Through my work with Automattic, I’ve had the privilege of working with the guys over at Intense Debate. I’ve been helping them improve their WordPress plugin and get it ready for some new features. Along the way I made the blunder of releasing a version that had a pretty serious bug in it, and that triggered a lot of customer support issues/cases.
In the “old days” (or in a lot of big corporates today), those support cases would have been handled behind a corporate “veil of secrecy”, tucked in a back end system somewhere, responded to by anonymous “Customer Service Representatives” via a generic email account like “email@example.com”. While we’re also making use of a generic email address, the similarities between our approach and that of big corporates ends there. End to end, the differences are pretty stark.
Previously, companies may have tried to encode their plugins, or released them as some sort of binary so that they could control access to them and avoid people modifying them. When we released the 2.1 version of our plugin, we “checked it in” to a public-readable Subversion repository which then publishes to the WordPress Plugin Directory. That code (and all other code in the Plugin Directory) is GPL licensed and available for re-use/hacking/modification. People are welcome to read the code and see what we’re doing, point out where we could do things better, and ideally improve upon it themselves.
After we’ve uploaded the code, people will start getting notifications in their WordPress admin panel that there’s a new version available. To help explain what’s going on, we published a blog post announcing the new version, the new features etc.
Not that it’s a recommended channel for receiving support, but this is where we start really differing. People have posted a number of issues and questions about the plugin right there on the announcement post. We could moderate and remove those comments (or not allow them in the first place); instead, we work with our customers and try to address their problems right there an then. Michael and I have been bouncing around on that post answering questions and finding out more information from people so that we could fix some problems and get to 2.1.1. With email notifications coming in every time someone commented on that post, we’re able to quickly respond to people and help work out any issues they’re having.
If people aren’t commenting on that post directly, they’re often over at the Intense Debate Get Satisfaction forum, a community-powered support system where a number of people are contributing. Again, this is a very public way of supporting users, and puts us out there in the limelight, warts n’ all. We answer what we can, assure people that we’re still working on things and that we’re making progress (which we are, a lot of it) and that we’ll get back to them as soon as there’s something to report. When there are updates, or when we need more information for troubleshooting, we post another message and get a stack of responses from eager users, hoping to have their problems solved. This is very real and very connected, and I truly believe that being open and transparent about problems that people are having and the way that we’re working with them helps not just that user, but others who may have similar problems.
For real-time feedback and almost-instant-messaging-immediacy, there’s Twitter. I know, with Oprah getting in on it now Twitter will probably implode soon, but in the meantime, I’ve found myself providing support direct to people via Twitter as well. One user wanted to use IntenseDebate, but found the comment importer wasn’t working. I replied that we were about to release a fix, and that user was then able to get up and running. This all happened, asynchronously, within about 4 hours of his first tweet.
In Your Facebook
Then for one that I really wasn’t expecting, someone contacted me through Facebook to try to sort out a problem. A user spotted me providing support via Get Satisfaction and other methods, and tracked me down on Facebook. In this case, it was someone that we were already working on a fix for, but it demonstrates just another way that people have been able to get in touch with us.
Better for Customers, Better for Us?
I guess the big question (or 2 questions really) this all poses is: Is this new way of providing support better for our customers? Is it better for us (as the company providing support)? Could it be better for everyone still?
The biggest problem I have (as someone providing support) is just trying to keep track of all these different “vectors”. I’ve identified 4 different support vectors above, and that’s not even including our normal support email/form, official Facebook group or VIP support channels. That makes at least 7 different vectors through which we might be providing support. It can get messy trying to keep up to date with them all and ensuring that you’ve replied to people where they’ve contacted you and in a timely fashion. Perhaps there’s an argument for traditional, centralized systems after all 😉