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Ask Slashdot: Tech Customers Forced Into Supporting Each Other? 253

Posted by timothy
from the left-as-an-excercise-for-the-reader dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Has anyone else noticed the trend towards 'community forums' where customers are basically being recruited to solve the issues of other customers while the companies selling the products causing the issues sit back and take a passive role in the process? Granted, sometimes the companies' employees play an active part in the forums and provide some value-add by contributing crucial, and often undocumented, knowledge that solves the problem in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case, and this leaves customers with no visibility into whether or not their problems are being addressed, and, if they are, when they might expect to receive assistance. This is bad enough when dealing with consumer electronics that cost up to a couple of hundred of dollars, but it's completely unacceptable when dealing with proprietary design tool vendors that are charging several thousand dollars for software licenses for tools that are the only option if a customer doesn't want to drop an order of magnitude more money to go with 3rd party tools (e.g., Synopsys). Who do you think are the worst offenders of this downloading of support onto the backs of the customers themselves, and what can be done about it?"
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Ask Slashdot: Tech Customers Forced Into Supporting Each Other?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:00PM (#47083083)

    Customer Support Far superior to slave wage 3rd world call center or minimum wage uneducated moron with 8 hours of training

  • I'm Okay With It (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Gr33nJ3ll0 (1367543) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:06PM (#47083101)
    This sort of thing has been going on for years, probably as long as there have been companies and products. Can't get X to work, maybe your neighbor can, why not ask? In the case of software and other technical products, it really costs the company little to setup a forum, so why not? Also the people doing the supporting are completely volunteer, and are compensated in a feeling of helping others. If they don't want to participate, then they can stop at any time.
  • by TooTechy (191509) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:14PM (#47083133)

    In the end this reduces the cost of software to the customer.

    Customer benefits by having ready access to a database of information produced by other users (more expert than any front line help desk).

    Vendor benefits by not having cost overhead of front line support infrastructure.

    Everyone benefits by having honest information exchange.

    Vendor developers/consulting team provide secondary support and expert knowledge as appropriate.

    This is a win/win for all involved.

    Is this akin to the "To help the environment, please reuse your towels" sign in hotel bathrooms? Sure, we know this is really to increase the profits of the hotel. But in a free market with open competition, these figures ultimately produce a cheaper product for the consumer.

    Thoughts?

  • by Pop69 (700500) <billy.benarty@co@uk> on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:27PM (#47083179) Homepage
    The big problem is that it doesn't reduce the cost of the software, it increases the profit of the software provider
  • by spire3661 (1038968) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:30PM (#47083193) Journal
    The problem is they are taking it WAY to far. I expect to be able to get a PERSON on the phone when it comes to technical problems or warranty issues. Too often im forced to fill out forms and am directed to the forums instead of a CS rep. No amount of tech will change the fact that they will ALWAYS need people in Customer Service.
  • by KliX (164895) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:30PM (#47083199)

    You've identified a hole in the market.

  • by theoriginalturtle (248717) <turtle@NosPAM.weightlessdog.com> on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:31PM (#47083201) Homepage

    It's more than just some brilliant VP deciding to reduce the cost of support by basically saying, "let's let the users tell each other how to fix our product."

    The really nasty part of this, and you'll see this on any "community forum" for any product of any complexity, is the amount of BS and crap information being repeated as gospel, without correction or clarification from the vendor. One guy who has a flukey problem posts a sketchy "solution," other people extrapolate from it, n00bz try to apply it to completely unrelated issues and fail, they complain about not getting "support," whine when the board veterans and few people who DO know something don't immediately reply to their vague posts, the n00bz leave, the veterans fall away, and "community support" rapidly becomes "no support."

    Oh, unless you buy a support agreement, but then, since their few remaining support techs don't hear about some or many of these bizarre problems, they don't fix them, meaning paid support is worse than nothing.

    I've seen this occur over and over in situations where "community support" isn't accompanied by skilled, consistent moderation AND intercession by the paid support techs and the developers. If you completely leave the users to try to "support" themselves, you end up with no users to support.

  • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:38PM (#47083227)

    Too often im forced to fill out forms and am directed to the forums instead of a CS rep.

    Even that would not be so bad IF THEY ORGANIZED THEIR FORUMS AND FIXED THE SEARCH FUNCTION.

    If I have version X of product Y then I should be able to search on product Y with a sub-search on version X.

    I should NOT be getting results that apply to product A, B or C. UNLESS the company tech support people have specifically gone through and WRITTEN an answer and specifically labelled it as applying to A, B, C and X (version 1, 2, 3 and 4).

    It cannot be that difficult to build a flow chart for the most common searches / problems that are appearing in your forums.

  • Sounds familiar... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rane_man (1153291) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:44PM (#47083251)
    I work as a network technician for a K-8 school. My job, and the job of my small team, is to provide infrastructure and other equipment to our staff and students. Thankfully, we have an eager bunch who are anxious to learn. This proves beneficial to us because, frankly, we'd never get anything done if every student (or teacher) who didn't know how to cut/paste came running to us for support. That's not to say we don't assist people, or that we don't have busy days, only that smaller, more well-known problems can be handled by our staff--or, in this case, our community. Granted, we're also not some big company selling our product to consumers and then wiping our hands of any and all responsibility. Like with my humble tech team, a reasonable amount of service should be expected, but I strongly believe end users should be able to educate themselves. That said, I'm still gonna mash "0" until I get a human :)
  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:47PM (#47083265)

    And generally, the number of a tool's users with a problem at any given day SHOULD be << the number of developers or support staff.

    But why should the support staff waste their time repetitively answering a question that is already answered in a customer forum? My experience is that peer-to-peer customer discussion forums are almost always superior to the formal support offered by the vendor. They have better advice, often list more than one option for solving the issue, are quicker to access, and are FREE. The summary makes all of this sound like a bad thing that we need to "do something about". Rather it is something that should be encouraged. When I am selecting new software, whether proprietary or OSS, I am much more interested in an active and accessible forum, than in what formal support contracts are available.

  • The quality of support you get from forums. mailing lists, and IRC channels is almost always far better than that directly provided by the company. Support teams that are competent enough to not just be warm bodies reading from a script simply don't scale well, because support employees at that level of competency expect (and deserve) to be paid as much as developers.

    The vast majority of support queries on the other hand are repeats of the same questions, over and over again from customers who can't be bothered to use Google to search for their problem which means companies have to have a filter in place. That filter can be a forum, a web form that forces you to view every single article in the knowledge base, or a team of barely trained monkeys who are underpaid, and will burn out within 3-6 months from being asked the same questions over again by customers who are, on average, so dense that they don't mention the device in question isn't even turned on until they have already nodded along and gone through 30 minutes of "troubleshooting".

    The use of community based support shouldn't itself be a concern, but how that support is implemented, how it's managed, and how the company uses that community based support to triage and escalate issues should be. In the most effective, and customer friendly cases, community support basically is used to to weed out the people who can't bother to help themselves from the people who have real problems, and the latter will get real support from "power users" or even actual developers.

    The key to making that work in favor of the customers that actually need help is good moderators. They need to be jaded, vicious bastards who will stamp out any hint of noise amidst the signal, who aren't afraid to humiliate someone who posts the exact same question without reading the post directly below it where someone else asked the same thing.

    All of this, should of course be accompanied by the best paid support you can find, at whatever rate allows you to pay your support staff a good (at least $25 USD/HR) wage plus medical, mental health, sick days, vacation and other benefits, and generally keep them happy. This should be a "tierless" support team if at all possible - the people you put there should be able to handle anything that comes their way, or act as a liason between customer and developer when necessary. The rate for this level of support should be high enough that your support team shrugs off people asking "dunb" questions as suckers who wasted their money rather than banging their head in frustration.

    Chances are, the same support people can be providing paid phone support and "escalating" cases from the forums for free support when it's needed & deserved. Everybody wins in this case - lazy people can pay to be lazy, people with no time to wait for a solution can pay for one, and people who are willing to work to find a solution can get the help they need free of charge.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:52PM (#47083289)

    Support costs money. The goal of the business is to make money. If businesses can reduce a cost without losing profit, it would be irrational for them not to.

    Realize that businesses are doing this in response to demand. People are not flocking to a competitor's product simply because that competitor provides better support. If people did this, you bet the businesses would give you the support you want. But people don't. So, without that reward, the businesses have no incentive to provide the support.

    People flock to a product for brand name and features. So, that is what businesses provide.

    And, as willing as you might be to vote with your wallet as an individual, unless the same vote is a trend, it will not be effective. As always, your destiny is in the hands of all your peers.

  • by swb (14022) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:52PM (#47083293)

    Merely supplying some kind of forum site centered on the product where users can gather has value. It's a bonus when they don't sanitize the content to bury problems and hide discontent; I've found that quite often if the product isn't complete crap, they're sort of self-regulating and total whiners get ignored by normal participants even.

    Maybe it is a way to cut corners on support, but what kind of support were you really expecting -- a product development engineer dropping everything to figure out your issue? That doesn't exist except at the highest priced support levels for the largest enterprises and products, and even then you are just as likely to get steered into a hall of mirrors of consultants and local partners who just want to bill more. In almost all cases the alternative to Forum-centric support is bad telephone support and a weak knowledge base, at least from the vendor. If you're lucky there may be a third party site that helps, but often this just fragments knowledge across zillions of similar sites.

    And it's not like supplying a reasonable forum is free, either. It takes software, hardware, hosting, administration and those cost money. I'll take the hive mind of other users over what the alternative is for the same money, which is like one one additional FTE -- an overworked, underpaid, clueless phone support drone.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by putaro (235078) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:54PM (#47083297) Journal

    How about a publicly accessible forum where the SUPPORT STAFF answer questions?

    What's wrong with peer-to-peer support? Basically the company is free-riding on the backs of its users.

  • by jonsmirl (114798) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:55PM (#47083301) Homepage

    You need to put this into perspective. It is unreasonable to expect a company to provide significant human support for a product you spent $30 on at a retail store. The company has probably only made $1-2 profit from the sale, if they provide easy to access support they will lose money on every sale. If you want lots of free support go buy a $3,000 Macbook.

    Personally, I don't even bother trying to return or get support on anything under $100 any more. It just goes into the trash and I buy something similar from a different manufacturer and hope it works.

    An even more efficient form of this is buying stuff from Aliexpress/DX/etc. Prices there can be as low as 20% of US retail for similar products. Sure I occasionally get junk or the wrong product, but just throw it in the trash and try a different vendor. The overall savings is worth eating the occasional fraud or hassling with Ali's escrow to stop payment. I fully expect little to no support on these purchases and I know returns are almost impossible.

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @12:59PM (#47083315)

    I expect to be able to get a PERSON on the phone when it comes to technical problems or warranty issues.

    As someone that actually did tech support, I hate this attitude. I can't count the number of hours I spent reading the manual and phonetically dictating keystrokes to some idiot that was too lazy to read it himself. Email, or even an online chat session, is infinitely superior to a phone call when dealing with software issues.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 24, 2014 @01:03PM (#47083335)

    Going to a forum is actually good. I've already talked to tons of programmers who will never answer privately an email, but will gladly do so publicly in a forum. Why? Because they can do it once and never repeat themselves again. It's the most optimal way to optimise support.

    Could it be that maybe your expectation to have a PERSON on the phone (no less!) is what is outdated and narrow minded? Why not also expect them to give you a massage and send you free food as well? I mean, they are companies, they are to SERVE you, right?

    Well, if you can't change your expectations, change provider.

  • by retchdog (1319261) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @01:05PM (#47083341) Journal

    you might be surprised. when my ~$50 sennheiser in-ear headphones broke, i sent them in under the 2-year warranty and got a free replacement. they probably cost ~$5 to manufacture, so they have plenty of margin for support; they just make more money if fewer people use what they are entitled to.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Calydor (739835) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @01:25PM (#47083451)

    The key word is CAN. Take a look at one of the recent stories about HP cutting off another sixteen thousand jobs.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @01:43PM (#47083557)

    Because that's their job and the paying customers require that service as part of what they have paid for.

    Of course. Customers that specifically pay for staffed/phone/whatever support are still getting it. The point of this discussion is what normal customers should get as standard support. Or, more bluntly, this is a typical Slashdot whinefest of people complaining that they aren't getting something that they haven't paid for. If you want support from paid staff, then pay for it. But don't insist that the cost be built into the product and susidized by the 95% that don't need hand holding.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by buybuydandavis (644487) on Saturday May 24, 2014 @04:25PM (#47084227)

    How about a publicly accessible forum where the SUPPORT STAFF answer questions?

    What's wrong with peer-to-peer support? Basically the company is free-riding on the backs of its users.

    The company isn't free riding. No one is forced to answer questions on the support channels. Some people want to. And the company is facilitating that free support, and often supplementing it with some of their own. That's what they should be doing.

    The problem isn't the company leveraging people who want to help. The problem is when people don't get the support they need, either from other customers, or the company. The metric that counts is how long it takes a user to get an accurate, actionable answer, whether that's a solution, or a verification that "you can't do that".

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