I recently had a bad experience with an application service provider that illustrated a growing problem with technology companies- lack of service and support. We have grown complacent as technology consumers and we allow vendors to offer very poor levels of service that wouldn’t be allowed in other markets.
In my case, my ASP was Apple. I have been a subscriber to their .Mac service, primarily for email hosting. Apple sells this as a value added service to enhance the Macintosh experience. Considering that you usually get email service through your ISP and that there are many services that offer email for free, why would anyone pay $100 for email? The answer is value. For me there was enough value in having an email address with a particular quality of service not offered by free services and independence from my ISP.
Recently the email service Apple had sold me began to fail. Every other connection to their mail servers timed out. I contacted Apple and was astonished by the poor support they offered. They refused to admit that there was a problem and even had they admitted there was a problem, they insisted that it was outside of their mandate to provide support or to fix the problem.
This article isn’t about my problems with Apple. If you want to read the details of this particular incident, you can go to DotMacSucks.com. I was so moved by this experience that I not only dropped Apple’s service, but I created a website to share my experience with others. What is disturbing is that this poor level of service is not uncommon among technology companies.
The Importance of the Price/Value Proposition
Anyone who has run a business or taken a course in management knows all too well about the price/value proposition. While there are many ways to differentiate your product or service, this is the primary determinate by which consumers select products.
Anyone who sells any product must strike a balance between the price of the product and the value (perceived and actual) that the product delivers. If you examine most any industry you will find a collection of companies, but there are two types of companies that tend to dominate.
The first type of company is the low cost leader. This company subscribes to the strategy that the lowest price at a reasonable value attracts customers. Walmart is an example of a low cost leader. In the PC world, Dell is often cited as the low cost leader. In this model, all production and operation expenses are stripped and streamlined until you can deliver products and services at the lowest price point in the market.
On the other end of the scale is the value leader. The value leader business plan sells a brand and higher quality. An example of a value leader is Bose. How many people do you know purchase $500 alarm-lock radios? How about the iPod? Or even the Macintosh? What these products have in common is that customers are willing to pay a premium for products that they perceive to have more value.
The price value proposition is an immutable principle of business that all companies must recognize to remain viable.
When it comes to technology products, there are several ways to assess value. It can be in design, ease of use, functionality, customizability, and other factors. While these factors are highly subjective, there are some that are fairly constant; service and support.
When it comes to service, we generally know what we want. When we need assistance for whatever reason, we want access to help. Specifically we want some person to help us and assure us that our needs as consumers will be met. The mark of great support is a company that can make a customer feel serviced even if the underlying problem cannot or has not yet been addressed.
Support is the actual assistance received in relation to a product. It is the resolution to problems with products and services. This adds value to a product because it affords a sense of security.
Finally there is an unspoken rule when any customer purchases a product or service from a company: accountability. Companies have an obligation to deliver the products and services that they have sold. If an item is defective or does not meet the description used to sell that product, the company has an obligation to replace the product or refund a customer’s money. This is an essential principle of any business deal and any company that does not abide by this rule cannot survive.
Service and Support of Technology Products
Technology companies have always skirted the implications of value when it comes to service and support. They have also largely avoided accountability. I think this has some basis in the birth of computer technology as a consumer industry. The original computer technology consumers were skilled professionals and hobbyists. In the early days you bought a kit not a computer. Expectations were very different as was the type of support that was offered.
Today the market is very different in the consumer space and even in the enterprise sector. We don’t expect kits; we expect well-integrated, commercial systems and software. Still, support and service in the technology industry has in many ways not caught up.
I think the reason support is so poor in the tech industry is based on two primary factors. One is cost competition. The other is simple complacency.
On the topic of competition, tech companies have to deal with the dropping costs of components and market consolidation. Many companies are racing to become the low cost leader while others are trying to stake out a better value proposition. In this race to strike a profitable balance, companies must deal with the reality that providing service and support to customers is expensive.
Many companies cut costs by skimping on documentation. It is now commonplace to not receive a detailed manual with software or computers. Sometimes documentation is included in electronic format or worse yet, it is embedded in useless online help systems. This allows companies to skimp on printing costs and technical writers.
Then there’s the consideration of customer service. Customer service representatives are expensive. Many companies mitigate this cost by using automated systems such as websites, interactive voice systems, and automated fax systems. If you’ve ever waited on a customer support line for a technology company, you’ve probably noticed the length of time you need to wait to speak to a person and how many opportunities you’re given to interact with an automated system in lieu of speaking with a representative. Considering the cost of running an automated system versus training and paying an actual person to help customers, you can see why companies opt for fewer or no representatives.
Complacency of the Technology Consumer
The question is, why do we as technology consumers put up with this level of service? For one thing, I think the quality of support and service has deteriorated across most every industry, not just technology, and this has lowered expectations. Still, technology companies tend to have very poor support compared to other industries. I think this is not only a consequence of their origins, but also due to conditioning by the entire industry.
If you’ve ever read a software license, you’ll find something in there that states that the company providing the software cannot be held accountable for damages caused by their product. This is something fairly uncommon in other industries, but we as technology consumers have become accustomed to this sort of treatment.
We have also grown accustomed to a lack of documentation. We often buy software, hardware, and services without manuals. In fact, there is a publishing industry based around this simple concept. Companies are lowering their costs by not providing these materials, but consumers do not share these savings. We often buy a technology product and spend another $15-$60 on a manual from a different company and in some cases the same company.
Not only have we been hoodwinked out of a decent manual, but also in many cases, support is a separate product than the product we are purchasing. Extended warrantees and service plans are not uncommon in other industries, but we need to be critical the warrantees that ship with computers. When you consider that the lifespan of a computer is generally in three to five years, just what percentage of the lifespan are they covering? A third? A fifth? That’s just for the parts. What about phone support? A common number is 90 days. That’s somewhere around 10% or less of the lifespan of the product. Should we have to pay extra for better support?
Support is expensive, and I’m not suggesting that we ought to get something for nothing. What I am suggesting is that companies need to be held accountable for their products and they should provide reasonable support. If that means higher prices so be it, but currently technology companies are spinning documentation, support, and service into a separate product rather than keeping it a part of the actual product. This shields them from having to price that support and service competitively like they must price the product or service. This means the company is increasing their profit margins at the expense of the consumer.
Technology companies get away with this because technology consumers have low expectations. Not because we don’t expect support, but rather we have come to expect lousy support. Terrible service. We’ve been conditioned to see these values as a separate product that is an optional purchase.
In some ways this is changing. Because of consolidation in the market, many sectors in the tech industry have already found the low cost leaders, and the rest need to rely on support and service to differentiate their product.
Also there is pressure from the open source community. While open source software generally can’t compete on features and ease of use, I have found that open source communities are exceeding commercial offerings when it comes to service. Returning to my .Mac example, Apple offers email-only support to .Mac users. Also, Apple only guarantees a response within 24 hours. In my case, Apple did not respond to inquiries and it did not meet that 24-hour response time constraint. That same week I was having .Mac woes, I was trying to build the Java 1.4.2 SDK on FreeBSD. Granted this is out of the realm of the typical user, but it is an excellent counterpoint to Apple’s poor support. I was having trouble so I posted a message to two BSD mailing lists, including the java list where the developers talk. I received two excellent responses within thirty minutes, which solved my problem completely.
Granted open source groups do not make any claim of support, service, or accountability, but I have found them to be more responsive and more courteous than many professional support services. When a commercial operation cannot supply the value attached free software, they need to seriously reevaluate their policies and practices.
Besides lower expectations, technology companies enjoy a lack of options and competition. This isn’t true of all products, but it is something to contend with. If you were unhappy with your toaster or your VCR, you could easily shop at a different store or buy a different brand. If you were having problems with an accounting software package, you may only have a choice between three or four companies. In many cases, you may have to stick with a single company due to the availability of features or perhaps you need to use a de-facto standard. Other, non-technical users are often unaware of other options or unsure how to locate them.
When you receive poor service or support from a company, or a company refuses to take responsibility for its actions, do not be complacent. Make a stink. Don’t go away. Don’t allow yourself to have low expectations. Regardless of how a company acts, the consumer holds the power in any business transaction.
Remember that support and services costs money. If you go to the lowest cost provider, you aren’t going to get the red carpet treatment. So never demand more than is fair. Still, demand accountability from the company.
Second, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere. Nothing hurts a company more than losing a customer. Especially if you are a customer that is likely to make repeat purchases. Even if you think that you’re locked into a particular product or service, it’s never as bad as you think. A great example of this is Ernie Ball of the Sterling Ball Company. Microsoft treated him so poorly that he replaced all Microsoft products in his company with alternatives. There was no reason for this to happen other than arrogance on the part of one company.
Finally, tell people. Tell everyone and anyone. There is an old business rule of thumb that every unsatisfied customer tells twelve people about their experience. I’ve heard the rule stated with a disgruntled customer telling as many as twenty-four other people. The consumer has the power. With the communication capability of the Internet, we can post reviews and create entire web sites to point out bad experiences. Customer satisfaction in the Internet age is more important than ever.
Again, take the example of my .Mac experience. Apple wouldn’t pay a representative to fix my problem or to help me. How much would it have cost them to do this? When you consider that .Mac service costs $100 per year, when you subtract the cost of running the service and paying someone to help me, they may have severely damaged or even negated any profit gained from me that year. But they also lost my $100 for next year. They lost my $100 for the year after that. They lost any referrals I may have sent them. They may lose my business when I purchase my next PC. Furthermore, I have just started a small business and I spent over a week gathering information on what platform to standardize on. OS X was near the top of my list. Even though Apple hardware costs more money, I was counting on the ease of use and support to make the TCO lower over the course of the lifetime of the machine. I’m not so sure at this point. Also, I have told everyone I know about this experience and I was so moved by their indifference that I created DotMacSucks.com.
Every disgruntled customer has the potential to become an evangelist against a company that doesn’t live up to their responsibilities. As tech consumers it is time to put corporations on notice that we will be complacent no more.
Fred McCann works as a Software Engineer in New York City
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