the complaint,
you can be certain that if one person has a problem with something then there
are others who don’t think it is worth the pain to complain. If you forget this,
you can be left dangling with dropping profit margins and a bad reputation, all
without ever knowing why.

You may never get to see beyond the tip of the
iceberg. But the iceberg is always there, believe it.

Principle #4: This is the hardest one sometimes. You have
to realize, and internalize, the fact that the customer does not owe you
anything at all. Not even courtesy. They paid your company money in
return for something. Either they bought a product, or they hired a service. If
they believe that they (the customer) did not receive good value for their
money, then it is your responsibility to make it right. No matter what it takes.
This is hard to keep in mind while you are being cussed at by some fool, but in
all justice if they paid money and did not get what they paid for, then
THEY are the ones who got screwed. If you (meaning your company)
took their money then it is your responsibility to see that they get good value.
Even when you want to strangle them and dump the body in some vacant lot. They
are the injured party, not you.

IT people have an attitude. No sense
in denying it, the average geek is smart and well aware of that fact. The
average geek is good at what they do and well aware of that fact also. And the
average geek is very protective of “their” handiwork. Most programmers I have
known act like you have attacked their firstborn when you make a remark critical
of their code.

Fine, be proud of your work. But recognize that other
people’s money is just as important to them as your money is to you. Complaining
about your work is not the same thing as making a personal attack on your flesh
and blood. It may feel that way, but it is not. Remember that the customer does
not know you or care to know you. All they know is that somehow their money is
gone and they still don’t have what they expected.

Maybe their
expectations were unreasonable. So what? Maybe they just don’t understand
something. So what? They are the ones who parted with money. They are the ones
who need to be placated. Once you take their money, the responsibilty for making
sure that good value is returned cannot be escaped. A refund is the last resort.
A refund says that you cannot, or will not fix the problem and you are giving
up. This will percolate through the customers friends and family, and soon you
have a small crowd of peopel who are convinced that you are substandard.

It isn’t actually necessary to win this fight. All you have to do is to
convince, and make the customer truly believe, that you are honestly trying to
do your best for them. People will forgive much if they are sure that you are
acting in good faith. Many times when people are complaining they don’t really
expect the problem to be fixed. They just feel impelled to vent. If you can fix
the problem, then great. That is a bonus. But the one thing you absolutely must
do, the one critical thing that you must do, is convince the
customer that they are important to you, they matter to you, and you are going
to go to the absolute limit to do your very best for them.

If you can
accomlpish that, you have a loyal customer. If you can’t accomplish that, kiss
your paycheck goodbye.


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