Large software companies can afford large staffs of tech support reps to ignore--er, answer--your questions. But what about shareware developers--those programmers who make smaller programs that may cost less and be less commercially visible, but can be every bit as useful as software from a billion-dollar company?

Surprisingly, a lot of shareware authors provide tech support for their products; although it's generally not offered over the phone, most developers list their e-mail addresses in the program. More surprisingly, shareware tech support can be superior to that offered by the big guys--when you do reach it, you're often not talking to a newly hired phone rep but the very person who created the software.

Tech support queries for Windows Commander, a popular file-management replacement for Windows Explorer, go directly to Christian Ghisler, the author of the program. Though he spends two to three hours a day supporting his customers, he finds it profitable, since he thinks "people are willing to order the registered version when they see that their questions are taken seriously." It must be working, since about 40,000 users have registered their copies of the program.

Marat Fayzullin, a student at the University of Maryland and author of utilities and emulators such as Virtual Gameboy, thinks that the large software companies are adept at answering "which button do I press" questions, but have trouble answering customers who say "this doesn't work and I've read your manual."

Fayzullin says that when one of his customers has a difficult problem, he offers as much help as necessary, and will even change the program, "if I feel that the change will benefit all users."

One upshot of this mentality is that shareware authors are notorious for coming out with a constant stream of new versions--"if it's version 1.06a3, it must be Thursday." This can be bewildering, but at least you don't have to wait a year to upgrade out of a problem. (The big guys have been adopting a similar strategy, releasing a series of patches and interim upgrades to buggy programs to relieve their beleaguered tech-support staff.)

Some shareware companies have found success by embracing customer feedback. Rapid improvements helped propel the shareware program ACDSee from one of many image-viewing utilities to a clear market leader. In addition to providing phone support as soon as it was financially feasible, its authors, ACDSystems, courted feedback through tools like user questionnaires, adding a plug-in architecture that allowed them to add new features quickly in response to customer complaints.

Andrew Tomazos, of Stairways Software, says he first thought that tech support for their file-downloading utility Anarchie "was a waste of time" and an "irritation." He and his colleagues at the Australian firm tried to automate their way out with impersonal bug-report forms and "an elaborate FAQ to help minimize the amount of time we waste on answering and decoding stupid questions from our users." But he discovered the error of his ways. "How silly I was, trying to make it harder for our users to contact us for fear that they would waste our time," he said. "Unfortunately, this narrow-minded attitude is the dominant one among most software authors and companies."

Instead of shunning grieved customers, he began inviting feedback of all kinds. He credits the new "open-arm" policy with giving him a much more detailed view of the user experience, and believes that to be a driving factor in the company's tenfold growth in the last two years. "I don't even think of it as technical support anymore," he said.

Greg Landweber, one of the authors of the Macintosh interface-tweaking tool Kaleidoscope, has seen the downside of doing his own tech support--not being able to respond fast enough. "People are used to immediate gratification," he said, "and on the Internet there is no filter to stop them from flaming me if I don't live up to their expectations." But, he adds, there's an upside: "Fortunately, those users who start off as abusive often become quite friendly when they realize that they are dealing not with a faceless corporation but rather with a couple of guys who write cool software for the fun of it."