Internet hosting: the cost of support

[This is the first in a series of three articles to help people understand how internet hosting services work from a business perspective. They’re written for my small business clients over at Prussia.Net as part of a review of our own internet hosting service, but I’m hoping they’ll be of general interest. Enjoy.]

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Internet hosting prices are usually explained in terms of the amount of storage space you get and the amount of data transfers (“bandwidth”) per month. However the real cost factor is paying the humans who provide support.

Some technical factors do affect the price of hosting, and I’ll address those tomorrow in Internet hosting: the cost of reliability. But with storage and bandwidth prices always dropping, particularly when set up on a large scale, hosting is now so cheap that Google, say, or WordPress.com and many others can provide free hosting in exchange for advertising. Or in Google’s case with Gmail, monitoring your email to build a profile so they can target advertising at you.

No, the humans are the expensive bit, and the cost can vary dramatically depending on how that support is provided. Here’s just a few of the factors.

Response time. From the time you initiate a support request, how long is it until someone answers? A fast response means paying for people to be there, and if you want to guarantee that response time then you need spare people in case it suddenly gets busy.

Prussia.Net has been providing support for our internet hosting service with a target response time of one hour, but allowing it to be slower when things get busy.

Hours of service. Do you want support to be available 24/7? Even on public holidays? Then you’re paying for a team to work around the clock.

Prussia.Net has been providing support 24/7, 365 days a year.

Phone support? Or email and web support? Phone support is much more expensive to provide than support via email and the web. Phone support requires fast response times because clients don’t want to wait on hold, and staff who are good communicators. Phone support also ties up a staff member for the entire length of the phone call, whereas with email support they can fire off a suggested solution and then get on with something else while you try that out. With web and email support, you can also save time by sending a pre-written reply.

However phone support is interactive. Support staff can quickly ask a series of questions to clarify the problem. From the client’s point of view it’s often faster — especially if they don’t have the technical knowledge to write a clear, unambiguous support request.

Prussia.Net has been providing support via email and the web. However I’ve often ended up providing phone support anyway, which is outside our cost model.

Scope of support. Just how many things are the support staff expected to help you with? Say you were expecting an important email but it hasn’t arrived. There’s no fault with the hosting server, and the support staff can see the email sitting in your mailbox. Something’s wrong at your end. Is that now the end of the call? Or are they expected to figure out whether the problem is down to your internet connection or your Wi-Fi or your email program? If it’s your email program, are they expected to help you solve that problem? How many different email programs are they expected to understand? Just Microsoft Mail and Outlook? Apple Mail as well? Your iPhone? Other, less well-known systems?

Prussia.Net, as part of its internet hosting service at least, has in the past been a little vague about this point. In theory our contracted support provider is only meant to help you solve problems with the hosting server, not with the computers and networks your end.

Level of detail and customisation. When support staff send you a technical answer, do they link to appropriate documentation on the web, like a software manual? Send an outline procedure? Prepare detailed step-by-step instructions? What level of technical knowledge should they assume on your part?

Prussia.Net hasn’t had a consistent policy here, and I suspect it’s caused confusion.

Scale versus personalisation. A big support centre is better able to cope with sudden increases in demand, and can arrange to have common problems handled by less-experienced staff (see the next item). That reduces costs. They’re also more likely to have seen the same problem before and have a pre-written response. But the flipside is that you’ll rarely get the same person handling your requests. If the support centre keeps comprehensive notes that’s not so much of a problem, but keeping good notes takes time and time is money.

A big support centre probably won’t have any idea about your business and the way your computers have been set up, so unless you can explain that to them it’ll take a while to reach a common understanding. Conversely, a small support centre means that you’re dealing with the same set of people and after a while they’ll get to know you and your systems.

Prussia.Net’s support team is provided by Bobcares, an Indian firm which specialises in providing support services to more than 200 companies worldwide. Overall Bobcares has more than 300 engineers on staff and is responsible for supporting 3.5 million websites, but Prussia.Net’s needs are provided by a specific team of six people who handle us and a number of other clients — so you’ll tend to get the same people answering your questions. It’s a compromise.

Skill level of staff. 90% of support requests are a few common questions. The most cost-effective approach is to have less-experienced staff handle the initial contact (“first level support”), and only escalate it to more-experienced staff if it can’t be solved. First-level staff can also work from a set of scripted questions. If the scripts are written well, the staff members don’t necessarily need a technical understanding of what they’re asking.

Conversely, some providers have what’s sometimes called “business grade support”. With the most expensive providers, from the very start you’ll be speaking directly to a fully qualified and experienced network engineer. Not cheap.

Prussia.Net’s team at Bobcares is in the middle. Everyone has technical qualifications, but initially your request might be handled by a staff member with less experience. If their first email to you says they’ll need time to get back to you, that probably means they’ve had to ask a supervisor for help.

From a client’s point of view, the ideal support deal would be a specific person they could phone 24/7. An experienced network engineer who knew everything about their business and computer set-up, who’d answer immediately and start working on their problem. It ain’t gonna happen.

Even if a client were willing to hire a full-time network engineer at, say, $100,000 a year and pay their on-costs, that person still needs to eat, sleep, take time out for training and paperwork and take holidays. And one person can’t be expected to know about everything. These days IT is broken down into a number of specialities.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re paying $29 a month for hosting, the service provider makes maybe $4 profit. Dealing with just one technical support request kills the profit for that month, and the next three.

Yet in my experience most small businesses want something better than the low-grade support provided by commodity hosting providers. If an important business email hasn’t arrived, waiting 36 hours for emailed technical support won’t cut it.

I suspect that what most small businesses really need isn’t “hosting support” but “technology support” or even “technology management”.

Small businesses and their staff don’t have the skills to start troubleshooting a problem from the beginning, so they don’t know whether they should be calling their internet service provider (ISP), hosting provider, some technical support guy or the shop that sold them their computer.

I’ll expand on these thoughts in the third article in this series, “IT support vs management vs consulting”, to be published on the weekend. And as a bonus link, try my essays from the other year, There ain’t no shortcuts to professionally-managed IT and the cranky “I don’t understand computers” is not an excuse

Comments please. This is very much a first draft of my thoughts on this topic. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

[Update 16 April 2010: I should point out that the Prussia.Net service hours and response times I refer to here are for technical support relating to internet hosting. Prussia.Net provides other services, with different service levels, and this too has confused some clients because they didn’t necessarily understand which service their question related to. For example, when we did general IT support, that was only available in (extended) business hours Monday to Friday, not 24/7. Administration matters were only dealt with during business hours, and with a 2-day turnaround. But clients would, and still do, send urgent technical requests to the administration email address — and then wonder why it isn’t addressed promptly. I’m not sure how you solve this.]

7 Replies to “Internet hosting: the cost of support”

  1. Nice blog post, if only clients would be so kind as to read—and understand—this entire compilation of facts.

    Grant

  2. And yet regardless of the reality of the situation, web hosting customers want to be treated like kings whilst paying perhaps $5 a month.

    Perhaps a better option would be to give them the classic options of Fast/Good/Cheap, pick any two.

  3. @Grant: Clients actually reading material they’re sent? Gosh. I have a couple of clients in particular who never read past the first sentence of any email, if even that — so I feel confident they’ll never, ever see this sentence. But I won’t turn this into a bitch about poor client behaviour. We already have the blogs Clients From Hell and Not Always Right for that.

    @Neerav: Thing is, the market already provides this differentiation. Sticking with hosting providers, some offer “unlimited” capacity (yeah sure) for $10 a month with basic support, and some offer high reliability and high-quality expensive-to-provide support and a high price tag to match. As you point out, though, some people expect to pay for the cheapest and get the service of the best.

    I suppose my aim in writing this series of posts is to educate the market, so that small business who are shopping around for internet hosting can compare the services on offer and choose something appropriate for their needs.

  4. @Baden Smith: On my mother’s side, I’m of Barossa Valley German descent, and at the time those ethnic Germans were living in Prussia, in an area which is now part of Poland. The Prussians were also known for their engineering ability, so when I named my first network across the Internet I named it “prussia.net”. Later, it was adopted as a business name.

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