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Is free lifetime support really free?

by | Nov 30, 2009

Understanding Support – Tradeoffs in getting the Best support from your vendor

When you’ve been on the ground floor of several start-ups, you end up being intimately involved with issues that members of large organizations never even see. When you sell to designers, engineers and developers who are creative and demanding, you end up responding to extremely urgent requests, typically where the customer has short (or missed) deadlines.

Let’s look at both sides of the table.
The customer recognizes they need your product except for a few “little” things it doesn’t yet do. Additionally the customer is under a tight development deadline because they only just now realized that they’ve got an end-user driven opportunity that requires immediate response. So the customer makes demands of the vendor … even before the purchase.

The vendor sees an interesting opportunity that they hope is real. They also have other customers with their own demands. Additionally, the vendor is developing new and exciting products that have great market potential with a short window of opportunity. And, of course, because the vendor runs an efficient organization, there aren’t a lot of extra engineers sitting around idle.

In situations like that, should you select the vendor that offers unlimited free and even free lifetime support? The answer is YES, if it will work. But can it work?

If all customers are respectful, self-reliant and read the documentation, free lifetime support might be possible. With some effort and reading, a good developer or system designer can figure most things out. But what about the developer that’s under the gun by his boss and doesn’t have the time to work things out. Well, that person contacts support, demands a conference call, asks for samples and when he or she gets it, asks for it again and again. I really can’t blame them – you do what works. But can the vendor support a customer like that at no charge? Well, perhaps, if they don’t have any other customers. If they’re a startup, maybe that works for a while but for any established company, the economics don’t work that way. Either you have a few high-paying customers or many customers who pay somewhat less. But you can’t have lots of demanding customers getting free support. Somehow revenues have to come in to pay for that service. The economic truth is that premium support requires realistic maintenance and support fees or higher product pricing.

So the next time you see a vendor promising free lifetime support, look for the catch. Are the products over-priced to compensate, is the support by a user-supported volunteer forum or does the support take a lifetime to get?

In high-tech, it’s rare to have products that plug and play. Your vendor needs to be there for you, year after year.

Have a great holiday season,
Simon Wieczner