What you must consider when using free services.
It’s a common frustration. You have a problem, concern, or complaint, and you want to reach out to the company or service involved. Try as you might, you can’t find a phone number. If you do, you find an endless phone tree of automated assistance options — or worse, a scam.
As far as you can tell, there’s no way to locate a real person.
There probably isn’t, and the reason is simple.
People are expensive. Incredibly expensive. Even when they’re overseas, people are still costly and often unreliable as compared to automated or self-service alternatives.
Let’s explore the alternatives.
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Why you can't talk to a real person
Offering technical support of any sort is a business decision, nothing else. Part of the cost of free services is that there may not be any direct contact technical support. Free tiers don’t generally “push” you into upgrading, but sometimes you just have to pay for the level of support you need or expect. Set reasonable expectations when you sign up for a free service, and consider opting to pay for better service if it’s important to you.
This isn’t about right or wrong
People tend to get frustrated when they can’t access the support they feel should exist.
From time to time, I’m one of those people.
But I want to be clear: this isn’t about whether the decisions made by these companies are right or wrong. This isn’t about what you do or don’t deserve as their customer. This isn’t about how company X should provide real support by real people accessible by real phone numbers.
This is about understanding why things are the way they are, setting realistic expectations, and making informed decisions.
This is about becoming more self-reliant.
Free is never free
Nowhere do I hear this complaint more than related to free online services. Be it free tiers of services that include paid options, or services provided free in exchange for your information or for the opportunity to show you advertising, free apps and services often have little to no live customer support.
I’ve said this often: having no customer support is one of the prices you pay for free services.
A “good” free service has online information available, knowledge bases you can search, and even forums where users help one another. While there’s a cost involved in those options, they’re often minimal or one-time costs, whereas human support staff costs money continuously.
If they had to pay for support staff, the service would probably not be free.
If the service wasn’t free, you probably wouldn’t use it.
The service is provided without live support to keep costs down and the number of users high.
It can only be provided without live support in order to survive.
Free tiers generally don’t “push” you into anything
Many services provide what’s called a “freemium” blend of products. One tier is completely free, but limited in its offering. More functionality — such as additional support offerings — is available at paid levels of service. Often there are multiple paid levels, each with its own additional product or service benefits.
Users of the free version of a service often complain that they’re constantly “pushed” into purchasing the paid product in order to get even basic support.
While I can certainly name products and services that do use their free offerings as aggressive approaches to acquiring paid customers, my experience is that for the most part, it isn’t that widespread. In most cases, the offering is clear: a free version you can use without any support at all, and paid versions with more features and support.
It’s not a push; it’s simply your decision. If you choose to stick with the free version, your expectations should be clear from the outset: there will be no support. A paywall is nothing more than the structure of the product offerings.
Businesses make these decisions based on marketing. Of course they hope the free product or service will demonstrate the value of their offering and people will be willing to pay for additional value. But if you want to keep using the free version, you’re welcome to do so.
These are business decisions, nothing more
It sounds horrible, but it’s just about money.
Regardless of whether it’s a business attempting to make a profit1, or a not-for-profit organization just trying to pay the bills, customer support options are costly.
And the options for raising revenue are limited.
Display too many ads and you lose customers. Display too few and you don’t make enough to run the service, much less support it. Patronage and other donation-based models are marginally effective, but almost never enough for larger companies. Selling product X in order to fund product Y generally results in product Y getting less and less attention unless it has strategic importance to a company’s overall strategy.
And nothing changes the fact that hiring people (often termed a company’s “most important asset”) is its most costly expense.
When companies run the numbers, the cost of labor is measured against the alternatives, and self-service options like knowledge bases and peer-to-peer support forums provide a more cost-effective solution.
What all this means to you
The state of customer support is something you need to be aware of so you can:
- Set reasonable expectations of the services you use, perhaps even being grateful that free services are available at all.
- Make informed decisions when choosing the services that are most important to you.
Both of these, when taken to heart, result in a much less frustrating experience.
Become more self-sufficient. If a company doesn’t provide direct customer service, look for other options. Search their knowledge bases, if they have them. Join their user communities. Learn to be skeptical about the information you find, and get better at using services like Google2 to search for solutions.
Don’t get frustrated when the free or low-cost service you signed up for offers little to no customer support. It’s exactly what you should expect as part of the complex equation that allows you to use it for free. The lack of support is the additional “price” you agree to pay.
Make different choices. If you need live support, or if the support options you find don’t meet your needs, then find an alternative service more to your liking — but don’t be surprised if it’s not free. Depending on your reliance on a service, good customer support can be worth every penny.
Footnotes & references
1: Particularly with larger companies, it’s typically not that “the business” be able to show a profit, but rather that the division or smaller organizations within the company can demonstrate that the service can be viable and turn a profit on its own.
2: Itself an incredibly valuable service that is provided free and without live support.