"Free" Services: Should Customers Get Upset When They Don't Work?

Last Updated May 13, 2011 4:16 PM EDT

It happened twice this week.

Twitter, the free microblogging service, went offline this afternoon. It's still down as I write this.

The day before, Blogger, the free blogging platform run by Google, also collapsed. Here's Google's mea culpa.
Service failures of this type are not unheard of. Gmail (disclosure: I'm a devoted user) and other similar services go down from time to time.

The conventional wisdom is that customers tend to be forgiving because after all, they're free. Then I read this blog post from a fellow journalist and I realized how wrong the conventional wisdom is.

"Extended crashes like today remind us how much we depend on the service," Cory Bergman wrote over at Lost Remote in response to the Twitter outage. "And now it's much more than just an entertaining way to communicate."

I wondered: Do customers have any right to be upset when Blogger or Twitter go dark? I think the answer is: yes. In fact, they already are upset.

If you offer a free or freemium service, you'll want to pay close attention to this debate, because it could affect how your product â€" and indeed, your service â€" is perceived by customers.

Here's what they're thinking right now, as they try to log on to Twitter or salvage their lost Blogger posts:

What's free, anyway? Most customers don't believe there's such thing as a free product, anymore. They see the ads on Facebook and Google, they know the data they surrendered when they signed up is valuable, and so they reject the idea that they are getting something for free. No, they're paying.

Price is irrelevant. For better or worse, customers have been conditioned to expect first-rate service whether they're buying a Honda or a Bentley. They believe businesses will stand behind the product, regardless of the price. Or lack of price. Some of the loudest complaints I hear as a consumer advocate are about the free things companies give their customers (in my case, loyalty points or frequent flier miles).

If you can't get the free product right, what does that say about the paid product? Customers expect you to put your best foot forward with your free products, in order to entice them to upgrade to a freemium or paid subscription. If you can't get that right, then what's the point of deepening the relationship?

Oddly, companies seem to be in denial about consumer sentiment. They think that because these services are free, customers should be cutting the company some slack.

Wrong. Twitter is valued at $10 billion. Google earned $2 billion last quarter. No one is getting a pass.

Something to keep in mind when you don't give your "free" products the attention your customers expect.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.