Our Thoughts on Official Support Channels in WordPress

Community

One of the things I like the most about WordPress is its plugin system–there's a lot you can do! For instance, you can download and install our new plugin, Nelio Content.

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting discussion in WordPress Spain’s Slack (or should I say yet another #WPDrama?) about support channels in WordPress. Even though the discussion was very specific to our local community, the insights and ideas I got from it might help other communities from all over the globe, and so I’ve decided to summarize it here in our blog.

Slack and User Support

The Spanish community, like many other communities, has a Slack account to organize our events and work. For those of you who don’t know what Slack is, it’s just a messaging tool where teams can coordinate their activities. It’s like the IRC of the 21st century. As I said, other communities also use this tool, like WordPress.org or Polyglots from each country.

Screenshot of the Slack of WordPress España
Screenshot of the Slack of WordPress Spain.

In Slack, one can create different channels where different topics are discussed. This way, users are able to subscribe to the channels (hence topics) they’re interested in and ignore the rest. Some of our channels are, for example, #general, #anuncios (announcements), #meetups, or #wordcamps.

The Controversy

One of the channels we have in our Slack is #devel, a place where developers can share their experience and discuss advanced WordPress topics. Because of their target audience, the channel was quickly populated by “WordPress experts”, making it the perfect place to seek help. Do you have a problem with WordPress? Go ask in #devel—someone there will be able to help you. And #devel became yet another support channel for users.

IT Crowd helping end users
Professionals helping end users. If any channel is valid, you’ll be interrupted a lot.

I wasn’t an active member in #devel, but it made perfect sense—every now and then I read the discussions other users were having, looked at the snippets they shared, and learned something new. But some people felt like it was no longer a place for developers to hang out—it had become a support channel. And so they closed it.

Summarizing the Discussion

Fernando Tellado, who’s well-known in the Spanish community, perfectly summarized the discussion, the different points of view, and this thoughts about it all:

My (general) opinion about this discussion is:

  • All WordPress users are part of the WordPress community (…)
  • Those who are more active need communication channels to coordinate their actions and tasks. To do that, we have different tools. We used to use IRC, today we use Slack (…)
  • Moreover, the community has support forums es.wordpress.org/support to help users. It’s an open and trackable channel where the Q&A we create today can be found in the future. As a result, the unselfish hours some users invest in helping others will be helpful to even more people.
  • The tool we use for coordinating nowadays is Slack (…)
  • As time went by, the best people within each area (core, accessibility, plugins, whatever) end up being in Slack.
  • And so there’s people who think “hey, here I can find the best professionals in WordPress, so why don’t I ask them directly?” (…)
  • Because Slack is quite new and has some fancy functionalities (like push notifications) that forums don’t, developers tend to respond to the questions they’re asked, and therefore people ask more often. It’s fast, it’s friendly, it’s faster!

(…)

But we shouldn’t be using tools out of their purpose (…) Sure, you can always ask a friend via WhatsApp or phone or in a meetup, but that doesn’t mean [you should do it by default] (…). Because, even if they solve your problem in a Facebook group or somewhere else, that’s a selfish way to benefit from the community. The best way to do it is to publicize the solution to your problem so that it might help someone tomorrow.

So, my opinion on support channels in Slack is:

  • There shouldn’t be any channels that aren’t devoted to collaborate and participate in the WordPress community (that is, meetups, translations, core, tv, and so on).
  • No support should be offered in Slack—use the forums instead (…)

» Summary and opinions by Fernando Tellado.

And I completely agree with him. It’s so easy to ask for help in a chat that we often forget that we’re a big community and that our problem might be someone else’s too. That’s why asking for help in private is selfish—even if the chat is public, the answer will be lost as new messages come in, and no one will be able to find it ever.

Crying man
We helped someone on Slack but… our reply is now lost forever!

How to Provide Support

You should take user support very seriously, because it’s paramount to your business. We’ve already talked about this topic in our blog when, for example, we explained how to prioritize requests or how to write better tickets so that you get solutions faster. Now, there’s a clear difference between the support you should offer your users and customers and the unselfish support you give to any member of the community.

Premium Support for Our Users

A few months ago, when we talked about the importance of caring about your users, I shared a demolishing statistic: 52% of US consumers have switched providers due to poor customer service. Good support can make the difference between making a living out of your own company or having to shut it down forever. Because good support is really worth it: 45% are willing to pay more if they get a better level of service in exchange.

When facing these figures, the natural reaction is to make sure that your users can get in touch with you as easily as possible when they need to:

  1. Support Forums at WordPress.org. This is the default channel, because it’s the one you get whenever you upload a new plugin to WordPress.org.
  2. Email. Classic. You can interact with the customer at your own pace, because (long) pauses between one question and its reply are normal to and acceptable by both parts.
  3. Ticketing platforms. A tool that “improves” plain emails, it allows you to track all open issues, their status, who’s responsible of them, and so on.
  4. Chats and instant messaging. Chats embedded in your website, Slack or WhatsApp conversations… An instant messaging tool is great for addressing easy questions instantly. But be careful! We expect people to reply “fast” to our IMs, so such a channel will interrupt your more often than you might think.
  5. Phone. As classic as email, instantaneous as IM. Again, great for easy questions, but entails a lot of interruptions.
  6. Skype, Hangouts, and others. Similar to chats and phone, but enhanced with video and screen sharing capabilities. Great for tutorials, troubleshooting, accessing remote computers, etc.

Now, since we’re talking about the support that you offer to your users, you need to balance the following two aspects:

  • Accessibility. How easy is for a user to get in touch with you? If you want to offer a good support service, it shouldn’t be a cumbersome process. So, the more channels you have, the better.
  • Workload. But helping your users is very time-consuming. Therefore, you should be very helpful with how you help each of your users—even though you should treat all your users well, free users and paying customers shouldn’t get the same level of attention. For example, you should offer multiple support channels to your paying customers and you should try to reply them ASAP. Free users, on the other hand, might only get help from your plugin’s support forum, and you don’t need to be as expeditious.

Helping the WordPress Community

Community support is no longer about us as freelancers or business, but as members of the WordPress community. As such, we must use the channels and tools the community gives us. That is, community support must take place in the forums. Period. That’s where users must go when they need help and that’s the only place where we should be helping them.

Two options - You either follow my rules or follow my rules
Try to follow the rules 😇

I know this must sound harsh, but these are the rules and we should follow them. Our goal as a community is to help the maximum amount of people while avoiding to repeat ourselves, that’s why open forums work better than other closed solutions. That said, this doesn’t mean the rules can’t be changed—if you have a better alternative, propose it and let’s discuss it!

How to Improve the Current Situation

After the discussion we had in our community Slack, it was time to think about the different opinions and see if there’s something we can do to improve the situation. I mean, if forums are so great, why people don’t use them? Why do people seek help in other channels? One possible explanation is that “they simply don’t know them”, a problem that can be easily solved by simply directing them to the right place. But what if there’s something inherently wrong about forums?

In my opinion, forums aren’t as successful as they could be because:

  1. They look old. I know it shouldn’t be a problem, but I think it is. Forums look old, with an old-fashioned, unfriendly UI. I don’t think new users know how to use it properly (it took me a while to discover, for example, how to create a new ticket!).
  2. Getting involved is complicated. If you want to help people, you must pay attention to the forums. There’s no easy way to know when a question you might be able to answer has been published. Instead, you’re “forced” to know about all the questions that are being posted.
  3. No one works for free. Even though we all love the community and contributing to it, I find it hard to believe we do it for completely unselfish reasons. I mean, we all expect something from the WordPress community, right? Some people have a business that relies on WordPress’ success, and so they want to make sure WordPress doesn’t loose market share. Others want to gain a reputation as WordPress experts and, thus, be able to get more clients in their area. And that’s OK! Whatever your motivation is, the point is, it’s making you participate and contribute. But being an active “supporter” in WordPress forums isn’t as visible as other actions.

I’ve been thinking about how we can overcome this issues, and I have a few ideas I’d like to share with you:

  1. Improve the UI. This is a trend we’re currently seeing in other parts of WordPress.org. For instance, the plugin directory has been recently updated with a cooler user interface (even though it took a couple of iterations). A redesign in WordPress support forums, with a modern look and feel, improved user experience, and more visual clues, might be what users need to use it.
  2. Notifications. It’s complicated to know what’s going on in the forums. If we offered a more intelligent subscription model, we might be giving the developers the tool they need to be more active. For example, if they could subscribe to the topics they’re interested in (based on the channel in which a question is posted and the keywords it contains), they would only be notified of the things they really care about.
  3. Statistics. One of the things I hated the most about waiting at a bus stop was not knowing how long it would take for the next bus to arrive. Now, most bus stops tell you this. People like to know how long they’ll be waiting. So why don’t we offer this statistic in our support forums? When opening new threads in our forums, it’d be great to know how long (on average) it should take before we get a reply, the ratio of success at solving issues, and so on. Moreover, this kind of statistics takes me to the next point: gamification.
  4. Gamification. With different statistics and metrics we might be able to encourage people to get involved. How many tickets are there in each language? What percentage are solved? How many experts take care of issues? How long does it take for a thread to be solved? This data would promote a healthy competition between different teams from all over the world (similar to what’s currently happening with polyglots and being the first one to reach 100% translation ratio).
  5. Acknowledgement. We already have badges in user profiles acknowledging our involvement with the project. Why don’t we have the same for support? Successful platforms like Stack Overflow have some gamification elements in their interfaces and work quite well, don’t they?

In summary, we need to upgrade our support channels so that they’re more appealing to both users and developers. If we don’t, people will keep looking for alternatives (or creating their own). So, here comes my final question: what would you do to make WordPress support forums better?

Featured Image by Andrew Yardley via Unsplash.

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He obtained his PhD in Computer Science at UPC. David leads the analysis and design of our services and the user support area. He's interested in a variety of areas, including conceptual modeling, virtual reality, and 3D digital printing. He contributes to the WordPress community by participating in meetups, seminars, and the WCEU.

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