Doing Support Correctly (I Don’t Have the Answer)

I have a big soft spot for support requests. I find it very fulfilling to help people use the products I create. Ask anyone using my products: I respond quickly, clearly, and helpfully. That’s not bragging, humbly or not, it’s something I focus on and I think it’s a key reason that people are happy using what I create.

But I’ll admit, I still haven’t found the right way to provide support in a way that works well for everyone. Here are the two things that make this part of my business difficult:

  • Direct email support seems to be the most fulfilling for customers and the easiest for me to manage. Get an email, answer the question, get kind feedback on the process, life is good. But …
  • A support forum lets people find answers to their questions on their own and could be saving me many emails per month. Self-service is not the most fulfilling for customers unless they find an answer quickly, which means you’ve added the step of searching forums first before they contact. Also, is search working?

I’ve considered many times moving to direct email support for everything but I really don’t want to lose the ability for people to answer their own questions. What’s a dev to do?

What’s good about this process is that I’ve sent hundreds of support requests over the years and I know what I like and what I don’t like. This isn’t some esoteric concept that I don’t understand. I’m also on the other side of the table having provided tech support for people for over 15 years in various roles.

What I Want

Here’s what I need:

  • A way to directly answer customer questions, complaints, and documentation clarifications
  • A way to aggregate these answers in a public place
  • The ability to answer/ask private questions that might include sensitive information like logins or non-public URLs
  • Canned responses to common questions

What I Don’t Want

Here’s what I’m sick of doing:

  • Logging into a site to answer requests
  • Confusing customers with multiple support channels
  • Trying to find old support requests in my email for the same question
  • Using bbPress

Other Things to Consider

A few other things I’m thinking about:

  • I currently have almost 300 forum topics for support created over the last 2 years or so. These account for over 400 pageviews per month so they’re not completely worthless. Are people coming to get their questions answered? Are they just ranking in Google for unhelpful terms? It looks like the bulk of the traffic comes from referrals from the sales sites themselves, which would go away if I pointed people somewhere else. Part of me just wants to parse these all out into FAQs for the various sites, then redirect but that’s a huge job.
  • There are so many support systems out there and I’ve only used a few. It seems like the best way to manage incoming email support and the cost is certainly worth the time savings. But which one to go with? I’ve had good luck with HelpScout in the past so that’s probably the direction I would go.
  • I just restyled the forums …

What To Do?

I’d love your feedback here. Whether you’re a product-maker that found the perfect combination or one of my customers with an opinion, a comment below or an email would be very helpful.

4 comments

  1. 5/31/2015 at 12:18 pm David

    So, let me preface this by saying “I don’t have an answer, either.”. What I have done however is processed over 30,000+ support requests (and, that’s a low estimate). Optimally, every incoming support request is converted into a knowledgebase article as quickly as feasible: If there’s any single request that comes in asking the same question twice, it likely deserves to be part of a FAQ or kb article somewhere public.

    If you’re not already using a helpdesk, you should be (it sounds like you are, so this might be preaching to the choir) — desk.com, zendesk & some self-hosted ones like kayako, cerberus, & even atlassian’s confluence (that now has a built in helpdesk, however hideous from a UI standpoint). This will make it easier to handle incoming requests as you grow as a team, and, most of them offer simple ‘conversion’ abilities to convert an incoming helpdesk request into a knowledgebase article. All of them are awful & great in their own varied ways, your mileage may vary. We use kayako & have since ’04. We hate it, but it allows us to go through hundreds of tickets weekly with relative ease.

    Desk.com & zendesk support twitter & social features which is rather handy. The idea is to have one centralized place where *you* answer inquiries — and, let clients figure out what their preference is. Clients don’t care what your preference is, it’s about what’s easiest for them to get their answer fastest.

    Overall, like you’ve seen, the key is letting as many users as feasible use self-help approaches & answering the oddball questions via email & phone. The good news is people like to educate themselves, the bad news is everyone’s forgetful 🙂 Having a place to cite publicly, and, using lots of pre-written responses is going to be a win-win on your side.

    Mac user? Use text-expander like a madman! 🙂

    • 6/1/2015 at 7:30 am Josh Cunningham

      David, thank you for this! Also, your gravatar looks awesome in comments 🙂

      I totally agree RE: repurposing support tickets to a KB and I do that with pretty good efficiency now. That’s where my idea to parse out what’s in my forums came from. I update or create new pages on wpdrudge.com if a question comes up that could have been answered with documentation.

      I am not currently using a helpdesk software, no. I’ve stayed away from them partly because of cost (Zendesk used to be a lot more expensive than it is now) and because of what you said, they tend to be awful. Still, maintaining a more competent record than Gmail is important, partly to provide better service but also for maintaining sanity. It never occurred to me that these would include social channels (not often used but sometimes) and iOS support (duh, but, again, didn’t occur to me).

      My question to you … Why Kayako? Did you start there because options were slim and don’t want to migrate or is there something else keeping you there?

      Thanks again!

      • 6/1/2015 at 8:01 am David

        As for why us & kayako, over the years we’ve built up a number of internal systems that connect to kayako for various things. An example being like when someone submits a critical ticket, it generates an SMS message that notifies anyone on shift (or assigned to those emergency hours).

        There’s about 10 other similar systems that would need refactored to swap to anything else. We’ll end up doing it, we’re just very hesitant to move to a SaaS product where some of those addons might be pay2play (though, that’s likely cheaper than our own custom code) or more difficult to implement.

        We’ve essentially added our own vendor lock-in — success! 🙂

  2. 5/31/2015 at 12:23 pm David

    Oh, and, lastly: You will have to login somewhere to answer questions. Most of the helpdesks support direct email responses, but you’ll still need to login to ‘close’ tickets & such. Many have mobile & ipad apps., so at least you can do that while on the go (or, vegetating on a couch somewhere) in many cases.

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