Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Twitter, Digg, Facebook, Google, FriendFeed - there is no scarcity of networks and services that are free to users who enjoy a connection to the World Wide Web today. What happens when one of these services we have come to rely on experiences a problem? How does customer support for free services work?

In a recent conversation on business models and profits, Union Square Ventures VC principal Fred Wilson points out that technology and the Internet are allowing companies to reach large audiences and create scale that can be monetized in many ways - and still manage to stay small.

Doing a lot with little is the dream of many businesses. However it seems that most are unable to do so if they focus on things that may not be high value to customers - like service and support.

How do companies that are by and large free to users, do customer support? There are several options:

1. Users wait to learn what happened when the service goes down - we have become very impatient with this kind of option. We may just move on to another, comparable, and also free service. For example, I was working on creating a poll at yesterday and the free service kept timing out when I requested my password. I was ready to move on to another service when I remembered what my password was and was able to proceed.

2. We check Get Satisfaction to see if there are pending issues. Their motto is "customer service doesn’t have to suck." I agree. We were first on the scene as this company was launching here. You will notice that 23 Twitter employees are on the site. Companies and customers can use the site for free.

3.  Some companies communicate about the issue on their blog. Although sometimes it’s the communities of users who discuss what they are experiencing and trouble shoot it on new media sites. This happened in December 2007 with the Skype Outage. It also happened Friday when Google search experienced a problem with "this site may harm your computer" result given for all searches. The root cause and resolution were communicated on the company’s official blog.

4. Tech forums and developer communities have been a great resource for a number of years. Now these kinds of online support spaces are opening up beyond users and for other kinds of customer service. You have also probably seen that many companies are starting to offer customer support on Twitter - although I do not have ready examples of companies with free services doing that.

There are many ways to scale customer support for free services today. Now why can’t customer service work better for those companies whose products and services we actually pay for?

Valeria Maltoni | Conversation Agent