Should we be selling support instead of products?

When you sell products, you do a lot of customer support.

It takes up a lot of time, and some would say product companies are really selling support, not the product. Is support for sale, or is it the product?

If support is really what we are selling, should we tell the customer that?

There is an important distinction to be made here. What we think we are selling, and what the customer actually wants to buy.

What you’re selling vs. what they are buying

Even if you are selling support, the customer doesn’t want to buy support. The customer wants to buy a shiny new product that makes them look and feel like a rockstar, and they assume they will get any help they need after purchasing.

This is important because if you want a successful business you have to sell what people want to buy. You can’t sell them what they don’t know they need, or else you won’t be in business for long.

In the case of products, you sell them a shiny new product and you give them awesome support along with it. If you give them the product free and then ask them to pay you a premium for support, your sales will suffer.

Free Premium Products

Recently a developer name Tom McFarlin announced that he will be moving towards selling support. He has started by open-sourcing his premium theme Mayer, which previously cost $79.

Here’s a quote from his post.

Personally, I think that if you’re in the business of WordPress products (versus services), you’re in the support business whether you intend to be or not. Everything that you release – regardless of where the transaction actually happens – is going to yield support from some of the customers, so in order to gain access to said support, the transaction just moves back one step from after accessing the source code rather than before accessing the source code.

Is this a good move?

I’m a fan of Tom’s and I support his reasoning for this decision. I actually think he may be successful doing this, but I don’t think anyone should follow his lead.

I agree we are largely in the support business, but it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean we should start making people buy support instead of products. Like I said before, nobody wants to buy support.

This isn’t the first time someone has sold support and given away free products, Justin Tadlock has been doing this for years with Theme Hybrid. His themes are free, and he charges $25/year for access to his theme club, which is essentially a support forum. Justin is an incredible developer, and his products are worth way more than $25/year.

He was around when people like StudioPress and WooThemes were just getting started, and they have built multi-million dollar empires, while he has not. They sold shiny products, not support.

Please note I am not criticizing Justin, or saying he needs to make millions, I don’t think he wants to do that. I am saying that between selling support vs. selling products, there is a clear monetary winner.

A comment left on the recent article at WP Tavern about this same issue reveals the same conclusion:

I tried a similar model long ago with a theme site I had before, and found it works to a certain point but not as well as I had hoped. Long story short, I went out of business. If one tries this, I would recommend they have a good savings account at the bank….or at least have a well known name such as Justin Tadlock or even Tom McFarlin.

Well known developers may be able to make this work, but I don’t think anyone else will.

What about WordPress support businesses?

Yes, businesses like WP Site Care and Maintainn are selling support, which seems to be a contradiction. They are both doing very well, and all they sell is support.

This is different because they aren’t writing and maintaining code. Product businesses have code debt, that takes time to build and maintain, while support businesses don’t.

What’s best for business isn’t always right

In Justin’s case, and I think in Tom’s case as well, they probably don’t care that selling support is not the best for their bottom line. They both strike me as very passionate about open-source, and they are more interested in helping people than making money.

Tom left a short reply to me in his blog comments explaining his position further:

There are a number of things happening with the WordPress theme economy that I’m not particularly thrilled with (which I digress for now :), and so taking the time to explore a couple of different models is something I’m interested in doing if for no other reason than to say “Yes, this works,” or even “Nope, that was a bad move.”

I applaud Tom for taking a leap with this model, and I actually hope he proves me wrong by succeeding with it.

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