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10 good reasons not to provide free tech support


This information is also available as a PDF download.

Because I'm an IT support professional, people routinely ask me to help them solve computer problems unrelated to my actual job. I like to help when and where I can, but there are serious pitfalls to accepting such requests. Providing free technical support is often not worth the price you pay, either as a recipient or as a provider. This list outlines 10 reasons to avoid providing free technical support.

#1: There aren't enough hours in the day

Calls for technical support are often not confined to working hours. Family, friends, and vague acquaintances feel you operate a 24-hour service. Alleged friends call only when they need my help. If I'm not careful, I can work 40 hours a week for my employer, write for another 20 hours, provide free support for 20 hours, and have just enough time to eat and sleep -- provided I can eat and sleep at the same time.

#2: You'll wind up shouldering the blame for future problems

When you fix a system, your "customers" often assign you responsibility for anything that goes wrong in the world, from hard disk failures to their favorite politician losing the next election. Fixing a rogue application might appear to be a job's end, but customers are likely to blame any subsequent glitch on your fiddling.

#3: You're expected to be familiar with every app on the planet

Customers will ask you to support a huge variety of applications -- many of which you will never had heard of, let alone used. Even if you profess complete ignorance and offer highly general advice, the customer will likely hold you accountable for any mistaken guidance.

The best defense against this kind of query is to advise the requestor to consult the application vendor's Web site. When at work, we know what applications we support and have the resources to adequately respond. Many home users fail to realize that more applications exist than we have the time to study -- even if we were being paid.

#4: There's no limit to scope

I worked for a PC shop that offered free telephone support for the life of their products. I think this was an admirable practice, yet it made me keenly aware of why companies charge for support. Most customers got along fine and contacted us only when a problem occurred with the equipment we supplied. The problem came when a customer took our policy to the extreme and called us with every technology problem he encountered, from a dirty mouse ball to a blown light bulb. He became such a nuisance that we asked the shop's owner to visit him and lay down the exact parameters of our support.

The owner properly agreed to our request and assumed he would accomplish the task within a half an hour. We didn't see him again until the next morning. Apparently, the customer had kept him talking until the early hours of the next day. Oh, how we laughed!

#5: Your assets are considered transferable

Your services will be passed to subsequent equipment owners. I once offered to "see what I could do" for a system that had been donated to a friend of a friend. I sympathized with the individual's family, who was experiencing severe financial difficulty, and promised to make what I could out of an elderly system. I tinkered with the PC for hours and used many of my spare parts in the process. Ultimately, I managed to get the machine running reasonably well, freed up some hard disk space, and installed a working CD-ROM drive.

I received nothing for my efforts and didn't see the individual for several weeks. The next time I did see her, I asked how the PC was working and she airily replied, "Oh that! We sold it to our neighbor. We bought a new one from PC World." It also transpired that along with the PC, the individual had sold my support services. The new owner had been duped and my name was mixed up with it. I was not a happy bunny.

#6: Your services will be devalued

The value that people place on goods and services is often a direct reflection of the price they pay. Many people will treat your free advice as valueless. Don't get me wrong: I am always happy to offer assistance to people who ask for it. In return, I ask that they do not abuse my good nature.

You should place a value on your donated services by always sending the customer an invoice. The invoice should list the real cost of your service but should be marked "Paid."

#7: Your skills will be devalued

This pitfall flows from # 6. You make your living out of providing IT services, which gives your skills a value. If you don't respect that value, no one else will. Our tech vanity often convinces us that we can fix just about anything. This vanity is foolish. Yes, we should take pride in our work, but we must remember that IT work is profession, not a charity. When my local supermarket starts to give me free food, I will look after their computers for nothing.

#8: You risk being exploited

Thankfully, I have only experienced this once. A person I knew only vaguely would regularly ask my advice on a wide range of IT-related matters. Foolishly, I made it a point of pride to answer all queries, spending a lot of time researching the answers. Imagine my surprise when I spotted him carrying system boxes from a van into a building. On the side of the van was the name of his computer repair and sales business, along with his Web site address.

I checked his site later that day and was horrified to see all my replies to his queries were in his FAQ section, along with the option to subscribe to his e-mail support service. I am slightly ashamed to say that instead of confronting him about the situation and demanding appropriate recognition, my next piece of advice was highly destructive. After he was forced to refund a few customers, I didn't hear from him again.

#9: You could run into hidden costs and liability

IT support is full of hidden costs, and you should carefully consider those when donating your services and equipment. You may be happy to give away the spares in your tool box, but you may also encounter a paying customer who could have used the parts you gave away in the vain attempt to impress that attractive neighbor.

One particularly expensive free support incident happened to a friend. He had taken home a printer that the owner was having trouble with. He plugged it in on his dining room table and switched the power on. The subsequent short circuit blew out all his fuses (he didn't have RCDs) and left a scorch mark on his new maple wood dining table. The coffee spill that was lurking at the bottom of the printer's case had moved to the power supply while in transit and also left a stain on the back seat of his car. Far from being sorry for the trouble caused, the printer's owner demanded redress for the destruction of the machine.

#10: The customer may want the impossible

A client once requested a little extra, free support during a job I was already doing for his company. He was trying to circumvent his in-house IT department and save himself a week of waiting and a cross-charge. He asked me to install a serial cable connection from a free-standing PC to a device I was installing. The company network was running Windows 95 with no security, the free-standing unit was running Windows 2000, and the user did not have admin rights. I had a difficult time explaining to the customer that I would have to request the appropriate access from his in-house techs.

Given the company's lax network security, I was surprised at the in-house IT department's vehement refusal to allow me access. As an alternative, I offered to connect our device to the networked Windows 95 PC. That did the trick. The in-house teach was down with us in two minutes! The client's free support request morphed into an expensive emergency service call because the in-house techs were concerned I would compromise the network.

59 comments
primusmagestri
primusmagestri

Doesn't work...sell it This has become my flag comment with several of my friends - exactly when they've managed to to become pests regarding IT support. It was all out of friendship but I was getting too much: "You've learned a lot of this stuff, you should know it". I couldn't have taxed them since I'm merely a SW Developer, not constant IT consultant, so I did it usually out of friendship, but it became tiresome and boring. I was even blamed for the performance of my older desktop I borrowed a friend in need. So, yes, I choose a very defending approach when someone asks for free IT support. Congrats for a very good article!

lppsguay
lppsguay

Just don???t get so hung up on the fear of being abused you forget to mentor. We all learn by asking the expert!

kerry.millen
kerry.millen

Number 6 is the key. When a friend performs a seemingly inconsequential task for me, I reward them financially. For instance, a short notice baby-sitting job in an emergency, a pick-up or drop-off when my vehicle is in the shop are tasks that friends will often say are "no problem" or "that's what friends are for". My reply is simply that, because of our friendship, I will compensate you. This translates directly to IT help. The first time I help someone, no matter what the scope, it's always free except to request the distribution of two of my cards to people I don't know. These actions directly associate value with tasks performed, in both directions. This is an excellent segue to say, "Next time there will be a monetary fee for my services." This has worked well for me.

tjackson
tjackson

Most definitely "no good deed goes unpunished". I have a few people that are friends that I do very basic computer work for and I was upfront to start with on what I charged. If they have a quick question - I have no problem to try to help them by phone or email for free. Family - no charge (no matter how much you would really like to make them pay ha ha) And then, there are the people that they couldn't pay me enough to help. Those are the ones that, if their computer crashed after you helped them clean the printhead on their printer - would swear that it was something you did. I know who those people are and stay far, far away from them. My comment is always - I just don't have the time to add anymore customers. And then I give them suggestions on who they could call. On my "regular" customers - I know my limitations and stay away from anything that would require me to open the computer. I work for a school corp - so I do get a lot of "I have a question about my computer/printer/scanner/camera/internet/email/whatever at home - can you help me?". If I can give them a quick answer - no problem for me to take the time to do that. And I always add "without knowing exactly how your computer is set up - it would be hard for me to give you a precise answer" and then I give them a suggestion on who they might want to call. It works for me.

retro77
retro77

thats why when its friends, a case of beer works for me.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

No good deed goes unpunished! In the mid ???80s, I was in charge of tech support at a computer store. (remember those?) One night hardly an hour or so before closing, a harried guy comes in carrying a shoebox full of receipts. (no kidding, like out of an H & R Block ad) It???s April 14th, and he says that he needs to get the taxes done for his company before the deadline and could I help. He doesn???t actually own a computer, but might be interested in buying some software in the future if he ever did. I had to wonder why he just didn???t go to one of those hole-in-the-wall tax-prep places, that would have been happy to do this for him, except perhaps that he might be too cheap for that. Of course, I know immediately that I???ll never see a dime out of this guy, but what I did let him do was sit at one of the demo computers and spent 5 minutes showing him how to enter in his data on Lotus 1-2-3. He did so, and after a few hours I chased him out and closed shop. The next year, the exact same thing happened. Not long afterwards, I moved on in life. About a dozen years later, it???s after 8pm and my phone rings. And it???s this guy! I have no idea how he found me. It???s April 14th, and he???s again against the wall. He wants to come over to my house that night and have me help him with his taxes! (I guess that by this point, the world had run out of computer stores where you could actually sit down and ???test drive??? software) I politely refuse. He then asks if he could at least ???borrow??? my tax software. Again, I refuse. I have no idea what he did afterwards. If he could just put half as much effort into keeping his books in order as he did in hunting me down over a decade later, he probably wouldn???t have such problems.

systemsgod
systemsgod

Good article. I learned my lesson about 7 years ago when a friend of a friend needed some help with her computer. She said she would pay me a mutually agreed upon amount to fix it, and that she would cover all parts costs. Mind you, I did this as more of a favor than a money making proposition, and so I wasn't that worried about the money (as it wasn't much...far less than the going rate). So, I fix it and this "c u next Tuesday" gets angry at me because the part cost a whopping $50.00! This was my cost, and at her request I even showed her the receipt (I didn't even tell her that most repair shops mark this up at least 10% or more). So, what does she do? She refuses to pay for the part and instead takes the part cost out of what she agreed to pay me (which doesn't leave me much for my trouble). That's what you get for trying to help some people. What did I learn? Most people expect something for nothing in this world, and, you are better off just playing dumb when someone asks for your professional advice or help. Sure, I still do some work for family or a couple of very close friends, but, I make them buy any parts I need. The only payment involved is of the malted/ hopped 12 oz kind (which I call "beerpal")!

Ddissent
Ddissent

Wow ... I have never encountered a bigger bunch of whining, selfish, narcissistic people in my life that you guys. I feel blessed that I have the skills that I have and can share them with my friends, my family, and those less fortunate than me. You all should become politicians because you sound like it already .... "What's in it for me?" ... That's just sad .. greedy .... pathetic ..... ... Oh .. and if ANY of you had even part of a spine, you'd set the parameters and be able to help people without being trampled on ....

clendanielc
clendanielc

I have a question that I need to Add to this. I am a salaried Sys Admin for a small Payroll company. I have been asked by the CEO once to fix his printer problems at his house. I did this for free because he kept saying it was for work and not for personal use. Now 6 months later he bought a new desktop and wants me to set it up. This was never mentioned in my contract or Job description. Should I do personal support for him and every managers personal PC? Or should I say no I cannot do that because it was not mentioned in my contract or job description?

spolizzi
spolizzi

This is a great article that I got from the site I frequent and subscribe to for free IT advice. That being said, it's all true. I need to learn how to say "no".

bernardmorey
bernardmorey

Reminded me of a story in the local press a couple of decades ago. A senior ad-man, who was on a local school council, was asked to use his expertise to produce a logo for the school. He spent many hours producing a high-grade professional-standard logo. Had he charged it out to a client it would have been an expensive job. On the presentation the council ummed and aahed until one member said he had friend who had done a nice logo in MS Draw. The council had decided to go along with that. Unsurprisingly the adman was silently furious and vowed never to get sucked into doing something for nothing again.

RobPatten
RobPatten

This article is spot on. When I was working at a computer repair workshop I always found it was the "favours" - free or discounted work - that always came back to bite you. You would cure the problem and they would come back with an unrelated issue, which you would then be expected to sort out for free or at the same discounted rate as last time. A classic case of making a rod for your own back. Start as you mean to go on, and once you start to build up a relationship of trust with a customer you can then start to offer free advice, or rush a job through quickly, or not charge for a 5 minute job. But don't let anyone take advantage. Offering discounts and doing deals from the beginning makes you look desperate and unprofessional. Of course, if you are an enthusiast helping friends or relatives out, that is another matter. Chances are with family and friends you all help each other out with different things. Friends of friends, acquaintances, and neighbours you don't know that well are where it starts to get more tricky. If it seems rude to charge them, maybe suggest they could buy you a couple of beers or something. And if you don't want to, don't do it. Too busy, not familiar with the software, whatever you have to tell them to stop them hassling you! Often I like to offer general advice, but draw the line at getting my hands dirty and stepping in. I compare it to having a car mechanic as a neighbour. I would ask his advice, to set me in the general direction, confirm my suspicions about a problem I was having, but I would not expect him to don his overalls in his spare time and start jacking my car up to take a closer look.

paulmah
paulmah

This article is a classic. I'm going to bookmark it and remind myself from time to time. :)

garybrobro
garybrobro

There are people who think that their computer problems are part of a conspiracy that you have something to do with.

DougUnit12
DougUnit12

After getting sucked into helping folks with their computer woes for the better part of the last 15 years, I finally formed a policy of charging $50 an hour for "computer help". Enforcement of the fee has only one exception ... my own children and their spouses. I announce this fee up front, explain that I do not work for free, that just like the doctor does not treat his friends "on the side" for free, neither do I. And I have a little web site I point them to that describes my services. The website costs less than $30 / year, and yes, it really does pay for itself. The few friends / acquaintances who actually agree to pay the $50 / hour fee get a "diagnosis" for free, where I assess the "damage" and estimate the cost of repair / replacement / upgrade. Quite often I simply recommend that their machine should be retired to the museum / landfill / comp graveyard. Everybody is happy this way, especially me.

DougUnit12
DougUnit12

This is truly bizarre. No, I am not saying I don't believe you ... it is so bizarre that it has to be true. But it makes you wonder. What kind of a business would this strange apparition of a guy be running that he did not make enough money to pull together a cheap PC running Lotus?

splatthewonderfly
splatthewonderfly

I'm forwarding this thread to the three guys who've given me free tech support and learning over the last 8years. The latest guy's son plays with mine, but I insist on paying him for working on any of my systems. If I came to your house, worked on repairing your faucet, or water heater, or your plumbing system, I might do so for free As a friend. But if I'm expected to go to my bosses' houses after hours, with my kids still in daycare, use the knowledge and intimate understanding of a plumbing system... Then spend HOURS (maybe an hour) installing a new sink, faucet and the kitchen system, (my parallell for a PC setup.) Would you expect me to charge accordingly? Would you charge or think the Plumber is worth his salt if he did it free everyday after work? HMMMMM>

monkibutt
monkibutt

DDissent, There's no reason to get nasty with everyone. The fact that people are voicing their opinions here means they have already given plenty of free support out of kindness (NOT selfishness) only to have people take advantage of them. For most of us, the people who ask us for free support are people who earn at least as much as we do, if not significantly more. It's not a matter of those people being able to afford paying someone, they just don't want to. You certianly wouldn't expect a doctor or plumber to make a house call with the offer of "my wife will cook you dinner" as payment. I too have given out plenty of support and advice for free, but it takes time for polite people to develop a tough enough skin to tell someone "no". My advice for IT folks who get asked to do free support is to require quid pro quo. Ask the person for a free service in their line of work in return. For example, if they're an accountant at your company, ask them to do your taxes for free in return. If they start to balk and say "It's not the same thing because they need their PC for work", turn their own logic back onto them. I earned my salary at work. I have to do a tax return on that money. Why can't I use a work resource to do my taxes? It puts your skill set in perspective for the other person. Worst case scenario, you have educated someone to your real worth in terms they understand. Best case scenario you get something you need or at least you're left alone. The advice given above can also apply to family members or neighbors. If they are not willing to barter for your services, it makes it a lot easier to say no.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

Psssssssssssssssssssssssssssst! ah, much better.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

If he uses it for work then do it during work hours. But my experience is that using the home computer for work is usually only a very minor amount of what the computer is used for. But if he brings it in and you work on it during your regular hours, and of course put off other projects that should be tended to, then no big deal.

sparker
sparker

They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and that is certainly true in the world of IT. In the law firm where I work, we are often asked by senior partners to work on their personal computers. We always tell them that we can come to their homes, but only on a charge basis. If they bring a PC in, I will work on it without asking for pay (I'm already on company time)but many of them will offer to pay. I have also gotten tickets to Cowboy football games, baseball tickets and dinner gift cards. Ask your CEO to bring it in and you will use company time for it. That will encourage him to pay for your services at home.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

These can be tough, and it's easy for us not in your particular situation to spew absolute advice. But since we don't personally know you, your company, your boss, and the dynamics involved (as in, ?how secure do you feel in your position??) it?s actually rather difficult to tell you what to do outright. That said, my suggest would just be to make sure that whatever you do is worth your while. Go ahead and do it, but since it?s a ?work? computer, do it either during business hours or make sure you get paid overtime for it. Does he live near the office or where you live? Make sure you count driving time too. Clearly, this boss wishes to make use of a company asset for personal reasons. Make sure that the arrangement is mutual, or else you will have little respect in the morning.

RobPatten
RobPatten

A difficult one, I would't start by mentioning job descriptions or contracts. I would tell him I was going to look through my diary and see when I had enough time to fit him in. That should make it clear to him that you are happy to fix his home computer during working hours, which seems perfectly reasonable to me. If he asks you to do it out of hours, treat it like any other request for you to do overtime. Consider your family commitments, how far away his house is, etc. Will you get overtime pay, time off in lieu, travel expenses? If it is a PC he intends using for work then there should be no problem in treating it as if it was at another of your company's offices and arranging to do it during normal working hours. If he can't be home, he can arrange for his wife or neighbour to let you in, or even trust you with a key yourself. It is petty to flat out refuse, but by laying out the conditions above (during working hours, etc) it shows you are being reasonable.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

A few years ago, my wife and some partners were starting a new business, and needed a logo. I offered to do it for free, figuring I could just find and modify some clip art. But instead, one of the partners offered the job as a favor to one of their friends who fashioned himself a ?graphic artist?. Paid near 4 figures I think. What did they get? An unmodified piece of clip art.

Double DeBo
Double DeBo

I'm a Computer Machanic just as my brother-in-law is a Car Machanic. We would do work for each other all the time until he decided to smart off and hand me a bill one day for quite a hefty amount. He had forgotten that I was still in the process of taking 4 broken computers of his and making one good working one. I was actually able to make 2 working computers. After all was done with the computers I took them over to his house with the money owed to him for his work and a bill for the work I had performed. I thought he was going to have a heart attach when he looked at my bill. Needless to say he doesn't work on my cars and I don't work on his computers anymore.

sallen
sallen

You are right Paul, it is a classic. I have a print out of this nearly identical article from the same author from May of 2005. It was good then, and it still is. I'd have preferred a little originality though.

jdumont
jdumont

This is my classic reaction about brainless people who offer cheap computer services for ~20/hr because it won't be long before they realize it won't pay for groceries. Not to mention gas. Some immigrants came to Canada and stole all the trucking industry jobs by driving for dirt cheap wages. Now they are crying like babies and on strike because they can't make ends meat. Gee, I wonder why. It's the scabs with day jobs who like to tinker with computers after work for minimal pay, 'under the table' that ticks me off. On the one hand they can pay for groceries but where are they when needed during normal working hours. catch22 Thank God for Geek Squad. I have someone for rate comparison.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Frequently, I'll help out for a good dinner out. Everyone wins.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...and perhaps I didn't want to know just because showing any interest at all probably would have made shaking this guy all the more difficult. It's just as well as I never did sell this guy anything, otherwise there'd be that implied "endless support contract" that is even more binding than the one that we've been discussing here for "free" work. To this guy, a sale of Lotus 1-2-3 would have implicitly implied that I'd be there every April 14th to do his data entry for him.

Ddissent
Ddissent

See monkibutt.. I like you (not just because you have an extremely cool username).... Instead of making up some sort of silly spray, you called me on my harsh post .. and then write a great, intelligent response. Hence why I love to play devils advocate from time to time. I get to enjoy the fools who fall for it, and then I enjoy even more the occasional great reply ... like yours ... and you hit it right on the money. You get it. Nothing is ever free.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

Here, give it a spray and make trolls go away

Ddissent
Ddissent

Hey .... If made up cans of "Troll-Away" make you feel better about having no spine .... Have at it there home-slice ...... I hope the can matches your underoos and doesn't offend your made up friends ....

clendanielc
clendanielc

He wants me to do it after hours. Also where I work does not pay overtime. If I do work more then 40 hours they wont let me get a day off just to refresh my mind. Right now I work about 50 - 60 hours a week based on a 40 hour salary. I do not get paid for travel expenses, etc. I do agree with during hours. I have a couple colleagues of mine who told me that I should say that for avoiding issue in the long run to have him take it to someone else. Since his kids and his wife will be using it. He just tells me that it is for business to justify a reason for me to do it for free on after hours.

clendanielc
clendanielc

He wants me to do it after hours. Also where I work does not pay overtime. If I do work more then 40 hours they wont let me get a day off just to refresh my mind. Right now I work about 50 - 60 hours a week based on a 40 hour salary. I do not get paid for travel expenses, etc. I do agree with during hours. I have a couple colleages of mine who told me that I should say that for avoiding issue in the long run to have him take it to someone else. Since his kids and his wife will be using it. He just tells me that it is for business to justify a reason for me to do it for free on after hours.

alex.gude
alex.gude

Working in IT is a serious balancing act between professional and personal time. The nature of the business lends itself to unpredictability in our schedules, which is why most of us are on salary rather than hourly wages, but when IT time cuts into family time, how do you make it up to your spouse and family? By letting potential customers know my services are $150 an hour, the problem suddenly doesn't seem so pressing to them any more and my family can deal with me saying sorry with money in my hand easier than nothing at all and less of me.

TheGooch1
TheGooch1

Ddissent has obviously been exposed to troll-away before, and has developed a resistance to it. Try Troll-away Professional, or a nukler( pronounced new-kler ) bomb.

WKL
WKL

Well, the first thing you're going to have to do is grow some balls. Once you've done that, you have to tell the cheap bastard that you already work too much, and that you flat refuse to work for free - you have to get something in return if you're going to go to the trouble of dealing with his home computer problems on top of everything else. If he gives you crap about it, walk out on him! Find a job working for another bastard that isn't quite so unreasonable.

Double DeBo
Double DeBo

but it sure sounds funny and like something I would do if miffed enough.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Since you're on your time after working all day, bring something to eat with you. Something messy. Leave crumbs / sauce / drippings all over his desk / house. Ask if he has any beer or liquor, then drink as much as you can without exceeding the legal limit. Whether it's your liquids or his, spill your drink a lot, preferably on his best Persian rug. Fart a lot; ask his kids to play "Pull my finger." In short, make yourself such a pain he won't want you back in his house again. Take your sweet time. Tell him that since you don't have this model at work, it will take you several hours to get familiar with it. Leave it in 640x480x16 and blame the vendor for faulty drivers. Tell him it's not compatible with his existing peripherals. In short, cripple the machine and blame the vendor.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Personally, if you are working 50+ hours for a 40 hour salary, I think you need figure out what you're actually making per hour and then consider finding a better job. Clearly, you're being used and this person has little respect for you and your time. Do you think that he "consults" for free in his spare time? I doubt it. By doing this "off the clock" you will be setting a low standard of expectation for what you will tolerate. This will be the tech nightmare that will not end if you let it start.

WKL
WKL

"X" is a great letter.

TheGooch1
TheGooch1

I'm too busy after work ( playing soccer, dates, studying for school, etc. ) to even think about doing after hours support. Where do others find the time? If someone asks me a computer question outside of work. I just look at them funny. Computer? Is that someone who rides the train?