Support vs. Help
There is a big difference between "support" and "help". Making the distinction is a bit of an exercise in hair-splitting, to be frank, and if there is going to be an industry-wide term for having your hosting provider "support" their service and your use of it, then the word "support" should be it. Perhaps the difference between "support" and "help" can be determined by observing whether or not your provider goes "the extra mile".
For the purposes of this description, "support" can take the form of one of two seemingly opposite manifestations:
While it's nice that in the second instance the problem has been addressed, whether you're asking why something seems to be broken or asking for some assistance in setting something up, the answer is unhelpful. Clearly, in cases like this, it is far easier for the host to just do something rather than actually explain things to the client. And if you haven't encountered the sort of support described in the first instance, then you simply haven't been around long enough!
- One-sentence answers to your several, well-thought-out questions, where the "answer" barely (if at all) answers just your first question, and completely ignores the rest, and
- Answers which tell you that the problem has been fixed, but which don't offer any sort of explanation.
So what is "help" then? Help is when your host actually takes the time to advise you or keep you informed. Here are some examples:
Some of this goes beyond the traditional understanding of "support" just being someone there to answer your questions, but it is all, nevertheless, supporting you and your business with the hosting provider. Note, however, that neither "help" nor "support" includes providing free consulting to spend hours troubleshooting your website's design or scripts not provided by the host. If that's what you need, you should be engaging the services of a programmer, a web designer, or both. The host might provide these services in-house, or you may have to go elsewhere for them, but they do not come for free, anymore than you work for your customers or employer for free.
- You contact your host because something appears not to be working. They fix the problem and reply with an explanation (that doesn't have to be long and involved or sound like an excuse) of what happened, why it happened, and what was done to fix the problem.
- You contact your host for some help in setting something up. While not necessarily conducting a private seminar by email on how to do it yourself, they give you some pointers and suggestions so that you actually learn something so that perhaps next time you can do it yourself without having to wait for someone else to help you.
- A good host will give you options. This is similar to the point above, but applied in a slightly different manner. For example, if you ask how much it will cost to do such-and-such, your host should, if there are similar options available, reply with a quote, not only for what you asked, but similar options both less and more expensive than the one you asked about. The key here is that these options must still actually accomplish what you want to accomplish, while giving you more latitude, without simply being off-the-shelf attempts to force you to do something you don't necessarily want to do.
- A good host will also help you with honest advice, even if that advice is to tell you something you might not want to hear. For example, you contact your host and ask for help with something, stating that you intend to do such-and-such. If there is a better, safer, more secure, less complicated or better-performing way to accomplish what you want to achieve, a good host will tell you rather than just leaving you to your own devices and letting you crash and burn. A good example of this is, ironically, if you are actually about to move your hosting away from a company. Without going to the extent of providing free consulting services to help you take your business away from them, your host should still, out of respect for your past business relationship with them, advise you on the pitfalls that are often encountered by people inexperienced with the complexities of transferring the hosting of a domain from one host to another. This could easily be interpreted as fear-mongering, so it does need to be done delicately and the client does need to be receptive, but a good host will make an attempt -- unless, of course, they're happy to see the back of you, in which case it's probable that your relationship has been fraught with problems anyway, and that's why you're moving.
- If the host has an unexpected problem (e.g., a service goes down unexpectedly), they should be up-front and forthright about the issue, hopefully letting you know about it even before you realise that something is wrong. This doesn't mean that you need to hear about absolutely every five-minute delay of incoming email (for example), but major issues should not be swept under the carpet.
- Rather than simply parroting the 24/7 support mantra offered up by everyone and their dog, your host should provide timely, consistent and competent support delivered by people who are knowledgeable, reasonably friendly (or at least socially adept) and competent communicators.
- Your host should not pass the buck. In an industry built on a co-operative network of millions of computers around the world, there are always going to be problems, some lasting a grand total of half a second, some a bit longer, and some much longer still. Between you and your remotely-hosted server there are numerous possible points of failure; the problem you are having could be with your own computer, your local network, your ISP, your host's network, or your server -- or some point in between. Which is anybody's guess, until somebody does some troubleshooting. If your hosts just looks at your server and says, "Yup, it's up. Must be your problem," and promptly hangs up the phone, you're getting "support", not "help" -- and not much of the former, I might add. A good host knows that an unhappy customer is an unhappy customer, no matter who the customer is unhappy with or who he/she should be unhappy with if only he/she knew where to direct the anger. So even though the host's services might be operating as advertised, a good host will at least help you try and track down the problem, even if the problem isn't with them and there is nothing they can do about the problem. However, at least once you have isolated the problem (with your host's help, if necessary), you can then direct your efforts to get it resolved to the right place, which can be half the battle.
The final word goes to the folks at Plone, makers of a content-management system:
"It's an old adage: 'you get what you pay for.' More accurately, though, you don't get what you don't pay for.
I couldn't have put it better myself.
"In the case of 'el cheapo' web hosting providers, what you're not paying for is any kind of helpful support. That's labor, and labor is expensive. The entire business model of commodity hosting providers is to gamble that you won't have any tech support questions, and to provide the least amount of help possible if you do. This might be fine if all you're trying to do is host a few static web pages, or run a simple PHP script. But in the long run, ultra-low-cost commodity hosting providers are rarely a good value."