User vs Customer

Many services (especially web-based ones) offer both free and premium services and products. While there is a clear line between a free tool and a premium one (you’d remember paying for something), users tend to conveniently forget that fact when it comes to support. Let’s break down the differences…


A user, as you would imagine, is simply someone who chooses to use a free service or tool, like Gmail for example. They choose to use Gmail as their free email service provider. They agree to Google’s terms and in return get to use the best email service on the planet for free. Between a year ago when they first signed up and now, they seem to have forgotten that it’s a free service and are jaded by and take for granted, that fact.

Especially when it comes to something going wrong. I see it all the time with free services, especially in support forums. These users lose sight of where their expectations should realistically be at because they’ve become spoiled. Sticking with the Gmail example, it’s up and working perfectly 99.9% of the time, but sure there’s a glitch or something is buggy here and there, perhaps because of necessary maintenance or a new feature, maybe a downed server, maybe an actual human error, there are a million different variables and they’re all perfectly acceptable and natural occurrences. Some people can appreciate that fact and are able or willing to think critically about it.

However, the majority of people instantly put on their “Me me me!” cap and go off the deep-end complaining “This is BS! Why is my email not working! What kind of company are you guys? Not even smart enough to fix one stupid little problem. If this isn’t fixed by tomorrow I’m switching back to Hotmail! Come on!!!” Think I’m exaggerating? Not even close, in fact I’m underplaying because I don’t want to use expletives on my blog.

Psychologically speaking, I can see why it happens. Up until the internet had become more mainstream, there really wasn’t any precedent for free stuff, that is, that still offered support for it after the person walked away. Tangibly, in the real world, if you’re given something for free, you’re very gracious about it and move on. Would you ever get something for free off of craigslist and later when you found something wrong with it email or call the person and ask them to fix it?

What happens with online communities is that that line becomes blurred. Someone downloads something and later needs help with it, they can then go back to the website, register for the support forum, and post a question. Nothing wrong yet. The problem comes with the tone of the request, it’s often a demanding tone. Sometimes I don’t think people realize that they’ve mentally slipped into the customer role (even though they never actually bought anything) when engaging a forum moderator (usually someone just volunteering).

They just don’t care, they want what they want and they want it now, not realizing that the forum is only there as a courtesy, not because the company is obligated to them. It’s not just a product of dumb consumerist behavior either, it’s the society we’ve built, a society built on instant gratification. I moderate several forums, some for my own sites, some for companies who pay me and some, just popular forums for fun. In any of these situations, I have no problem putting someone’s expectations in check, though politely as is reasonable.


A customer, as you already know, is someone who’s actually paid for something, therefore are absolutely in their right to have certain expectations of quality and support, within reason. I say within reason because should someone who’s paid $1 for something just once expect the same level of support as someone else who pays $100/monthly for something? I don’t think so. But, we’re going to put this one aside, because it’s not reasonable to expect customers to manage their own expectations.

This is why it’s very important for companies to manage expectations of support carefully. If you don’t then customers will be happy to set that expectation level for you, and what level is that? The world. You will owe them the world unless you make it clear that that’s not what you owe them. Everything in this article is speaking strictly from experience, providing support and consultation to thousands of people all around the world.

The best way to handle scope creep is to draw a line. Computer companies are a good example. They’re willing to provide you support unless you do something like opening your computer and working on its internals yourself, voiding the warranty. The same kind of line can be drawn for premium software, say supporting anything within the confines of the out-of-the-box experience. But, not covering custom requests that involve hacking the core code.

If you don’t clearly define these lines you will be stampeded and justifiably deserve it.

Read more about dealing with customers.


Don’t worry about upsetting people, this is unavoidable anyway. Not to imply that you should be rude, ever. But, whether helping a free user or a premium customer, don’t be afraid to draw a line and say no when it’s crossed, to set expectations straight, and to be honest.