The End of Free Consumer Support? Finally.
I am on vacation this week, but couldn’t resist a final pre-Christmas post to rile things up for the holidays. I just read a Washing Post article “The Bangalore Backlash: Call Centers Return to U.S.” which hits on enough controversies to keep me blogging for a month. Let’s start with this one: Dell’s new “Your Tech Team” service, which provides a US-based support engineer and a wait time of 2 minutes or less for $13 a month or $99 a year. Add to that Apple’s successful in-store Genius Bar and Best Buy’s in your face Geek Squad, I suspect that 2009 will be the year consumers are finally forced to admit that technical support for increasingly complex and inter-dependent consumer software, computer equipment and intelligent devices offers immense value and they are willing to pay for it. In other words, Value-Added Support has crossed from enterprise to consumer support. And it is about time.
Judging from the multiple inquiries I’ve received from consumer technology makers in the last few months, many companies are re-evaluating their current policies about free vs. fee support. Some companies still offer free consumer support with no service contract, and as some of them will tell you, even a single support incident from a customer may eliminate any profit from the sale of the product. And as the economic recession forces even more discounting this holiday season, these very narrow profit margins are been squeezed even further. To paraphrase a cloying line from the holiday classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Every time the telephone rings, an angel gets…the quality of support they are willing to pay for.
This isn’t anything new. A couple of years ago Amdocs funded a survey of 1,000 mobile phone customers in the US and UK and found an overwhelming majority were willing to pay an additional $5 a month for a guaranteed limited hold time and a senior agent. Complex software for home computers, such as Microsoft and Apple, have had support for fee policies for years. It has been harder for consumer hardware/device companies to successfully implement this model, and for that I blame Consumer Reports, who keeps telling people not to buy extended support/maintenance agreements. First of all, in the age of Web 2.0, Consumer Reports is a dead concept. But secondly, who the heck are they, in the review of a product, to recommend not paying for services? This isn’t a topic they have any credibility to discuss.
But, device companies worry that refusing to provide free support will negatively impact customer satisfaction and loyalty, and as consumers focus more on price than brand this year, no one wants to get a bad reputation for offering no or poor support. The answer seems to be: cut all frills from free support, and offer per call, per month, or annual “premiere service” options. Think it can’t work for you? Consider this:
- Consumers pay for convenience. The last thing anyone wants to do Christmas morning is spend four hours on the phone with tech support. Let’s face it, consumers know what bad support is. I’m hoping we are to the point that technical support is like any other consumer service: you get what you pay for. A consumer insists on free support? Fine, they have unlimited access to online self-service and your customer forums. They want to talk to someone? $13 is within the reach of any consumer who can afford a computer, HDTV, iPhone, etc.
- Upsell options are working today. A common trend at the moment is identifying elements of support that customers love, and making them an upsell option. The best example is remote support/remote control. Several SSPA members are moving to a model in which customers pay a fee for the remote control session, as it guarantees a shorter interaction and likely a first contact resolution.
- Third parties are profiting from your customers. The market for third party consumer services is heating up, with multiple niche providers (Plumchoice, Support.com, SupportSpace) offering consumers for-fee technical support. With experts on every brand of computer and all common consumer software products, this “one stop shopping” avoids all the delays and complications of multi-vendor support.
I was in line at Best Buy last week–always a great place to pick up on electronics trends. With HDTVs now at unbelievable prices, and the oncoming February deadline for all channels to transmit in digital, the TVs were flying out of the place. I overheard 2 people buying them for their mothers, and both were also planning to sign up mom for basic cable or satellite service. My mother still types her letters on a manual typewriter. You think she can juggle 3 remote controls just to turn on the TV and change the channel? Heaven help us. The time to start charging for consumer tech support is now.
Thanks for reading, and I hope everyone has a great holiday season.