Revising member support to better support our members.

Here are some eye-opening support statistics:

  • About 25% of our members have ever interacted with our support system.
  • About 14% of our members have opened more than one support issue.
  • Over 50% of our support issues come from under 5% of our members.
  • Providing support is our single largest recurring monthly cost line item. That means it costs us more than we pay for bandwidth.
  • The cost of providing support is growing at a faster rate than any other cost.

In other words, 75-95% of our members are paying to subsidize the support requirements of a small minority. Although that raises some serious issues about fairness, it isn’t really unusual; most hosting companies operate exactly that way: they build a certain amount into their monthly fee to each user to subsidize the cost of providing support to the small portion of their userbase that requires it.

However, as you know, we don’t have a monthly fee. That means the support subsidy has to come from somewhere else. At NearlyFreeSpeech.NET, it’s currently coming out of the R&D budget. So while our entire member base may not be paying a fee for support they may or may not use, you most definitely are paying for it in terms of reduced functionality and delays in rolling out the new features and services you want.

This is particularly frustrating since we’ve always presented ourselves as a no-frills, do-it-yourself host with limited support that does a lot of R&D that you simply don’t get anywhere else.

Obviously, we need to make a change to get back to our core values.

Effective immediately, we are changing our standard support hours and implementing an optional “Extended Support” plan.

Our new support hours for standard issues are:

  • Monday through Friday, 10am – 6pm
  • Saturday and Sunday, 12pm – 4pm, Pacific Time

With Extended Support, hours for standard issues are:

  • Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm
  • Saturday – Sunday: 11am – 5pm, Pacific Time

Standard issues are those typical questions we receive that don’t pertain to downtime or other serious problems with the service. We’ll be continuing to do our best to address emergency issues as quickly as possible, regardless of our stated hours.

Wider hours are not the only benefit to Extended Support:

  • Members with extended support will have their standard issues prioritized over other standard issues.
  • To ensure timely and fair support to all members, we may occasionally delay response to standard issues raised by those members who submit an above-average number of standard issues. Members with extended support who submit an above-average number of standard issues will encounter shorter delays than they otherwise might.

The cost for Extended Support is $1.00 per month. Unlike most of our services, it’s purchased one month at a time and billed in advance. Once activated, it can be set not to renew at any time without affecting any time remaining in the current billing period. Since for most moderate users, the bulk of their support issues arise in the first month while they are getting set up, they can add Extended Support if they wish, and then remove it once things are humming along smoothly.

The revenues we generate from Extended Support will go directly to pay the people who provide support. Once we have enough Extended Support members to cover the costs of the current extended hours, we’ll start widening the extended hours. Should we reach 24×7 extended coverage, we can evaluate widening the scope of the support we provide.

I want to emphasize that Extended Support is optional. If you don’t use our support, this doesn’t affect you at all, and no one is required to sign up for it. If you value our support, and you want to show it, this is an excellent way to do so.

This is definitely a sort of social experiment, to see if the people who interact with our support system find enough value in that system to cover the associated costs. If it is successful, we will be able to extend and improve that system in a way that would otherwise be impossible. If not, we will have to evaluate our support offerings and look for ways to constrain it to a manageable cost.


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  1. That seems fair, especially since I haven’t used any support yet.

    Comment by Korivak — January 22, 2007 #

  2. I only remember calling on support once but I can say it was a very pleasant experience. This seems like a fair system and I hope you are successful.

    Comment by Karen — January 22, 2007 #

  3. This is a wonderful idea, and fits in nicely with the way you already do business.

    I also like the idea of new members signing up for a month or two of Extended Support — perhaps there’s an unobtrusive way to let new users know about that option.

    Currently the system will unobtrusively let people know when they submit a second (or successive) Secure Support Request in a 30 day period. But this is a good idea and something we should look at. -jdw

    Comment by Tim McCormack — January 22, 2007 #

  4. I’ve ponied up my $1.00/month — I’m certainly a heavier support user; I put in about 2 requests a month on average, I’d guess.

    I think this is a great idea, just as long as everyone is honest and signs up if they use support a lot.

    Comment by ttuttle — January 22, 2007 #

  5. That’s worth paying for!

    Ironically, when I combine this with my bandwidth bucket, I’m paying just about $1/GB again, heh.

    Comment by Douglas Muth — January 22, 2007 #

  6. What, exactly, constitutes a “standard” support issue?

    The only time I’ve used NFS support was to delete a MySQL process that I had misnamed because I didn’t understand the MySQL process structure — a typical newbie error. This support issue was handled by email, and was taken care of in maybe five minutes. I have an “in-house” support system for other issues which I don’t expect NFS to deal with.

    Just curious…

    A “standard” support issue is pretty much anything other than “my site is down.” -jdw

    Comment by Arondelle — January 22, 2007 #

  7. I use the support system quite a lot, and sometimes for good reasons.

    *looks guilty*

    I hope I’m not going to be hung, drawn and quartered for this (now that this issue has arisen).

    Hope you continue to provide a great service. 🙂

    Comment by Some guy — January 23, 2007 #

  8. So 2 in a month triggers the message that you might need to pay more? How much, if I may be so bold to ask, are you paying the support people per hour?

    “no-frills, do-it-yourself host”

    I agree that you are that. The FAQ is great, the blog is good, and the forums hit most everything else. People who are unable to process written information are in trouble here. If they require phone calls to fix problems, then yes those people should pay more. OTOH, email troubleshooting seems to lend itself to cut-and-paste solutions a lot of the time, no? That’s what I think I got the one time I had an odd login problem.

    You’re also correct that the first month is when the most support will be needed. Perhaps a mandatory $1 charge from all newbies the first month, at 25 cents per week?

    Our support does not send cut-and-paste answers. If a question deserves a cut-and-paste answer then that answer belongs in the FAQ (to which you may be referred if you ask that question of support). -jdw

    Comment by KC — January 24, 2007 #

  9. Sounds like a good idea. Hope it allows for more R&D to be completed.

    Comment by Ryan — January 25, 2007 #

  10. I am probably not alone in using the “trouble ticket” system to make helpful (I hope!) suggestions or report minor problems with the NFS site from time to time. It’s a bit annoying that after doing this, I’m likely to get a nag message about raising too many support requests! So I think the Extended Support idea is a good one, and shall sign up, but if I STILL get nag messages I shall probably cancel it. For my $1/month, I don’t want to be nagged!

    You can send email with feedback or suggestions to feedback@NearlyFreeSpeech.NET. We are also looking at better ways to get feedback from our members about non-support issues. -jdw

    Comment by hp — January 27, 2007 #

  11. How about a points scheme like some of the knowledge systems use?

    So if a user actually provides valuable feedback that is worthy of putting into a FAQ then they’ll get assigned some points. They use those points to get answers.

    Comment by mel — January 28, 2007 #

  12. This sounds entirely fair to me! I’ll probably pony up $12.00 for a year’s worth even if I’m not sure I’ll ever use it. Then I can hound the admins mercilessly to “tell me everything you know about AJAX or whatever the cool acronym-of-the-month is.” They’ll certainly look forward to getting my trouble tickets. 🙂 Seriously, this new scheme sounds completely reasonable and I can’t complain.

    Comment by Dr. Yen — January 29, 2007 #

  13. another option would be to charge on a per call basis. Like 25 to 50 cents per call. First call could be free.

    Could be taken out of a bandwidth bucket– rather than a use-it-or-lose-it $1 per month fee.

    Comment by Jim — January 30, 2007 #

  14. I think this idea is reasonable, but encouraging people to use the forum and have volunteers answer whatever questions they can is certainly a way to keep the cost down…

    Comment by Seamus — January 30, 2007 #

  15. First of all, I’m a new customer and very impressed with your business so far. I’ve been doing web development for ten years and there are only one or two other hosting companies I’ve dealt with that have made this sort of impression.

    Your “pay for what you use” pricing model is thoughtful and reasonable, and your no-bullshit attitude is very refreshing.

    I was surprised by your comment that your next step would be to “look for ways to constrain [support] to a manageable cost”. You don’t take this approach with disk space or bandwidth — you don’t *need* to constrain them because your pricing model makes sure that revenue is proportional to use. In fact you want your business to grow, which means you want people to use *more*.

    The obvious parallel here to your other pricing policies would be to charge per support email. I’m sure you’ve considered this, so maybe what I’m really asking to hear is your reasons for rejecting it. (Note that I wouldn’t even consider asking most hosting companies this sort of question, but you have set an unusual precedent for candor.)

    Comment by Paul — February 1, 2007 #

  16. Yes, charging per issue has been considered, but was rejected (for now) because it would causes all sorts of problems.

    If, as a previous commenter suggested, it were $0.25 per issue, that’s about 2 minutes of time at minimum wage; barely enough time to read a request and reply with “Maybe.” And since we position ourselves as a service for experienced users, we don’t have any minimum wage “tier 1” script-readers answering support inquiries. We need people who can understand and troubleshoot complex problems, and then effectively communicate the explanation. We need people who view it as a career path and not as an alternative to fast food with no heavy lifting, which means we need to pay accordingly.

    So if we were to charge less per issue than it costs to provide the answer, we’ve magnified the problem, because we would have codified the old joke:

    Me: We sell each issue at a small loss.
    You: How do you make a profit?
    Me: Volume, volume, volume!

    The second problem is scope. What if a person pays their $0.25 (or whatever) and asks two questions in one request? Do we tell them to resubmit the other one? What if they respond to our answer and say “Well, what about this…?” or “I was also wondering…?” We already get people who try to reply to weeks-old issues rather than start new ones, just to keep the message on the request page from changing. What about complexity? Some questions just take a lot longer to answer than others.

    Do you implement a sliding scale or charge based on the actual time it takes? But if the person doesn’t know in advance how much it will cost, what if it turns out they can’t afford it, or the answer is not worth that much to them?

    The third problem is this: not all support issues should be paid for. Should you pay to get a response to a “Hey my site isn’t working!” issue? Well, it depends. If it’s not working because one of our servers is down, then no, you definitely shouldn’t. But if it’s not working because you skipped a step during the setup and you need us to point out which one, then yes, you should. Between those two examples, there is a lot of gray area, which leaves room for disputes and arguments over what someone should or shouldn’t have to pay for.

    The fourth problem is satisfaction. What if the person who paid for an answer isn’t happy with the answer? Either we expend unlimited effort until the person is satisfied or there has to be dispute process again, which would take more time and cost more money.

    Sure, the dispute processes could be “Don’t like it? Tough luck!” and that would work fine for us, but it would alienate people. When we encourage people to find a service that provide a higher level of support for a higher monthly fee (for example, people can sometimes really benefit from telephone support, where someone can walk them through something step-by step), we do like to try to do it gently, without alienating them, so that once they gain the necessary expertise, maybe they’ll give us another shot. Putting people in a situation where they feel like they got ripped off won’t get us there.

    Finally, there’s a focus issue. Our service is designed for experienced users, so when a situation comes up, we often have to say “do we optimize this for experts or novice users?” Systems optimized for experts annoy novice users and systems optimized for novice users annoy experts.

    One example of how that can hurt is our member FAQ. It’s grown to a fairly unwieldy size and can be hard to navigate. It’s not really good for experts or novices right now, because there’s a lot of material in there pulling it in each direction. We need to make some changes there as well.

    Similarly, even if you give out the first one free, pay-per-issue schemes seem to be dragging things away from our focus. Offering to respond to issues for a fee creates a sort of unlimited obligation to answer all those questions that we shouldn’t be answering. Even if that means we make more money, it also means slower response times for our core users when they need it most.

    Remember, our goal is not to make money from support, merely not to lose any.

    So that’s why limiting the number of support requests (as one example) might make more sense than charging for them (as another example).

    Over the next few weeks, we’ll see how well the heavy support users self-identify and opt in to Extended Support, and then we’ll go from there. We do have some other good ideas that we’ve kicked around that should help us make sure everybody gets what they need, which is ultimately what we’re here for.

    Well, that’s candor for you.

    Comment by jdw — February 1, 2007 #

  17. Fantastic answer, thanks.

    My instinct is that you’ll still need to differentiate the two tiers more dramatically (e.g. on turnaround time) in order to make it work, but in any case I’m glad you’re trying this.

    Comment by Paul — February 1, 2007 #

  18. One example of how that can hurt is our member FAQ. It’s grown to a fairly unwieldy size and can be hard to navigate. It’s not really good for experts or novices right now, because there’s a lot of material in there pulling it in each direction. We need to make some changes there as well.

    I must be in the sweet spot then, because I find it to be fantastic reading which touches on some stuff I already know, some stuff I want to know more about, and other stuff I need to research more before I can fully appreciate it. I wouldn’t change it at all, but if changes are required, I hope it’s still as fulfilling for me afterwards.

    Oh definitely, we’re not going to do away with the content or anything. It just needs some reorganization (particularly the non-member part) and navigation aids to make it easier to find what you need when you’re in a hurry. -jdw

    Comment by cliff1976 — February 1, 2007 #

  19. I love NFS but recently all these price changes worry me. I realize that they are “necessary” but more and more NFS is becoming a great deal for just file storage, which is good for some but not all. I know it isn’t at $5.99/month level … but still, compared to what I paid when I signed up over a year ago …

    Comment by Zach — February 8, 2007 #

  20. I agree with the fact that support is crucial to start off with as when I first had my site here I messed up a permision and when I deleted the file it procceded to delete my whole site, it was a stupid mistake of a novice, mind you I would have been annoyed to have to pay for support in order to get it by site back, on the other hand I probably would have been gratefull that I got it back at all. If I had done the same with Yahoo Geocities, where you can never get hold of ‘support’ then my site would be long gone.

    One thing that came to mind is that companies like yahoo, creative, and some hosts I have dealt with make it very hard to get through to support, and then they take days to reply. I am not saying that NFS should follow their bad example I am just trying to say that NFS support is easy to get quickly and I know when I first started using the service I did send of some support requests that probably were a bit to hasty. On the other hand when you got back my site that time it couldn’t have been quick enough.

    I use do not use support requests anymore (as I have not messed anything up recently) and restrict myself to the odd comment on the support forum.

    The idea is a good one and I hope it does what it should do for NFS, I am all for it.

    Comment by Justin Tuijl — February 8, 2007 #

  21. Brilliant!

    Typical of a creative, outside-the-box, new solution to an apparently intractable problem.

    That’s what I like about this service. Yes, new ideas are definitely your core strength, and the more time you are able to free up to focus on them, the better.

    Comment by ken — February 16, 2007 #

  22. How about this?
    two levels of support, free and paid – where free is the forum where an answer will turn up, and paid is the email system where answers are much faster/via staff and it is charged – How to decide how much to charge? in a way that is fair to everyone? I really don’t know!

    Comment by n — February 20, 2007 #

  23. This may sound totally evil, but I think you should consider the option of “firing” clients. If you can rank the clients in terms of cost-to-support, you can identify those that really do cost too much. Presumably, since this service is more geared towards the do-it-yourself type for lower cost, you’d get some bargain seekers who are not really right for this service, and who “abuse” the support line.

    It’s a tough balancing act because you don’t want to scare off people who think they’ll lose service due to asking for support. Perhaps if you can provide some visibility to clients on where they fall in the spectrum of cost-to-support. (Am I in the top 10 or in the top 1000?) Then we (the clients) can self-regulate.

    In any case, some way to objectively identify clients who should not be clients, and then explicit (candorous?) communication about what that means to to the client relationship should help weed out the “abusers” and keep costs down.

    Comment by patrick — March 5, 2007 #

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