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.)

14 thoughts on “Is there a better way to tell people to go away?

  1. Not sure what would work to encourage more people to follow-up by posting to the public list, but perhaps include a link or two to an archived post by someone which did get answered? (preferably not by you)

  2. Andy, your standard response is polite, concise and clear, in my opinion.

    It’s worth asking why a customer would repeatedly ask questions that are out of scope of BitFolk support after getting several such responses. Perhaps they are unable to comprehend what the scope of support is; if they are relatively new to the business of running UNIX servers on the Internet then this is a real possibility. Perhaps they are simply – for want of a better description – taking the piss; in my working life I have encountered a number of people who know exactly what the rules of engagement are but never think that the rules apply to them.

    You can’t really do anything about the latter class and the only thing you can do about the inexperienced is to have a bit of documentation that tries to even more clearly explain the scope of support that BitFolk offers.

    In summary, I think this is one of these problems that is not going to go away and you’re already dealing it as well as you can and probably better than your competitors.

  3. Hi,

    It sounds like you’re doing an excellent job. You just need the resolve to stand your ground and not feel guilty about it. Manar’s suggestion is good if the links are to hand but don’t feel guilty about just suggesting they search themselves and provide the archive link.

    My initial inclination is to agree with deprioritising a reply to repeat offenders but that might make your stats worse and a quick reply might send a stronger message. How about a “sin-bin” button on the ticket tracker?

    Keep up the good work. I’m sure you’re in a position to chose your customers.


  4. I don’t think I’ve really ever contacted bitfolk support for user support.
    However, at the same time, I was completely unaware of the bitfolk mailing lists – I think I only found out about them by accident when googling one day.

    Perhaps more could be done to make them clear to new customers? 🙂
    [I’ve not signed up in a while so I don’t know how clear they are at the moment but I know I wish I’d joined them the moment I first signed up to bitfolk]

    1. Tim, here’s the template for a new user sign up email. Aside from a couple of lines added for the tracker and wiki, it has not changed in 2+ years:

      As you can see, all new customers receive a strong recommendation to sign up to the users list.

      However it is my experience that new customers cease reading the email at the point where they’ve got the login details they need. It’s TL;DR in action.

      The mailing lists are also linked from the support page:

      Do you have any suggestions for how new customers such as yourself could have been better-informed about the users mailing list?

  5. By the way, this post was not intended to be a rant at people who ask for support, even if they are asking something outside the scope of the support they signed up for. Even if they do it repeatedly.

    I have long since learned that it’s a lot more difficult to change people’s behaviour with the stick than it is with the carrot. In the absence of any usable carrot, you have to automate or optimise the stick as much as possible. Ranting about it on a personal blog isn’t a very optimised stick. 🙂

  6. Oh dear. You are right as well.

    TL;DR indeed. *blush*

    I think I got as far as the monitoring stuff and then went off to sort my system out.


    Perhaps an initial email with login details then an automated follow up say two days later saying “now you’re all stuck in here’s some other useful important stuff you might like to know”…

    Just an idea. 🙂

  7. As a user who recognizes the polite-refusa-response above, I’d like to say a few words in defense/explanation on behalf of beginners like me 😉

    My reluctance to ask on the list stemmed from the same inexperience that brought about my simple questions. The idea that there were a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t be put out by me cluttering up their inbox with silly questions was (and still is) extremely foreign and hard to accept. As I gain experience as an admin, I’m beginning to accept that people are genuinely charitable when providing information to beginners, but it is dissimilar to my experience in other areas of life.

    Much more familiar was the idea of a business relationship, where the logic goes “I have a question about [thing I pay you for], therefore I ask you.” Ultimately, of course, it’s that very business relationship that makes you reluctant to answer those questions, which makes perfect sense in retrospect, but is, again, quite unintuitive.

    So my suggestion, based on that, is this:
    If the request for support doesn’t contain sensitive info, why not just forward it to the list? It’s got to be easier than replying anyway, and it’s likely to provide the user with the answer they’re looking for, which would stop repeat requests. The risk is that. since it never forces the user to send an email directly to the list, so it might encourage them to keep sending you questions. But it might also ‘break their list cherry’, so to speak, and get them more comfortable with asking there in the first place.

    1. Mike, you don’t have to explain. You’re not one of those people who just never seem to understand about this. 🙂

      I think it is a serious no-no to go forwarding what people would consider private email on to a public list, even if I did think there wasn’t anything sensitive in it. On top of that, customers are not automatically subscribed to the list, so they would not see any of the replies.

  8. I just thought the perspective of a beginner might be helpful. I know I eventually got it, but I’m sure I’ve toed the line a couple times.

    I think the wiki will also help with beginners. I’m certainly excited to have yet another source of expertise at Bitfolk.

  9. I think the vast majority of people that ask are simply not aware of the meaning of ‘unmanaged hosting’ and how it applies to them – they probably simply don’t know that your time in this matter isn’t available for free.

    Having used VPS services before, and asked for help in a similar manner, I can say that I think your standard reply is accurate, and politely informs them. I don’t see any problem with it.

  10. You use Mailman, if I’m not mistaken. It has a mechanism (both via web and via command-line) to ‘invite’ people to join a particular list, which results in them being sent an email (customizable, if you so desire) inviting them to subscribe to the list. Only the most ardent anti-spammer could consider it spam, and it provides an immediate low-resistance path to list participation.

    So, I suggest doing that for each new customer, perhaps with the invitation email customized with an explanation as to why they’d want to participate in this particular list.


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