Presales questions and purchasing hosting
Nice imaginative subtitle huh? Well, imaginative or not, there was a need for an introduction, mainly to express a few of my own thoughts on the matter at hand.
As you might know by now, when making buying decisions I value very much the information coming from people outside of the hosting company (namely customers), my main reasoning being that, in order to close the sale, a company's sales representative might conceal things or even lie.
Despite that, presales questions, whether by email or other means, do provide valuable information to us as potential customers. Note that the presales questions are to be sent to the sales department, not to the support department.
What's the purpose of presales questions?
Sending an email with presales questions will give us, the potential hosting customers, the opportunity to measure things like how fast the response is, how correct the answers are, the level of detail given and the attitude towards the customer.
Often times, as I already noted in the "Testing Support" article, the response coming from the sales department is not as rapid as one coming from support. Some of the big hosts with many employees go as far as not to answer sales inquiries during weekends, although support for customers is available during that time.
With that said, as a general rule, responses from the sales departments to inquiries made by email should not take longer than 24 hours. Obviously the sooner the response comes, the better.
Note that this article comes as a completion to the rest of the things that I wrote so far, so there are things that I do not detail or even mention here, but are presented in detail in other articles of mine.
Steps to be taken
A first step should be to send an email with a few fairly basic questions. Things that are general, and yet fairly important and potentially incommode, like "How long have you been in business?".
The first email allows you to introduce yourself and to see what's their first reaction. Do they want your business or not? Do they answer your questions carefully and in detail or just skimp them? Are they polite? Do they use English the right way (spelling and grammar)?
If they pass the first email test, meaning they've done a good job on average (there are no clear grades here) then a second email makes sense.
In the second email you could ask them if their features include everything that is necessary for your website to work. It's especially important to let the host know things about your website: what scripts you use, what's the programming language in which they were written, how many simultaneous visitors you have on average online at a given moment, how much bandwidth your website consumes etc. Very busy sites can be resource intensive and are no longer suited for a shared environment. They need a server of their own.
Of course, if you're just starting you have no statistics, so it's all going to be a guess work.
An important note: try not to ask questions which have already been answered on their website, as the host might not want your business anymore. Lazy, inattentive customers are generally not desired. It might come as a surprise to some, but yes, businesses choose their customers too.
Despite what I said earlier, it could help to include one or two questions that were already answered on their site, to see if the staff knows its job well.
More emails should be exchanged if new questions arise from the discussion. Some, those who feel comfortable over the phone (I don't, I'm too shy ) and live close enough to the host to easily afford a phone call, should contact the host by phone too. Emails work great, but some things can be weighted a lot better on the phone.
Things to ask
There are things that are good to know about the host. For that I've created a list of questions. Also to be noted is the fact that the tougher the questions you ask, the more respect you usually get from a good host and the less interest a scammer has to keep answering your questions. Knowledgeable people are not exactly their market target.
Now here are the questions with some explanations that I felt necessary:
1. Do you have uptime statistics from a third party monitoring service like Alertra or some others? Please give me a link where I can view them easily.
A good host keeps track of its servers' uptime to verify if the uptime guarantee was respected, to be notified when downtime happens and to defend itself when customers wrongly complain about downtime (when perhaps it was only a local ISP's issue).
Two things are also important here: how often the statuses of the servers are checked by the monitoring service and how long is the history of the uptime records. It's one thing to check the servers once an hour and one thing to check them every five minutes. The more often the checks, the more accurate the uptime records.
Also, the longer the history, the better. It's one thing to know that a server had 100% uptime for a month, a goal which is rather easily attainable, and another to know that it had let's say 99.95% uptime in the last two years.
Also note that some hosts have "in house" solutions for monitoring their servers that don't allow an easy way to make the reports public. Other hosts have had unpleasant experiences with third party monitoring and/or found the service an unnecessarily burdening expense, so not having public reports from third party monitoring services, is not necessarily an attempt to hide something.
2. How long have you been in business?
Web Hosting is an industry and like in any industry experience has to count for something. Two things have to be separated here though: there is corporate experience and individual experience, meaning that there are businesses that have been in active a long while and are thus experienced, and there are new companies started by very experienced people who have worked in the industry for a long time. In both cases experience is an asset that they do possess, just that in the second case it's harder to actually prove it.
3. How many employees do you have?
A high number of employees often means higher dependability, meaning that the chances that the host will disappear over night are slimmer. Don't forget though that the answer to this question is only a claim which is almost impossible for you to verify.
4. Do you outsource sales/support or is it all "in house"?
Quite a few hosting businesses outsource part or all of the support or (less often) sales. Depending on how well things are organized and how professional their manpower suppliers are, things can work out great or be a total miss.
The reasoning behind outsourcing is to lower the costs which often is translated into lower prices for the customers too. It's a way to be competitive. There are hosts doing very well with outsourced support and hosts who failed at using this avenue effectively. This is also true about hosts having all their staff "in house" though.
Nevertheless, it's a good question to ask. A host openly recognizing "we outsource" is sincere and I like sincerity. It goes hand in hand with honesty.
5. What's the expected time for initial response on support issues and what's the average time until final resolution?
Pretty much self-explanatory. You can't really see if they speak the truth or not, but you can compare your "live results" to what they've claimed and see if they spoke the truth or not. Remember, the purchasing decision is not final. It never is. You need to keep testing things and always watch out for signs that things might be slipping out of hand.
Also note that the automated answer machines and the email autoresponders shouldn't be counted as "initial responses". They're just automated confirmations of message receipt and nothing more. They convey no information.
6a. Are you selling from a reseller account?
Many hosts will frown once they read this question. It's one of the most dreaded questions that a potential customer can ask a host that sells from a reseller account. Some hosts, even those that are not selling from reseller accounts, will argue that the reseller status of a host has no meaning, that it's the level of service that characterizes a host as good or bad. I happen to agree, but only to a point.
Unfortunately the reseller's business depends on the quality of the service of the upstream provider. In the attempt to maximize profits, too many resellers go for bottom of the barrel hosts that turn out to be less than OK, especially in the long run. When the server is down, the reseller can only ask for resolution, not act effectively.
6b. Who's your host?
This is the question that resellers fear the most. I warn you, don't expect them to give you an answer. The question is unfair and it's all too natural for them to refrain from sharing this information with you. If they tell you who their provider is you could just go there and get (in theory) the same hosting service, only cheaper. Whatever effort they've made to lead you to their website (meaning advertising) would then be wasted.
7. How secure is my credit card information? Convince me that I'm safe to use it.
8. Do you have your own datacenter?
Most hosts that market shared hosting, rent their servers from big providers who have datacenters. A datacenter is a major investment. It makes a lot sense for a regular host to rent servers until the business grows to a certain size. For some hosting customers this added layer (datacenter-host) might not be to their liking, the reasoning being that the host depends on the datacenter's staff for some things.
9. What means of contact do I have, as a customer, to get in touch with your support team?
The most common means of contact are email, helpdesk, trouble ticket system, forum, phone, instant messaging (AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo! Messenger etc.) and LiveChat. Generally the more they are, the better, for redundancy reasons.
Phone support is thought by some to be a sign of seriousness. I do think that a business - any business - should have a phone number, but not necessarily for support. This is the Internet, there are plenty of other ways to contact the host. The phone number might be used only for sales, or emergencies, or other business related purposes.
10. Do you offer a moneyback guarantee? What are the conditions for eligibility?
I've discussed the moneyback guarantee in more detail in the "Moneyback Guarantees" article.
11. What's your uptime guarantee? How will I be compensated if you will fail to meet the level that you guarantee?
This I've also discussed in more detail in a dedicated article: "The uptime guarantee".
12. Will I have access to a control panel? Which control panel do you offer?
It would be highly unusual for a host not to offer a control panel, but you never know. Go with a host that offers one, preferably one that you're used to. The least you can do is make sure that their control panel does the things you need it to do.
13. Is the support free?
Yes, this is a good question to ask if you don't find the answer on the website. Although very rare, some hosts charge for it. There are also hosts that don't offer support at all. Wouldn't that make for an unpleasant surprise?
14. Is the support available 24/7, meaning is there always someone (awake) in front of a desktop ready to read and answer my questions? Is it also available by phone?
The question includes the definition of 24/7 support so there can be no doubt on what you mean. Some people are very fond of 24/7 support by phone. I'm not, but if you really need (or want) it, look for hosts who offer it. (Don't forget to test it and see if it's really 24/7!)
15. What software is installed on the server? What version? (operating system, web server, php, etc)
Usually the newer the version the better, but sometimes the host might postpone upgrading until most of the bugs in the newer version are taken care of. If you need something (like a certain version of PHP, MySql etc, this is the time to ask if it is available or not.)
16. What are the specs of the servers you generally use? What specs will have the server on which my website will reside?
Some people want their websites to be hosted on high end, well equipped machines, reasoning that the more powerful the machine, the better the performance. Fact is that a host will usually put more websites on a more powerful machine, which will diminish the advantage of the higher computing power, although, if properly configured and not overloaded, it might remain faster.
Look to be hosted on a machine that the host is used to have. If you're to be hosted on a powerful machine that they've never used before, there is a risk of them overestimating its computing power and overload it.
17. How many websites do you put on a server?
More often than not the number varies from one machine to another, based on the types of websites each of them hosts, on the type of the machine etc. If the websites on a server are more CPU intensive than the ones on another machine, it will be able to handle fewer websites.
18. What's the maximum amount of CPU usage I'm allowed to use on a consistent basis? What's your general "resources abuse" policy? How are the offending websites treated?
This is a very important. Compare the answers between the different hosts and see who gives the best answer.
In the best cases the offending websites are temporarily moved on a free (or almost free) server. The owner is then notified and asked to either upgrade to a semidedicated, or dedicated solution or to change hosts if he so chooses.
19. What's your servers' average load? What's the average load of the server where you'll have my website hosted? How about average CPU usage?
The lower the numbers the better. Compare that between the hosts you're considering (make sure you understand what "Server Load" is).
20. How fast will the account be created?
Some hosts boast instant activation (which has an obvious benefit for the customer) , while some take their time to create a new account, but for a good reason: to make sure that the buyer is not a fraud.
Don't be offended, you have no reason to be. In the end it's good to know that the host takes care that few unworthy people get access on their servers. These unworthy individuals might be hackers or spammers. You don't want them to be your virtual neighbors, do you?
21. Is the account scalable? How does the upgrade occur? Is there a fee involved other than the higher monthly price?
It's important for you to be able to upgrade to a larger plan as needed (obviously up to the point when your website needs a whole server in terms of resources).
22. What's the price for excess bandwidth and space?
Usually a sudden burst of traffic is a reason for joy, but if you happen to use more bandwidth than you were allocated, it can be a pricey business if the excess consumption bears a hefty price.
23. Is there a daily bandwidth limit?
Most hosts only have a monthly bandwidth limit. It is easier to estimate with relative precision how much bandwidth you might need in a month than to estimate the daily bandwidth consumption. That's why you must be careful about hosts putting a cap on your daily hosting bandwidth. Read carefully how things are handled in case of excess usage.
24. Are there any limits on file size?
Again, most hosts don't limit the maximum size of a file that you can host under your account (as long as it's within your account's limits of course). Be careful and ask to make sure, especially if you plan to host big files.
25. How often will you back-up my website? Are the backups kept on or off site?
Obviously more often is better. Off site is also better because if for some reason the datacenter burns down (yes, that would be a major, yet highly unlikely disaster), the back-up would not be destroyed.
26. Is there a setup fee?
Setup fees used to be the norm in the early days of hosting, a partial reason being that setting up an account was not as easy as it is today and that setup fee covered the time it took to create the account.
Nowadays setup fees are often used as a way to encourage/persuade people to commit to hosting for longer periods of time. If you want to pay monthly or quarterly you'll not only pay more that if you'd pay yearly (usually that's how it is) but you'll also be charged a hefty setup fee. This obviously makes people seriously consider paying yearly.
As a general rule it's safer to pay monthly and once you build up the confidence that the host is indeed good, you can consider paying yearly to save a few dollars. If the feedback from the customers is exceptional and you're that confident that the host will be very good, you could pay yearly from the very start, but be aware that you're assuming a risk. In the end it's all a matter of trust.
Usually the moneyback guarantee only covers you for the first 30 days of the whole year and not many hosts will prorate a refund. What if the service starts to crumble 45 days after you paid for it? It's a very common story: "I paid for a whole year so now I'm stuck. I can't afford/don't want to pay again to move to another host." So customer beware!
27. How many months do I have to pay in advance for?
Some hosts don't allow monthly payments, just quarterly, semiannually and so on. There are even hosts who only accept yearly payments. Sometimes the price is expressed in dollars per month, but an asterisk points to the fact that the figure is true just for yearly payments. So be careful. If anything is unclear ask first, pay later.
28. Is a domain included in the price?
Sometimes the domain is included in the price (usually when you pay for a longer period of time). Generally I advise not to buy a domain from your host and especially not get it bundled with the hosting fee. Yes, I know most hosts will not like this advice either, but again I will side with you, the customer. You are much safer getting the domain from a well known registrar than getting it from your new host. You're definitely sure then that the registered domain name will have your name associated with it and you have direct and complete control over your domain.
You see, some unscrupulous hosts buy the domain you requested and let you use it, but they are the ones who "own" the domain. If you want to move to a new host you'll find yourself "jailed" as the host will not give your the domain that you paid for. That's a very bad situation to be in.
29. Do you have a free trial so that I can test the service?
Note that many hosts don't have a free trial because this exposes them to all kinds of problems like spammers and hackers trying to abuse this feature.
30. Do you allow adult content to be hosted on your servers?
This is important if you want to upload adult content on their server or if you have something against sharing the server with adult websites. Also some people are quite certain that adult websites attract more hackers and that the server might be compromised more often. I have yet to see a serious research on the subject though.
31. If you use specific scripts (forums, shopping carts, etc. ) ask if they allow you to use them
Some hosts don't allow certain scripts to be run on their machines so to make sure ask first.
32. Will a shared hosting account be OK for this? (explain what your website is and does, monthly traffic etc)
If the website is already active, tell them how busy the site is. This information, along with the scripts that you use (considering they're known, fairly popular scripts) will allow the host to estimate your usage of resources and thus tell you if your website suits their shared hosting environment or not.
33. Will I have SSH and/or Telnet access?
Many hosts refrain from giving access to such a powerful feature to all customers on shared hosting accounts. SSH is potentially as dangerous as it is useful in the hands of a skillful person.
34. Do you have a site builder that I could use?
If you don't have a website yet, you have no HTML knowledge and you still want to build your website on your own, you will find a site builder to be quite useful. Note that different site builders come with different strengths and weaknesses. Ask for a demo before you buy.
35. Is there a limit on how many emails can be sent per hour?
This is quite important if you have a mailing list of some kind. Many hosts limit this because to limit spam sending and resources abuse.
36. Do I have access to Raw logs? Do you have a traffic analyzer installed?
I talked about this in detail in the "Traffic Analysis" article.
37. What type of payments do you accept?
Accepting credit cards is the norm these days, but for some customers this is not helping. Most hosts will also accept money orders, checks, PayPal etc., but not necessarily list this information on their website. That's why you have to ask each host about the payment method you prefer.
38. Read the TOS and ask about anything that seems strange or you find hard to understand to be explained - or just delete the host off your list
39. How many clients do you have?
Generally I don't consider the number of clients as an important measure of the seriousness of a host. Also one thing to note is that the number of clients is not necessarily equal with the number of websites they host.
40. How many servers do you operate?
More important is how well the servers are managed though...
41. Can you give me a list with some of your customers? I would like to get some feedback from them.
Most serious hosts will refrain from doing such a thing for customer privacy reasons. Not that a host that gives you a list is not serious. They might have a list with websites of customers who have agreed to have their websites given as an example.
42. There are thousands of hosts out there, why should I buy from you?
Although listed way down here this is a very important question. Can they convince you that they're the right host for you?
Yes, I know, another intelligent subtitle. That's all that I could think of at this late hour in the night though.
Now, as you can see, the number of questions is not a small one. Most likely you'll have a few of your own to add to these, so try your best to find as many answers as possible on the host's website. A huge list of questions would annoy anyone. Also note that you don't necessarily need answers to all the questions that I listed here.