How do you handle free support?
Thank you to a long-time reader (who requested anonymity) for suggesting this topic.
Many support organizations find themselves committed to delivering “free” support to some customers. This could be as a structured, established consequence of a freemium model (customers can use the product for free for either a set period of time or a limited set of functionality, and are charged only when they upgrade to full functionality or convert to paid after the trial period) — or it can be an ad-hoc arrangement where some customers are designated as special and worthy of getting support without paying for it.
What is the support executive to do with free support?
1. Determine if it’s freemium or ad-hoc free support
Freemium is an intriguing marketing idea and has its own support rules discussed here. (I’m rather pleased of how well this 2012 post has aged…)
If you are experiencing ad-hoc free support rather than freemium support, keep reading.
2. Define who grants free support, and why
Many support managers are resentful of free support beyond the instinctual (and true!) belief that freeloaders may wreck the experience of law-abiding, fee-paying customers: they don’t like to be dictated to by the sales team, who usually grants the exceptions.
Get over it.
Free support often makes commercial sense so create a structure for it. For instance, you may allow the sales managers in each region to designate one customer (or ten or whatever many) for free support. Once they make that one exception, that’s it, until they replace that lucky customer with a new one.
You may also grant short-term exceptions. For instance, it’s ok to grant free support for 3 months, tops, or whatever makes sense in your environment. This can be used to boost customers to a higher level of support while they overcome technical issues, or while they purchase more and more products.
3. Deliver great free support
Embrace the free customers and give them the same wonderful service as everyone else. In particular, support engineers should never have to worry that they are spending too much time helping “free” customers. (Of course, if you are doing a good job of defining and limiting free support, you will have appropriate resources to deliver great free support.)
4. Count the beans
It’s absolutely ok to deliver free support — really! The problem is that free support combined with limited resources means that bona fide customers receive lower levels of support: you need to show the larger organization the burden of providing all that free support. It’s a simple equation: if 20% of the issues (cases, forum threads) coming into your organization are from “free” customers, then 20% of your cost goes to “free” support.
In particular, if 20% of the issues are coming from professional services consultants or sales engineers, then 20% of your cost needs to be borne by the company rather than count against your funding or, especially, your margin. Again this does not mean that the support organization should not provide support to consultants or sales engineers: it’s efficient and effective to funnel all support through one team, as long as the funding reflects it.