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Ask Slashdot: Troubling Trend For Open Source Company 451

An anonymous reader writes "I'm one of the original founders of an open source company which offers a popular open source product (millions of downloads) targeted primarily to small businesses. We have been doing this for 10 years now and we fund the development of the open source product with the usual paid support services, custom development and addons, but over the last few years, we've noticed a troubling trend. Companies that have downloaded our product from one of the many free download sites have a question they want answered, so they call our support line. Once we politely explain the situation and that telephone support has a reasonable fee associated with it, more and more of them are becoming seriously irate, to the point of yelling, accusing us of fraud and/or scamming them. For some reason, they think a free product should have free telephone support as well, and if we don't offer free telephone support then it's not really a free product. These same people are then resorting to social media in an attempt to 'spread the word' with the same false accusations, which is starting to take its toll on our reviews, ratings, and in turn our bottom line. Does the Slashdot community have any suggestions on how we can reverse this trend? How do other open source companies handle similar situations?"
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Ask Slashdot: Troubling Trend For Open Source Company

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  • Re:What company (Score:5, Insightful)

    by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:37PM (#42100393)

    Only then can start figuring out how to increase the IQ of said users.

  • by Gazzonyx ( 982402 ) <scott,lovenberg&gmail,com> on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:37PM (#42100401)
    Studies have been done; the people that pay the least always complain the most.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:40PM (#42100447)

    If you think of the psychology of this, it looks like bait and switch.
    To combat this, make it clear at the before the download how it all works.

  • Notice? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CaptainLard ( 1902452 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:41PM (#42100453)
    How obvious is it that support is not free? Maybe a few more notices would help. Perhaps some on the main site, by the download section, and by the support phone number.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:41PM (#42100455)

    This is a communication issue. You have limited resources, we know, but you need to target this issue exclusively for an extended period of time and communicate to the marketplace that the software is free to access but support is paid.

    We use open source / free software almost exclusively and the one thing that we look for are paid for support contract options. We want to spend the money, but you would be surprised how many orgs simply don't want our money or communicate the support options clearly.

    Get the advertising and messaging right and commit to it on a longer term basis. If you don't offer a properly framed counter, you allow the trolls to control the message.

    And, in the end, all you can do is provide a clear message to the community. No matter how large the org, you cannot control the perception, you can however influence it. Get on the playing field and make the moves. Your real clients will appreciate it.

  • by cupantae ( 1304123 ) <maroneill AT gmail DOT com> on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:41PM (#42100467)

    Maybe I'm misinterpreting your post, but if you won't give ANY information to people who call, that might be what's making them irate.
    My suggestion would to be to have a pre-recorded voice which is played at the start of the call, informing the caller that this is a limited free service, and how to purchase a support subscription. The level of support given here should be roughly on par with what a capable googler could find. This would mean losing some time (= money) on freeloaders, but it might be beneficial if you can satisfy some people who might otherwise leave with a bad impression of the product and business. You might even rope a few into a subscription.

  • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:50PM (#42100559) Journal

    It might help if you told us who you were.

    It would probably help more to know how they got hold of the support line. Everywhere the number is given there should be some clear text indicating that there is a support fee required to use it. If you just advertise the line as "call us for support" and then hit them for a fee when they call it might annoy some users who are unaware of the usual Open Source model and intellectually challenged enough to not see reason when you explain.

    If you are making it clear in all the locations where the number is given then introduce a premium rate number and have that as the public one with a normal rate line whose number is private available to paying customers. If your users don't read the explanation around the support number then they won't see the explanation that they are calling a premium rate number either but at least this way the default is that they pay.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2012 @08:57PM (#42100617)

    I've experienced this myself: I think those people are just assholes who think they can bully the poster's company into giving free support. They know exactly what they got and exactly what they're entitled to. They just think that if they're a big enough douche, the vendor will cave to "be nice and get a good rep". And these entitled assholes then go and give bad reviews.

    You can explain to them that this is free software and support costs extra, blah, yadda, dee, da. They know it. You can put it big banners across the download link and they'll STILL insist that they're owed something.

  • by MickLinux ( 579158 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:04PM (#42100669) Journal

    Publicise a 900 number support line, and note that a normal number is provided to those who sign up for paid services.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:06PM (#42100693)

    On the one hand, offering a free product and charging for support/customizations is perfectly reasonable and legit.

    On the other hand, offering an enticing product that seems great until you try to use it, at which point you discover that it is impossible to get it working without pay-for support, is a bait-and-switch. THAT makes people mad.

    I don't know if your customers are reacting to a disgusting sense of entitlement, or if they are reacting to having just been promised the world for free only to discover that they can't claim it without paying up.

    Aside: it might not hurt to attach the phrase "to purchase support services, call:" to every place that your number appears.

  • Re:Screw them (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:11PM (#42100729) Journal

    If they want free support and get irate when its explained to that that its how you may your money, they can take a flying leap.

    This is probably the root of the problem. Somewhere there is likely something saying free support through the online forums community or something similar and it isn't worded clearly enough for someone not paying attention to understand it.

    Most OSS software does offer free support. It is a forum that users and volunteers answer questions for or a knowledge base of known problems and solutions or a combination of the two. It's generally when you needed to interact in real time with someone that there is a charge or they refer you to a consultancy group in your area that can help for their own fee.

    I've seen similar with paid software too. I almost had a cow when I found out the $5k per year service contract with one software provider wasn't going to cover telephone support when their update broke the database structure and the program would crash on start up. Of course in this case, a manager told me they had us marked on a different service level then we purchased for some reason and comped the call. But that means other are paying for service contracts and when there is a problem if they purchase the older versions.

    The way to fix this is to make the support options more clear and almost in your face when downloading the software. Perhaps if there is a help tab you can click on, a popup or menu tree for the installed software could explain this also. Either way, by the time they down load the software, it should be clear as to what support is free and what isn't. If that fails, it should be clear by the time they find a way to contact the project by phone or whatever method.

  • by dubbreak ( 623656 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:36PM (#42101007)

    Have a paid for version and a "community" version that only has public forums associated with it. Make it blatantly clear that paid for includes support (for X time period), but a community supported free version is available. If they want phone support they have to upgrade to the paid version. "Sorry, our community edition doesn't include phone support."

    This can be done with the exact same codebase for both, but it also gives you the opportunity to fork (in marketing speak: differentiate the product). E.g. New features go to the paid version first and get released in to the community later. Or, do it the other way and make your free users beta test. I recommend having at least a different splash screen and the registration info available from within the program on the paid version.

    Bottom line is you can't allow your free customers to have any expectation of live support. When they go to download your product they are explicitly deciding between paid and free and know what they are losing by going free.
  • Hold on (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:42PM (#42101087)

    We're only getting one side of the story here. We have no idea what this product is, or how they are advertising their product. If customers are so upset that they're turning to social media to warn people away, maybe they are justified in doing so. I've seen many "Free" and "Open source" products that would not fall into what those of us here on slashdot would consider free or open source.

    Is your software easy to use, easy to install, works great all year and then when it comes to the end of the year and it's time to do the books or do taxes does it become nearly impossible to use forcing most users to seek your support only to find out now that their entire financial history for the year is basically locked behind a wall of bugs, obfuscated config files and other nonsense? Now they have to pay for support they've never needed before and your fees could be in the tens of thousands of dollars? Perhaps the users we're talking about are the businesses comptroller that figured your software was free, it was no big deal and now he needs to go to management and tell them he needs $10k to do the taxes for the year? I could see how he could be rather upset by your services.

    I'm just taking a wild guess but you're leaving us without any real details. I'm going to side with the customer on this one. If they are THAT pissed off, then you didn't make things clear to them from the beginning. The may be naive suckers, but if they are suckers... what's that make your company in the business of doing? Every company has to deal with idiots... but if there are enough idiots using your products, and you're making them mad enough that they are joining together against you and affecting your bottom line, you may very well deserve the fate you've been dealt.

  • by Homr Zodyssey ( 905161 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @09:55PM (#42101183) Journal
    I saw a similar tactic recently from a non-open-source product. We are implementing a properly licensed software package. The purchased license comes with support. I contacted support because I'm trying to use their import functionality to import an xml file, and the data wasn't importing correctly. The response that I received was "There's something wrong with your xml file. If you want us to tell you what's wrong with it, you must purchase our *Premium* support package." After running some SQL traces, I figured out that it was a bug. I was able to fix it by altering one of their stored procedures.
  • by Skal Tura ( 595728 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @11:03PM (#42101641) Homepage

    it's FREE, so people tend to demand better than commercial product support etc.
    Anything FREE and you will attract the worst "customers" the planet earth has to offer, they demand extraordinarily much, and will shy from even 1$ payment.

    That's just the nature of the business, they need to find a way to deal with it, sure. But will it end? Probably never.
    Biggest thing they can change is their attitude towards these kind of people, and make sure support terms (cost) is WELL Communicated, so anyone reading the bullshit review will easily know the author of the BS review is at the very least questionable authority.

    Many people using free stuff will not even bother to glance at the terms of the free offering, and the company is by default at fault if the moon is not given in 5seconds flat.

  • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @11:11PM (#42101711)

    I saw a similar tactic recently from a non-open-source product. We are implementing a properly licensed software package. The purchased license comes with support. I contacted support because I'm trying to use their import functionality to import an xml file, and the data wasn't importing correctly. The response that I received was "There's something wrong with your xml file. If you want us to tell you what's wrong with it, you must purchase our *Premium* support package." After running some SQL traces, I figured out that it was a bug. I was able to fix it by altering one of their stored procedures.

    That's the big advantage of open-source software (as opposed to "free" as in beer software). If it doesn't work, you can fix it yourself.

    A lot of open source software has no official support channel (paid or not), so at least you had someone to call and if you were really in a bind you could have paid them for support. I've gone down more than one dead-end when trying to get support for non-free (and expensive) software that includes so called "support", I've had much better luck when paying for support for open-source software - the company realizes that they are only going to make money if they offer great support.

  • Re:What company (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @11:32PM (#42101883)

    I'm not sure why they marked you as flamebait. The old saying "You can't fix stupid' definitely applies here. Any 'company' that would use a product without doing even a minimal vetting of you and your support infrastructure is just stupid not to put too fine a point on it.

    With that said however, in the spirit of open source, you should at a minimum note that support is provided with the product only with a fee and you should make this as obvious as is possible. An informed user has no room for complaint. This pay for play support info should be easy to find where they download the product, and better yet, an 'agree' prompt in order to install it. A simple 'agree' type prompt to indicate they understand that you will not be providing free support can cut short any complaints stating "we didn't know". Something as basic as that will tend to weed out a lot of 'indignation' if people have to accept the prompt in order to download and to install.

    As a 'gimme', you could also provide user forums where they can ask the user community itself for help. Most sites provide this and those types of forums will typically reduce a lot of support 'chatter' for easy questions. If you go this route, the same method should be used to inform anyone who signs up to use the forum that it is not an official support forum, but rather community supported, and any 'official' support is provided for a fee.

    Not knowing your history, I suspect some of these people are finding the lack of free support after the fact, meaning you are not making that information easily available to them (regardless of how they should have looked for it in the first place). If you make the information easy to find, I would think a lot of the nastiness will disappear. The fact that you are seeing a trend would indicate they are not finding that information easily enough, and you could probably better present that up front.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2012 @11:35PM (#42101907)

    As the one who originally submitted this question, we have considered the "account number" approach, but we can't justify anything that makes it more difficult for paying customers to get support when they need it. When you are dealing with businesses as your customers, their are multiple contacts, the person who originally paid the invoice and received the "account number" is rarely the person who needs to call support. In addition to that when an issue is urgent customers want to get in touch with us immediately, having to dig up some strange number (account number or "special" support number) isn't a good approach.

  • Re:What company (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LingNoi ( 1066278 ) on Monday November 26, 2012 @11:47PM (#42101989)

    If the submitter did that then in typical slashdot fashion we'd all be sitting here arguing minor details about the company rather then answer his question.

  • by Lando ( 9348 ) <lando2+slash@gmail. c o m> on Monday November 26, 2012 @11:59PM (#42102087) Homepage Journal

    When I was in business doing software development and computer maintenance I found that raising my rates had the surprising result of more customers and less complaints. Apparently when you don't charge a lot people assume that you are incompetent when faced with a challenging problem; however, if they are paying a lot more, then suddenly you are considered extremely competent and therefore the problem is very difficult.

    It's just one person's experience, but I figured I would chime in on the subject.

  • by oever ( 233119 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @12:03AM (#42102109) Homepage

    Then let them enter the company address or the account number before speaking to a human. If they cannot provide this data, they are connected to an operator that does no technical support whatsoever and only tries to resolve the contract status of the caller.

    How do you currently know if a caller has a support contract?

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @12:11AM (#42102167)

    As the one who originally submitted this question

    Can I ask a deeper question? Why do you offer phone support at all? I have always found that chatting with someone on the phone is a terrible way to do support. It is difficult for them to verbalize what they are seeing on the screen, and just as difficult to tell them what to type to fix it. It is stressful for your support people, and results in high turnover.

    Email or live chat, where they can cut and paste text or screenshots works so much better. At my current company we never actually talk to our customers. Email support is available for free, but if a paid-up account number is in the subject line it goes to the front of the queue. Live chat is available for paying customers. It works fine, and I have never seen the need to use a voice call. What are you doing during these phone calls that could not be done better with email or IM?

  • by GNUALMAFUERTE ( 697061 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <etreufamla>> on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @12:21AM (#42102221)

    We are based in Argentina, and, while most of our products are proprietary, they are FS/OSS-friendly ( as in, they run on GNU/Linux, offer open APIs and interfaces, are standards-compliant, etc.). Recently, we released one of our products under the GPL, and we are getting the same kind of calls.

    It's not something that worries me. Here's how we deal with it: All of our employees are Free Software advocates (That's by design, we mostly hunt for employees in LUGs, both physical and online). They understand the issue, and they know how to explain it. Our usual metaphors include food-based explanations (we create free recipes that you can download for free, and cook/modify/share as you please, but if you want us to go to your house and cook for you, you have to pay, or if you want a printed book with our recipes, that has a price too. We also use other metaphors, such as Music (the music is free to download, if you want the band to play at your party, or you want to go to a concert, you pay for it).

    Most people understand, some people don't. Those that don't are your average crappy customers, that would do the same kind of stuff even if the software weren't free. The people that call our system a scam are the same kind of customers that buy our non-free solutions and demand exceptional things, such as this woman who recently filed a complaint because she wanted us to go to her business and install free temporary replacement hardware while we processed a repair on a 4 year old system whose warranty had expired. Or the people that buy our DVR/NVR solution, connect a crappy 420TVL CCTV camera to it, configure the system in 320x240, and call complaining they can't see a license plate at 100 meters distance, and demand we send them a technician for free. Or schools that purchase our e-learning solution and demand that we go to their institution, for free, as many times as necessary, to teach their professors how to use it. Also, people react the same way with plugins and software updates. We offer free upgrades for life on many of our systems, and people call and demand specific, custom features, in a short timeframe, and then get irate when we explain that free upgrades for life doesn't mean unlimited custom development for free.

    Some customers are great, and some customers are demanding, self-entitled, annoying, loud bitches who want to scam free work out of you while pretending that themselves are being scammed by you. That's how it works, regardless of the license of the product.

    Our solution: We've split our product into two independent products. One of them is GPL and comes with NO SUPPORT WHATSOEVER, and explain that very clearly on our webpage. The other one is proprietary, and has several support contracts available. By making them clearly different products (while the codebase is exactly the same), we've cut down on complains. That, and good people with a clear understanding of Free Software manning the phones. And a lot of patience.

  • Re:What company (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @02:20AM (#42102789)

    In this case however, you can simply point that person to the places you've posted the information, and then the heat will fall on the IT consultant or person who installed it. Does your software currently warn them of such up front? You didn't indicate if it does or doesn't.

    'Agree' type dialogs do NOT have to look like a EULA and this case, they definitely shouldn't. Put a big "STOP" graphic. Avoid the legal type text. Keep it short and simple. If you make it look like a EULA, it will just get it ignored. If I had a consultant that saw an obvious prompt like this, and they didn't inform me, I wouldn't be chewing you out. The consultant would be handed his hat. Assuming a consultant wouldn't warn an employer of this seems more unlikely to me. It also absolves you of failing to notify the users in a reasonable manner. Excluding this option simply because you think it may not be affective isn't a good reason. As I said, any easy steps you can take to put the info out there further removes you from any doubt of shady practices. A simple agreement to install is the most direct, and also easy to add. Win/Win.

    Put the prompts in, and if you get calls of that nature, explain that you cannot install the product without being warned of that fact. Were I in this situation, I couldn't see myself holding you responsible.

  • Re:What company (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @06:04AM (#42103605) Journal

    How do they get the support number? Presumably there is something written next to it that says 'this is only for use for paid support contracts' and if so, why is it even published? When the person trying to call the number finds it, they should also find the thing telling them to make sure that they have their support contract number to hand when they call, or if they don't have one redirecting them to your sales number.

    And if they're not the person who installed it and hasn't checked the license, then I wonder how they do with other companies. Do they call up Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle for support for products that they don't have licenses for, let alone support contracts?

  • Re:What company (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @09:06AM (#42104441)

    The point is that in most cases, support is paid out of pre-allocated IT budget. The worker who makes the call because he's annoyed with the problem never sees or hears about this. For him/her it's free. Just like the toilets at his workplace. They don't care that employer has to pay for these. Ask them to pay you for visiting a toilet to cover these fees, and you'll get rage.

  • Re:What company (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tehcyder ( 746570 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @09:17AM (#42104511) Journal

    I'm the person who originally posted the story. Unfortunately when dealing with software targeted to businesses the IT person or the consultant is the one who installs the product, rarely the one who ends up calling support , so any "I agree" check boxes during the installation are unlikely to get the message to the people who really need it.

    In fact most of the time the person calling has no idea they are using a free product, despite it being clearly displayed on every screen, and no idea if they have paid for support.

    No doubt the "consultant" has trousered a fee for installing and setting up the "free" software, so why wouldn't the customer think they had paid for support?

  • Re:What company (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tehcyder ( 746570 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 @09:28AM (#42104611) Journal

    > I'm the person who originally posted the story ..

    Unless you provide names - we can't hep you. But anyone who downloads free software and expects technical support at no cost shouldn't be running a business. Next time he call ask him to come round and fix your washing machine for free.

    If you want an inexact analogy, if a shop gave ma a "free" washing machine then said I had to pay an engineer to come out every time I wanted to use it, I would get pissed off at their describing it as free.

    Most non-technical people hear "free software" and fail to parse it into "free software but the support costs money".

The primary function of the design engineer is to make things difficult for the fabricator and impossible for the serviceman.