The other day I was having lunch with a bunch of technology entrepreneurs and the subject came up of the falling service levels we all experience. The conversation was particularly around the telecommunications field but could have easily been any aspect of commerce.

The chap sitting next to me had a particular perception;

When I ring up a telco help desk, I want to get the right advice quickly – it’s as simple as that. I don’t want to talk to someone in Manila or Bangalore, I don’t want to have to wade through multiple levels of AVR, I want to talk with a real person who understands my requirements

Now this isn’t, at first glance, an unreasonable requirement. But let’s look a little closer. At the same time as wanting a high level of service, my friend also bemoaned the fact that traditional telcos charge such high amounts for connection and call charges – he pointed out the existence of cut price VoIP services that would seem to offer the same thing as the traditional telcos (phone line, calling, data etc) but at a lower cost.

Anyone see a disconnect here?

We then got talking about office productivity applications. My friend proudly announced that he uses Google apps free account – he rightly realized that with a free service, there is no guarantee of exceptional uptimes or, for that matter, data security and availability. While he thought it reasonable that he should suffer the odd short outage to his service, when confronted by the reality that his choice of free applications may impact upon the very security of his data – he was incredulous.

I read an interesting post the other day by the always succinct Phil Wainewright. Now Phil is one of the most well known SaaS bloggers and has used, and does use almost every SaaS service available. Phil has an interesting, and somewhat unusual ethos in that he prefers to pay for the services he uses, feeling that it gives a form of contract and some sort of recourse if things go wrong.

Phil listed a number of services he’s used, in their paid versions, only to have the provider acquired by a larger business who then makes the products free – Blogger, Feedburner, Omniture’s Hitbox Professional all fall into this category. And as Phil so rightly points out;

In each case, the withdrawal of paid services has coincided with a lack of investment in new
features, a deterioration in service quality and worsening customer service. Which is exactly what I had wanted to avoid by signing up for a paid service in the first place. In my view, online services that want to be taken seriously should always offer a paid option for those that want a business-class service with certain guarantees.

Of course we’re in an unhealthy spiral whereby vendors, in a race for mindshare, target the one easy attribute – price. As consumers we become more and more accustomed to getting something for nothing, and start to expect professional grade levels of reliability, robustness and service, on a free service. Again, as Phil so rightly points out;

The true villain here, though [is] the mass of users who want to save a few dollars and let someone else worry about how the service is going to remain viable. What they forget is that the service provider will make money by splicing ads into their work processes, selling off their data to the highest bidder and cutting corners on service delivery , either that or simply giving up on the service one day with no warning.

So please – think a little about the offerings you, as consumers, use. And think about the level of service you expect from those services. Ensure that there is some reality around those two things – while a business can run a free offering with a high level of service for a very short period of time, eventually something has to give. In the best case scenario it may just be the introduction of a paid service, in a worst case scenario it may just be the loss, or illegitimate use, of your data…

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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