Support for “free” customers?

By Technical Support

Many vendors have a hybrid model through which some customers get completely free service, with the hope that some will switch to fee-based service. In that situation, what are the options to deliver support to the free segment of customers?

  1. Provide the same level of service for all customers. The idea here is that all customers, regardless of their current status, may upgrade to paid service, hence it makes sense to provide the same level of (assisted) service to all customers to get them to sign up for paid service. This is a common strategy for startups who simply must attract enough of a base to survive. It’s often not a sustainable strategy for the long run, as clearly paid customers expect higher value and a higher level of services that can be afforded for the masses.
  2. Provide differentiated service to paid customers. The idea here is that paid customers are clearly more valuable to the company, even if today’s free customers may turn into paid customers tomorrow, or eventually. So while free customers are given a minimal level of (assisted) service they don’t get the same perks as paid cusotmers. Under this scenario the higher support levels could, in themselves, be a large part and sometime the main part of the incentive to move to a paid offer.
    Typical differentiations include the support channel (for instance paid customers can receive live chat or phone service while free customers only get email support) and the speed of answers, with paid customers being guaranteed a response within hours while free customers may wait for days.
  3. Provide assisted service only to paid customers. The extreme version of the strategy above is to provide no assisted support to free customers, only self-service. In this situation self-service options are often lavish, with online troubleshooting and customer forums, but there’s no way that free customers can get individualized attention. The problem with this approach is that free customers never get a taste of how good the service can be if only they upgraded to a paid option (but then again the same can be said of the differentiated option above, where the quality of free service can be quite low.)

How do you choose between the three options? It’s really a strategic choice that must be done at the executive level and match the model for acquiring customers. And as always the decision can change over time, usually moving away from free assisted support.

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