In the past few months, I’ve gotten more involved in customer service optimization as a way of making our business stand out among the competition. So I thought I’d share my thoughts and processes on taking care of customer support in a WordPress business (and any other business for that matter).
Our team’s main value is to optimize for happiness. We strive to apply this in everything we do, from content writing to plugin development. This applies to our own team as well as to our customers and readers, which is why we give more importance when it comes to customer support.
When I refer to our team, I mean the team behind the WP Mayor blog and the WP RSS Aggregator plugin, among others. When I refer to customer support, I’m highlighting the support we offer for WP RSS Aggregator.
This is a plugin that has been around since January 2012. That’s almost six years already. Not many other plugins can boast that kind of record, and we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to maintain it for so long and still do so today.
As the plugin grew into a freemium model with premium add-ons, the user base grew. As that happened, support increased too. From pre-sales questions to customization requests, they poured in faster than we could reply. At one point we had myself (the team lead), both our developers, and our support engineer answering tickets on a daily basis. Something had to change.
Over the past three years, we have learned from our mistakes and adapted to the requirements to develop a support system that works for us and for our customers. Is it a foolproof system? Of course not. Is it better than what we had three years ago? By far.
Live Chat for Pre-Sales
Over time we were seeing a number of pre-sales questions coming into support. These were leads that we weren’t always taking care of in time. Although many saw the value in our product over that of our competitors, some were looking for a quick solution and opted to go elsewhere because we didn’t get back to them right away.
This, and the fact that offering super quick replies to customers makes their experience even better, led to the introduction of live chat. We use a tool called Drift to offer live chat on our website for pre-sales questions. We had to limit it to pre-sales only, otherwise, we’d potentially run into a situation where we spend most of our time on live chat and neglect the support tickets.
Being able to take care of new leads while they’re hot resulted in a few more conversions. That being said, we’ve since realized that we can’t possibly be available throughout the day on live chat. For this reason, we now ask customers to leave their questions and email address if we’re not online, and we’ll get back to them ourselves as quickly as we can.
Whenever possible we do go online, but the frequency varies quite a lot depending on the support load in HelpScout tickets, which we discuss further down. Drift also offers a number of other tools that are great for larger teams, which you can read about here.
The Contact Form
When a customer wants to contact a developer or service provider the first step is usually to look for the contact form on the product or service’s website. We used to have a simple contact form that simply asked for the name, email address, message, and plugin’s error log (attainable from within the plugin). That was fine, but we often missed vital information that took us longer to acquire. That meant the customer was waiting even longer for a solution.
Over the past year or so we’ve made major changes to our contact form through the use of Gravity Forms. It was, and still is, quite a mess to set up and maintain, mostly due to the many conditions throughout the form. Alas, it now works smoothly and gives us the information we need to get to work right away on the customer’s issues.
Above is a GIF that shows you how most of the contact form works. As you can see, we’ve tried to organize the most frequently asked questions and provide help along the way. At various stages, the customer is asked to consult our documentation before contacting us. We’ve done this as in most cases that is our first reply anyway. We’ve put a lot of work into our documentation, as you’ll see later on, and it helps us not to reiterate the same answers over and over again.
An Extensive Documentation
This is another area we chose not to skimp on, and for good reason. Providing extensive documentation for our plugin benefits both our customers and us. It gives the customer a reliable go-to source to understand how our plugin works while taking a load off our support team by being the first port of call for users.
A couple of years back we opted for a documentation theme called WeDocs to host our own documentation. It has provided us with a solid structure to build on, even though there are still areas that we will be improving on in the near future. The theme also gives users the chance to up or downvote each page, which helps us pinpoint the areas we need to improve on.
We’ve included everything from getting started guides for plugin settings to custom filters and FAQs. The inclusion of screenshots, GIFs, and videos has also been an important improvement that has helped many customers understand things more easily.
Does that mean our documentation is amazing and everyone loves it? No, we still get complaints and feedback on various aspects. Be it a page that isn’t clear or something that can’t be easily found, we’re constantly hearing back from our customers and adapting based on their feedback.
With an average of around 600 views a day though, its importance cannot be underestimated.
As our main support system, we use HelpScout, a helpdesk solution that has been our mainstay for a few years now. It provides us with the tools and interface we need to easily manage all incoming support messages through an internal ticketing system.
All messages that come through our website’s contact form, the one within our plugin, or even unanswered messages in Drift end up in HelpScout’s inbox. From here, our team can review, assign, tag, and reply to each and every message that comes in.
I just mentioned the unanswered Drift messages, so let me clarify what that means. When we set Drift to be offline it automatically asks all users who want to message us to leave their email addresses so we can get back to them directly. If they don’t do that, we have no way of knowing who the message was from.
Once they leave their email address, and optionally a message, we have things set up to automatically close that conversation within Drift and to forward an email to HelpScout with the customer’s message and email address. This allows us to contact them as soon as we can to reply to their queries.
Internally we use Slack for team communication. This includes internal communication between support team members and developers. Having to keep track of multiple communication channels is never easy, so we used HelpScout’s Slack integration to monitor everything that goes on in HelpScout.
We have a dedicated channel that pings us with a new message for every new ticket, every reply, every status change, and more. So while someone is working on another task they will still be able to keep track of how support is doing. If anything goes wrong and there’s a sudden influx of messages, we’ll know right away.
Folders & Tags
Organization of incoming messages is something we didn’t always give enough importance to, and we learned our lesson. Today we tag every incoming message based on importance and topic, while also organizing tickets into folders based on their subject.
For example, pre-sales questions go into their own folder, translation requests have another folder, and feature requests are kept separate too. This helps when monitoring support trends.
Automatic & Manual Workflows
Workflows are one of HelpScout’s powerful features that we’ve put to good use over time. They offer automatic or manual workflows. The latter are only implemented when a team member applies them to a ticket, while automatic ones are triggered by pre-set events.
For example, our contact form adds the topic of each submission at the bottom of each message based on the selections made, such as “Pre-sales”. HelpScout has a workflow set up so that every message with the phrase “pre-sale” in its content is tagged a certain way and assigned to the Pre-Sales folder.
This has been our saving grace – the ability to save and reuse the most common replies. We have over 30 saved replies at the moment, ranging from just links to full-blown product comparisons. While we cater each and every reply to the customer in question, a saved reply saves us a lot of time and energy.
Don’t Neglect Free Support
As we offer a freemium model for WP RSS Aggregator, that means we have a free version of the plugin available on WordPress.org. Therefore, we also need to monitor the WordPress plugin repo support forums on a weekly basis to make sure we help out as many users as we can. The screenshot below shows just that – the latest two questions will be replied to by tomorrow (this is being written on a Thursday).
Do we make any money off this free support? No, it’s free. So why do we do it? Well, offering awesome support is something you should be proud of throughout your business, so whether it’s free or paid support, it needs to be maintained at the same level. We might not reply wthin the day, but we strive to take care of all free support requests within that same week at the latest.
The Support Engineer
Do not underestimate the importance of finding the right support staff. You can have all the above set up perfectly, but if you don’t have the right person to drive it home, it could all fail. We’ve been lucky to find some great people to join us in support over the past few years, and our support engineer Eric was a perfect example of a support engineer.
A person who wants to help others, who has an interest in your product as well as helping your customers get what they need from it. This person must have the ability to work on their own and to adapt to various types of customers.
If you find this combination in one person, that’s amazing. If not, train them wherever they need it. If they’re not fluent in your preferred language, educate them along the way. Always support your support staff – if they’re not happy, it will reflect in their work. Their work is their interaction with your customers, so it will reflect badly on your product, your business, and yourself. Give them the tools they need, support them along the way, and make sure they’re happy doing what they’re doing.
Not Always Rarely Plain Sailing
Tough customers, rude replies, customers are angry about a tiny bug, those who don’t want to put in the work to fix something on their end, those who expect the impossible, the bad reviews… they happen to all of us.
Support is not and never will be a straightforward part of your business. You can never please everyone, but you damn well should try. Your product can’t do everything everyone wants, but you can definitely guide the customer to other ways that it may be accomplished.
Whatever you do, just don’t stop providing awesome support. The moment you do that is the moment your product and you lose credibility. Just because you’re an awesome developer and your product is coded to the highest standards, it means nothing if the customer doesn’t have someone reliable that they can refer to for assistance.
Get Those 5 Star Reviews!
I don’t mean to brag (maybe a little bit). I’m just super proud of this stat.
On WordPress.org we have accumulated over 30 5-star reviews in a row, and a total of 231 (out of a total of 290) at the time of writing, along with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. We have not seen anything lower than 5 stars in over 6 months, and it feels incredible!
How do we get 5-star reviews? We offer top-notch support at every opportunity and then we ask for a review once we’ve resolved their issues. Asking is the key here. Very, very few individuals will voluntarily leave a positive review, but an angry customer will almost certainly opt to leave a 1-star review. There’s nothing wrong with asking for something you deserve.
Just to drive home the point that support is a key part of any business, take a look through the reviews yourself and see how many of them praise our support above anything else.
Customer support is a vital tool for anyone offering a product or service, and the WordPress space is no different. Whether you’ve got an established product or are working on a new project, plan ahead for how to handle support. Be prepared for as many outcomes as you can imagine, or at least be ready to adapt when necessary.
There’s no need to know everything right away. Learning from your mistakes is usually better than learning from others, if only because you’ve personally been burnt by them. Do not let the size of your team hold you back either. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. If your support lead is unavailable, the support processes should continue to work without a hitch. If they don’t, you’re missing something… staff, processes, tools – figure it out.
Something Extra, from the Experts
I recently followed a live webinar by HelpScout CEO Nick Francis where I had some of my own questions answered live by Nick himself and Shep Hyken, a customer service expert with a wealth of experience. Watch it below to learn more about how to make your product or service stand out through customer support.
Now go help someone out and get the 5-star review you deserve! 🙂