Is there a better way to tell people to go away?

Being a seller of unmanaged hosting services, with a customer base that’s dominated by enthusiasts looking to host their personal projects, I often find myself in the position of being asked extremely basic systems administration questions.

I don’t like saying no, telling people to go away or implying that they need to work something out for themselves, but the fact is that if I spent my time answering such questions then I wouldn’t have time to get anything else done. That would be fine if the people asking the questions were paying me to train them, or do the work for them. That is always an option for them, it’s just that people who pay £8.99/month for hosting tend to object to being asked to pay £50/hour for consultancy.

When a sysadmin question arrives in my support queue and I consider it to be a general question (i.e. not anything related to the service itself) that will take more than a few seconds to answer, I usually say something like:

I’m sorry, this appears to be a general systems administration question and isn’t covered by the support included with this unmanaged service. You could ask about it on our users mailing list where other customers are usually happy to advise. If I find time I may also be able to advise there, where it will be publicly archived.

If their question is particularly involved but is something I know about then I may also offer some consultancy. Sometimes I am asked sysadmin questions which I have no clue about of course!

As an aside, something that surprises me is the very low ratio of such queries that I do see later asked on the mailing list. Is it because people are a lot more willing to ask me questions in private but don’t want to appear to lack knowledge in public? Is it because people find email clunky and unintuitive? (let’s not have the forum debate again just yet though)

It is a shame though, because aside from the fact that I really do reply there anyway when I find time, the other customers often go to great lengths to explain things in amazing detail to the less experienced.

After one iteration of the above response, most people take the hint. Some don’t though, and continue asking basic questions over and over. This is where I start to feel bad. I’m conscious of the fact that a lot of the time it would take me less time to answer their question than it would to type out the standard, “please ask on the mailing list” response. It also feels rude of me to keep saying the same thing to them.

My gut feeling is that it’s best not to cave in just because the questioner is persistent; if the original reasons for declaring their query outside the scope of support were valid then just because they keep asking does not change matters. Responding to them to repeat myself should have lower priority than any other support request. Otherwise they will learn that they just have to be persistent, and they have more time than I do.

As for there being better ways to phrase it, well, does anyone else have problems like this? How do you handle it?

(This all might seem straightforward and obvious to you, but dealing with people is something I find really hard. Yes, I have heard of Asperger syndrome. I don’t think it fits that well but that’s a conversation for another day.)