Writing a Better Support Forum Request

Writing a Better Support Forum Request

How many times a day do your users arrive on your forums and write helpful posts like "My site is broken. Help!" or "Why is everything white?" Has a user ever posts an screenshot of a white screen? Have they created a screencast when a sentence would suffice? You name it, Andrea has seen it all.

Greeting from the not so cold or snowy Great White North. It is I, your intrepid reporter coming to you live from the support forum trenches. I’m Andrea Rennick, co-author of WordPress All-In-One for Dummies, and part of the excellent support team at StudioPress.

When I was first asked to contribute, one of the very first things that came to mind was covering the myriad of ways in which your users can provide information that we, the support team, can use to help them get the best help available. Send  your users here and I’ll set them right.

Doing your homework

The first step should always be searching the forums to find if there are previous threads about the issue. You may have to use different wording to find the results. Sometimes, even scanning the list of forum posts can be easier if you are not sure of the exact terminology used.

Once you’ve made sure that no previous threads exist, post a complete overview of the problem, including steps anyone else can take to replicate the issue. Forums posts like this one are likely to go unanswered at best, or ridiculed publicly at worst.

“Help! It’s broke! Someone fix it!” (unlinked to protect the guilty)

Sometimes, no matter how good the support person is, there’s just not enough information there.

Better idea:

“I am using WordPress 3.4 and Genesis 1.7 at domain-example.com. Every time I activate the XYZ plugin, I get a white screen. I read in another thread that this is a version issue. Can someone confirm and tell me how to recover my site?”

Post a link to your site as well. Many of us in support are quite puzzled as to why users do not leave a link to the site they are working on. When pressed, some users seem a bit embarrassed – “Oh, I’ve just started working on it so it’s not very pretty,” We know and we don’t care how it looks right now. We just want to help solve your issue – we weren’t asked to critique the site, so we won’t. Often, if you are using a purchased theme and are receiving help for it, we expect to see it look rather plain. After all, you’ve just moved in. We don’t even expect take out pizza if we just showed up to lug a few boxes. ;)

How we work our magic

One way we use the link to your site is to view the HTML source of the front page. We can double check the theme you are using, see many active plugins mentioned in the header area and sometimes even check to see if your WordPress version is up to date.

Since I mainly do theme support, a neat little trick I do is visit the style.css location in the head of the page. This shows me in full plain text what theme version you are using, and I can even check the parent theme (in this case, the Genesis Framework), since it’s the same folder on every install that uses it.

For CSS issues, I also use Firebug or Chrome’s Inspect Element. A simple right-click anywhere on your site and again I can see the rendered HTML and quickly find what is needed. In case you’re interested, I wrote a handy tutorial on how to use Firebug so you can be awesome too.

Something that seems like it helps but does not is a screencast. In only very rare cases has a screencast helped me troubleshoot the actual issue. Most of the time, the user had just reiterated the text that was in their initial post, but has pointed with their cursor to the admin areas involved.  Unless we ask for clarification, we usually do not need a full screencast.

The same goes for CSS issues and screenshots instead of a link to your site. Given the nature of CSS and the tools available to help, a screenshot as the only piece of information usually doesn’t help. If it is used in addition to the information above, say for highlighting a specific browser gap, then it can be helpful.

The virtues of patience

Patience is another virtue to keep on hand. :) Understand that as much as everyone wants to have issues resolved quickly, there can be a delay. It could be as simple as an issue of timezones, or as complicated as needing multiple moderators to look at your request. Bumping the thread can either annoy the volunteers or hide the thread entirely from the no-replies list. A no-replies list is used to help moderators keep tabs on threads that haven’t been answered. By bumping your thread, you’re actually knocking yourself off the no-replies list – doh!

Bad idea:

“Helloo? Support?? Where are you guys???” – posted 4am my time. Also, bumping the thread.

Sometimes, even if it seems like the support team is always around, we do require simple things such as sleep or food or contact with other humans without a screen in the way.

Occasionally, I will come across a user that is upset I’m not answering fast enough. It may seem like I am always present but there are times when I do things like sleep or look after my family. Sometimes I even have a bad day. It’s true! It happens to everyone. Those days I try and make sure I take sanity breaks when needed and my sewing machine is now quite close to my everyday working desk. I can just turn my office chair around and sew for a few minutes to relax.

Getting your response

Most of the support personell I know, and a large number of forum volunteers, are active readers and consumers of media. What has this got to do with support you ask? Well, for starters, it means we deal with the written word a LOT. I’ve been clocked at reading speeds of 300 words a minute. This means any screencast or phone call is miles slower than me reading your post. And while my typos are legendary, this is partly due to the fast reading – I can’t type as fast as I can think – and I need better typing skills, as fast as they already are.

If we do read your post a little too quickly, and you feel like we’ve missed something, this is the main reason why. :) It’s okay to gently point out the bit we may have missed.

Many of us do use canned answers, but we all try and personalize where needed. This does help you get replies sooner, and with common issues we’ve seen before there may not be more information we could add. Being well-read and familiar with various issues across the board (themes, plugins, servers) is also one way we manage to make it look like psychic tech support.

And finally, unlike this post, brevity is always welcome.

I hope that gives you all some ideas on what sort of information we look for and things you can pass on to your clients and customers – or even send them here to read this article. In my next post, I’ll go over some tips that support personell can use to do their job more effectively.


    • says

      I’ve actually found a huge difference in attitude between people who have paid for a product, and people who are asking for support for a free product.

      Hmm, future post maybe?

      • says

        Oh, definitely better. I can probably count on one hand (maybe two) the people who have been terrible that have paid for a product, only to be abusive, vile and creepy. Then promptly refunded. :P

        For the offerings we’ve put out there for free, over the course of my WordPress career, the amount of people who have been irate, demanding, abusive, creepy and boundary-free has been.. countless.

        And that’s sad. :(

      • says

        It seems counter-intuitive. You’d think that people would be appreciative and patient if they are getting something for free, and if they were paying they would be more demanding.

        I don’t understand people sometimes. They’re kind of mental.

      • says

        @Siobhan – on the other hand you can look at how the users who refuse to pay for products sometimes don’t appreciate the work you’ve put into it at all, so why would they respect your support? At least those who paid already showed you some respect by buying your product.

        …of course there are always outliers who throw off the average though…

      • says

        I’ve had two problematic paying support customers. But they weree easily dealt with. I just give them a refund and they left totally happy. The problems I experienced were mostly caused by miscommunication as to what was included with support and so refunding them very quickly quelled whatever concerns they had.

      • says

        The other side is people who are being paid and want help. They’re generally worse than the freebies, because it’s ‘my job’ to help them (no, it’s actually not).

      • says

        @Patrick – yeah, this is true too. I’ve never thought about it in that way. I guess I don’t produce a product, or provide support so I’ve not had to deal with these issues before. I find this way of interacting with people quite fascinating. I think it takes a special type of person to do it – a few weeks of it and I’d probably have exploded.

      • says

        Actually I read a very interested article about a year ago where the author was upset that an app cost so much. He contacted the developer to say “hey, why does this cost so much when most apps are cheep?” and the developer pointed out that this was a niche market, that the code is well developed and solid and they had good market research to backup their price point. Then the developer went on to show the market research proved they made the same at whatever price they set. If it were $1 they would sell 100 copies, if it were $10 they would sell 10 copies, at $25 they sold 4 copies and at $50 they would sell 2 copies. No matter what the income was very much the same. Conversely, the less it cost the more support they ended up providing. Of course you have more people to support, but each person seemed to expect more support as well. The people paying less also complained more and gave lower reviews in the app store.

        In the end they settled on a higher price because it cost them less to support and the income was the same.

        I found that to be a very interesting study and would love to see if other companies have had similar experiences in their price point research.

  1. says

    As someone who spends a lot of time doing support I can say that everything Andrea says is true. I might also add a couple of other important ideas.

    Please don’t start multiple threads in multiple forums. I occasionally see the same thread in WordPress and on StudioPress for a plugin issue. When I see that I usually say something like “hey I noticed that you also asked over at … so I’m going to just help there. Thanks.” The problem is I don’t always see that it is the same person so I end up going through those first steps all over again in each place, and that can be super annoying to be told the same thing twice. Ask once and get the same answers once.

    Please don’t add onto someone else’s question unless you are 100% sure it is the same issue. I often end up missing stuff because I’m answering 2-6 people in a single thread and the person who started the thread doesn’t get the attention they deserve. Most support forums allow you to start a new thread any time you need to. If you are 100% sure it is the same issue, just subscribe to the thread to get the answer. Adding “yeah doesn’t work for me either” isn’t adding to the conversation.

    Finally, please follow the steps given. Yes, we often give out canned replies but we do it because those answer like 75% of the issues we deal with. Also I totally made up 75%, it means a lot but not every. Seriously, if you get “please disable all plugins” it might seem trite, but we start there because we need to eliminate that issue. There is nothing more frustrating for you as the person asking for help or me as the person giving help than to spend 3 days, 50+ replies and who knows how many hours trying to figure out why something isn’t working only to find out it was a plugin that wasn’t disabled after the initial response of “please disable all plugins.” It might sound simple but most issues really are simple.

    • says

      Can’t believe I forgot those ones. :)

      And yes, the ones who insist they disabled all plugins, but really meant only the ones they thought might be it are the most frustrating.

    • Mason James says

      Great points by everyone. Of course, Andrea knows what she’s talking about here :)

      A couple months ago we switched up our theme at WPMU DEV. We modified our format away from a “forum” (we don’t even call it that anymore) to more of a Q & A style. Though it still is a bbPress installation, this approach has helped with keeping each thread to a single issue.

      One other tip for anyone looking to search a support site. Sometimes, the search feature sucks. Searching is difficult and nobody does it better than Google. For this reason, I use google to search a particular site by adding “site:example.com” to the end of my search string.

      So, for example, if I wanted to search WPMU DEV for something about our MarketPress product I’d head to google and do a search that looks like this:
      MarketPress site:http://premium.wpmudev.org/forums/

      Now I’ve got the power of google searching the site and giving me good results.

  2. says

    re: pricing items higher. My father found this is true in a completely different niche! When he sold his music, pricing it less than the average CD seemed to let people think the music was no good. They put the price up and sold more. Crazy!

    • says

      I did the same for my (former) paid support service. I bumped my prices up because I couldn’t keep up with the workload and ended up getting inundated. So I bumped it up even more, and things evened out quite nicely. It even paid for part of a trip to Europe in 2009 despite being something I spent very little time on by that stage :)

  3. Rob Skidmore says

    It isn’t often that I find the comments section as valuable as the article. Bookmarking this for the article and the comments.

    Definitely some things to consider when I post in Studiopress forums and determine pricing for my business.

    Well done all.

  4. says

    Found myself nodding all the way through this :)

    One thing that really helps me answer support is when people tell me what they already tried, then we can either see if there are steps that were missing or think of new solutions.

    Tone matters a LOT. You might be stressed or even disappointed, but ranting rarely helps anyone.

    I think a lot of the time just remembering that support people WANT TO HELP can overcome some of the issues. A) it will help with keeping things nice and B) it will help you put in all the information that support needs to help you.

    • says

      Yes! We do so much really want to help! Some of us love the puzzle of it.

      And if I find myself feeling less-than-helpful, that’s when I’ve learned it’s best if I take a wee break. ;)

  5. says

    I believe all theme forums should require their posters to put the theme version and WP version they use into each thread.
    Ex. StudioPress 1.8.2 – WP 3.4.1 – Rounded corner navigations

    Those version numbers (I just guessed on the proper StudioPress number) help people searching forums to know whether the thread is still valid or not. It would also help administrators know if the thread is relevant, should be updated, or should be closed. Perhaps someone could develop functionality inside forum software to have a drop down where people have to choose which version of the theme they use and which version of wordpress they use and have that automatically put at the beginning of the thread title.

    • says

      Co-signed! I’ve asked people to list what version they have and some have come back with “the latest”. And when I finally get their URL, turns out it’s not the most recent version after all.

      While the date on the thread can help, sometimes it;s hidden or easily overlooked. Hard to tell just by date too, as some things in WordPress rarely change.

      Version matter. :)

  6. says

    This one seems like kind of a no-brainer, but try to be polite, even if you’re super frustrated. I’ve seen people start support threads by insulting the product, support team, etc. “If your support team was actually helpful…” Would YOU want to help someone who just called you a nasty name? Not really…

    Obviously not all customers (not even most) are like this, but it’s always surprising when someone who wants help starts by dishing out some serious rudeness.

    • says

      Yep! These are the ones I try and be super-helpful to.

      I had my first lesson at this at my very first real job at eighteen. I worked at a computer stores that did sales and repairs, right when home computer use was starting to take off. The boss even made us go door to door to local businesses to see fi they wanted to buy a computer. His worst (or maybe ahead of his time) idea was to spray paint the towers custom colors.

      At any rate, the business was going downhill, and being 18 I didn’t notice much, until the day the boss said I had to answer the phone and tell people he was out.

      “Is Jeff there?”

      “No, I’m sorry Jeff is out fo the office and unavailable.”

      “Well you tell that sorry SOB I don’t know what kind of sh*t he’s trying to pul with his %^#&%^#HGVJYR business and he better ^&*^(&^(&*^ and…”

      So I said, very calm and cool, “I’m sorry sir, Jeff is still out fo the office and swearing at me won’t get him to the phone any faster.”

      I got a very sincere apology. :)

      A month later – about 2 weeks after I quit – turns out Jeff had skipped town with the office manager (also a guy) and left his wife & two small kids to handle the business mess, which got taken by the Sheriff.

      Moral of the story: always be polite. Don’t screw people over.

    • says

      I help out randomly at various places, mainly because of lack of time and priority. However, I can concur with most of the above. To me almost every issue can be solved with a brief yet succinct description, a link, sufficient code snippet (if needed). I really, really like how Shopp’s community forums new post works where they provide their users a template. This may be something other forums could consider!



      ###### Link ######

      ###### Errors ######

      > QuotedErrorMessage

      ###### Steps to Repeat ######

      1. First
      2. Second
      3. Third

      ###### Relevant Code ######
      @@@ php

      ##### Environment ######
      Web Browser: **IE7/IE8/FF3/Safari5/Opera10**
      Server OS: **Linux/Windows**
      Web Server: **Apache/IIS/Lighttpd/Nginx**
      PHP version: **5.0.1**
      WordPress Version: **3.2.1**
      Shopp Version: **1.2b??**
      Shopp Install: **fresh/upgrade from 1.1.x??**

      Note: I added the LINK section because it was the only thing missing; however, on their forum, they have a dropdown identifying which site that the plugin was activated.

      • says

        Travis: though the number of times the template is either ignored or annotated with comments like “Don’t know” or just “???” is pretty high!

        Support provided straight from the WordPress dashboard, where (with appropriate consent of course) version numbers, details of other installed plugins etc could be communicated directly and without troubling the end-user, could be a real step forward and could really speed up response times for support.

        Great post btw Andrea :-)

      • says

        OOoooo glad you mentioned that! With the Premise plugin (also from Copyblogger) we added a cool support ticket thingy right inside the WP admin panel and it sends the ticket right into our helpdesk.

  7. says

    Thanks Andrea, great post.

    As Nick mentioned “yeah doesn’t work for me either” cases are pretty distracting on support forums, I think when user posts this, he/she isn’t 100% or even 90% sure that issue is same. Best option to avoid these cases is to adjust capabilities, so only topic and support staff can post, other can subscribe of favorite topic. I think WooThemes does similar thing.

    Another example is when users asks help for modifications, which are out of support (even paid) scope.

  8. Scott McIntyre says

    As a Genesis user I have to applaud both Andrea and Nick for their always professional and courteous support assistance.

    I do know how frustrating the constant stream of repeat questions can be, having experienced a taste of it with our own client support.

    My only (small) criticism (hopefully constructive) is the lack of a robust knowledge-base provided by developers like StudioPress and Woo. I know there is knowledge-base content on both these sites, but I use the word “robust” for a reason. It would be great to see consistent updates to a knowledge-base addressing common issues, theme development related content, common changes, customizations, etc.

    I know it’s a daunting task but helpful content like Nick’s ‘Genesis Explained’ series has been amazingly helpful and valued.

    It would be great to see companies like StudioPress and Woo put more emphasis and resources into this type of content, which might take some of the pressure off the support forums.

    I’m sure users are just as frustrated as support forum staff when they (the user) searches for help on an issue only to see those oh-so-eminently-helpful topic headers like “Help!!!!” “How do I do this?” and the always appreciated “???”

    Just my opinion – YMMV.

    • says

      You’ll be happy to know we are working on a better Tutorials section and making it easier for current and future answers to find the information they need. Before they go posting the forums. ;)

      They get a faster answer this way, and I get more time to actually write those tutorials.

  9. says

    Good post. Record a video as well. ScreenFlow makes that easy. Then you can send a link via YouSendIt. I’ve had tech support people offer to buy me dinner.

  10. says

    i do a lot of support for the Thematic Theme and this is pretty spot on. Though for Thematic being totally free I have only come across a handful of real pricks expecting premium level support for nothing. Do get a lot of people posting the “its broken” or “how do i?” type of posts that show zero initiative and seem to expect me to “just do it” for them for free, but mostly I get people who are appreciative, if clueless.

  11. says

    I can echo everything Andrea mentioned, and she pretty well unpacked our main tips about asking for support for Shopp pretty well:

    “Be specific, be patient, be polite and give the support team the benefit of the doubt.”

    If you want help from any support team, “yelling” at them, trashing their product or service, or threatening simply does not encourage anyone to help you. It does the opposite.

    When it comes to the support provided for any software solution (service or download) we are all at a tremendous disadvantage. The tech giants in the previous personal computing era (Microsoft, Apple, etc) have set expectations in the populace at a level that makes it a lot more difficult for software makers providing free or low cost solutions. I think this is at least a contributor to the sense of support entitlement that is pervasive in both no cost solutions and paid solutions in the WordPress community and beyond.

    Don’t misinterpret me though. Developers for free plugins/themes should do a better job of treating their users as customers. Getting paid for your solution forces you to treat users as customers and that difference is the most powerful driver in making a customer more reasonable about support than a user demanding free support for no cost solutions.

    Another phenomenon I’ve seen with Shopp support is requests for support of third-party solutions (themes and plugins). Not just troubleshooting compatibility problems with Shopp, but even general troubleshooting of the third-party solution, customization help, and basic how-to walkthroughs. At a crude glance this is akin to calling Apple support for help with getting rid of Clippy on Microsoft Office just because you paid Apple for your computer and their support is nicer to deal with than Microsoft.

    I think this is a result of many factors and on the surface seems pretty unreasonable. Understandable, but still unreasonable. First I think there is confusion on the part of customers to understand the support boundaries, namely “who is responsible” for providing them support for their issue. The author of the third-party solution may be slow or unresponsive to support requests or even flat out turned the customer down for their support request. Since they paid for our project and we provide responsive support, we end up fielding some of these questions.

    It leads to the same kind of time wasting annoyance that Andrea pointed out with users reluctant to share their link because of embarrassment of the current state of their site.

    The worst part of doing support is just dealing with people full of a sense of entitlement. Sentiments like “I wasted my time downloading your software, you owe this to me”, or “I paid you for your piece of crap software, you’re obviously just in business to rip people off” can really push buttons if you aren’t emotionally detached from everything but the motivation to solve the issue.

    The worst of the entitlement behaviors I’ve ever seen is the Twitter-bomb. Social terrorism. They hold your brand hostage by spewing 144 characters of unsubstantiated one-sided “they screwed me, stay away from them” tales, mostly taken at face value by their followers. Legitimate gripes are one thing, but dealing with the one-sided brand bashing will really drive you mad.

    To deal with the most extreme situations for Shopp support I find you simply cannot use strict limits for the support you’re going to provide. We’ve evolved and adapted our support policies many times in the past 3 years of supporting Shopp to find the right nuanced approach where both us and our customers win most of the time. Still, there is the policy that you lay out publicly in your terms of service, and then there is the case-by-case level of service you’re willing to do beyond it to make people happy. It’s always a blurry line between providing the best possible quality and responsive support service and the business interest of, you know, staying in business. As with most things it is a complex balancing act. Inside of that blurry boundary line there is almost always someone that wins and someone that loses. At what level does helping your customer at any cost enable them to continue their bad support behaviors? Yes, it is a customer service win, but at what cost? Especially if the win is them bragging to their friend, “hey I told them help me or else and they caved like a good little puppet…” Still, I find the hard line of “we will not negotiate with terrorists” to be far too draconian. These situations really are far and few between, but you still have to know how you’re going to deal with them before they happen to you.

    As you can see I have a lot to say on the subject. Just do yourself and your support tech a favor… Be specific, be patient, be polite and give the support team the benefit of the doubt. It gives them the best chance of helping you and for you to get a useful response.

    • says

      “Another phenomenon I’ve seen with Shopp support is requests for support of third-party solutions (themes and plugins). Not just troubleshooting compatibility problems with Shopp, but even general troubleshooting of the third-party solution, customization help, and basic how-to walkthroughs. At a crude glance this is akin to calling Apple support for help with getting rid of Clippy on Microsoft Office just because you paid Apple for your computer and their support is nicer to deal with than Microsoft.”

      Not a phenomenon – I’ve seen it at our own sites and over at Studiopress. :D I’ve even see people say, after I prove there’s nothing we can do to fix it, say “But you guys are so helpful and knowledgeable! I get better help here!”

      Well yeah, but… :D

Leave a Reply