The “Free Trial” Trap and How To Avoid It

We’ve all been subjected to it: ” Install our software or hardware and use it for 30-60 days and if you do not like it, simply remove it and you will get your money back, no questions asked”. Well, there-in lies the problem – that no questions are being asked.

Have you ever subscribed to a “free” magazine only to spend frustrating months trying to get them to stop billing you for the useless magazine? Think of that situation magnified ten times. Here’s why.

Say you sign up for a free trial of a payroll management software and entered all your data and your employees trained for it and you used it for a couple of weeks and decided that the investment was not worth it. What then? Are you going to remove all your data from the trial software and start all over with something different? Most like not. And that is what the offer of the free trial is all about. A typical bait, especially if you are coming from a heavily manual system to an automated on. The sheer horror of the amount of work involved in the “cancellation” makes most people buy the license for the software.

Take another example, the Hardware-as-a-Service offering. When you are asked to try out servers, phones, desktop computers and switches for ninety days after which you can remove them with no questions asked, shouldn’t you ask what happens after the trial? Do you bring your old systems back online? Do you tell your users “sorry, I know you loved the new Windows 7 computers but we have to give them back”? How about the sales people who just love their Cisco Unified Communications (UC) systems that allows them to put their feet up and video conference with clients? Do you tell them to give up their new toys and risk a huge collapse in morale? My guess would be, not likely.

What Do You Do?

Be sure to do your due diligence before accepting any offer of a free trial. We had the experience once of using a “trial” software that the employees just loved but the price post-trial was outrageous. It turned out that we did not ask enough questions and did not know about the limitation of the trial version  to three users. That was not going to work in an office of fifty employees. Know what you are getting for the trial. How many users are allowed? Is there a guarantee that there will be no price creep once you sign up – one of those “oh, that was not part of the original quote” scenarios you hear about.

Try the software in a virtual environment. Hardware is affordable enough these days that you can afford to buy a hefty server with enough hard drive space and memory so you can simulate your production environment without affecting your current data. Oracle’s Virtualbox is a free (no trial here) virtualization software that is cross-platform – works on Windows, Linux Macs, Solaris. You can use Windows 7 for 30 days without a license and that should cover your trial period. If not, just create a new virtual machine and go for another 30 days.

Using a virtual environment for trying out software is especially important if the software is a newer version than your current version, since that will likely involve an upgrade . And you do not want to use a trial software to upgrade your production system. This is even trickier because not all software will allow you to roll back to your old version.

If you are subscribing to a Hardware-as-a-Service solution, get one of everything – server, desktop, phone, switch etc. and run them in parallel with your current system using sample data. It is even better to create a test network or sub-network with limited access to your production environment. If things appear to be working and you want to move forward, encourage a gradual transition with your less critical systems first. You do not want to come into the office on Monday and discover that your new network is not working.

If it is a cloud-based service trial, avoid using live data during the trial period. Why? What if you decide that it is not what you want and say “Thanks, but no thanks? Your live data is now sitting on someone’s server and there is no way of knowing if they will remove it permanently. Remember that most of the providers have real-time backup systems that will copy a file to multiple locations as soon as the data hits the data center.

Work with a professional if you think you are in over your head. It is your company we are talking about. There is no shame in asking for help, even if it makes you “look stupid”.

Happy computing.

It should be repeated for those who do not pay enough attention to backups. Please make a complete system backup before you even install an agent of the new software in your environment. That way, you can suffer the indignity of having to restore your system, but have the satisfaction of limiting the damage, or worse, losing data.

Shameless Plug:

If you own a small business in the Austin area and have less than 20 employees, see how you can refresh your computer systems without the “free trial” gimmick and no upfront or out-of-pocket cost here.