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.
“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!
“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.