Effective today, we’re starting the move away from our support ticket system in favor of our new support forums. There are a few reasons for this which I’ll outline in depth further down but the short story is that we think it will be better for our customers and better for our business model.
Our Current Support System
Today we utilize a mix of Gravity Forms and HelpScout to enable users to submit a form on our site, which then submits the form details to a special HelpScout mailbox address which was created inside our Google Apps for Business account, which then feeds into the HelpScout service dashboard (which then notifies us via email of new tickets).
Each form has some required fields which helped us collect some details we needed to better troubleshoot, including the user’s license key, WordPress version, plugin version, url to the page they are seeing the issue, and an optional url to the theme they’ve got installed.
Although this system has worked pretty well for us for over two years, there were some shortcomings.
First, setting up a support form for new products was laborious at best. Secondly, we found that there were just too many ways in which our support ticket flow was not as streamlined as we once thought, which I’ll cover below.
Why We’re Moving to Forums
When we first launched FooPlugins.com (after the wild success of FooBox), I personally campaigned hard against the use of forums. I had been burned before with lackluster forums setups and it left a bad taste with me. I was of the opinion that forums were a time suck and that threads could go on forever into tangent oblivion. I also wanted to make sure we were giving a more personal support experience to our users and I didn’t think that could be accomplished with public forums.
I don’t believe that having individual support tickets was a bad decision. On the contrary, it worked very well for what we needed and wanted for our users but times do indeed change and so does the technology behind forums in WordPress. We’re utilizing bbPress now and thanks to the work of John James Jacoby and many other contributors, we’re confident that it can handle whatever we need it to. In fact, during our move we ended up writing our own bbPress extension plugin to integrate our custom EDD licensing plugin. (more on that below)
I’m confident that we’re making the right decision but this will be a continual learning process. Both to get more familiar with the nuances of forum administration and to be agile in tweaking the process in order to best serve our users.
All that said, here are a few reasons we’re moving…
Too Much Clutter in Too Many Places
Although HelpScout is a very robust service and we still highly recommend it to anyone we talk to, we still found ourselves with too much clutter in our inboxes. This is a major concern for a small team trying to manage support as well as get new features added to existing plugins and develop new plugin and SaaS solutions (hint hint).
We constantly found ourselves answering the same questions over and over. Of course, HelpScout allows saved replies and issue tagging and a few other ways to mitigate duplicate work, but we never quite fully grasped all they have to offer (our fault, not theirs).
With bbPress forums we think that the ability to mark topics as Sticky and Super Sticky will go a long way in documenting the most common issues our users face and help them to help themselves before needing to open a support topic.
Giving Users an Opportunity to Help Themselves
And speaking of helping yourself…forum search. Yay! Our old system didn’t allow for the traditional knowledge base search that some people, especially our advanced users, prefer to use. Not without additional monthly cost anyway.
Although we have some pretty hefty documentation with advanced topics, we still get support tickets that start with “I searched Google and your site and couldn’t find the answer.” We find that given the chance, the majority of users would like to just find the answer quickly themselves and move on with developing their sites.
Waiting for a reply to a support ticket is frustrating, especially when there isn’t an opportunity to find the answer on your own first.
The Cost of HelpScout
Again, I want to be clear that I am in no way disparaging HelpScout. It’s an awesome service. However, every person we added to our support team came with a monthly cost. When it was just the two of us, it was negligible but as our company continues to grow we also have to make the right financial decisions in order to stay profitable.
Better Search Results and SEO Opportunities
Growth. There are numerous ways in which a company grows and acquires new customers and having more content available in search engine results is one of those baseline methods that we weren’t taking full advantage of, not as much as we could have been anyway.
Sure, we blog (not as often as we should) and the articles we publish run the gamut from useful tips to product announcements to general WordPress web development. Allowing our forums to be indexed and making sure they’re optimized for SEO gives us some very targeted opportunities for new people to find out about FooPlugins and our individual products like FooBox and FooGallery.
How We’re Handling Premium Plugin License Validation in Forums
First, you should know that our plugins are 100% GPL and that we firmly believe and adhere to the spirit of Open Source but we are a business and what we are really selling is access to plugin software updates and support for one year, and are given a 50% discount on license renewals. You can review our licensing terms here if you’re interested.
When someone purchases one of our paid plugins, they are issued a license key. This key is used to validate their license within the plugin and triggers the auto update feature that we all know and love with WordPress plugins.
The bottleneck that we ran into is that every support ticket submitted asked for a user’s license key and it was a required form field. If someone didn’t enter anything, the form couldn’t be submitted, but even if they entered 123456 or some other string of characters, the form would be submitted and the responsibility fell on us to check that the key was still valid before spending time troubleshooting and issue and answering the support request.
And you can probably guess how that went. More times than not, we just ignored the key and assumed that since they included what looked like a valid key, many times it in fact had expired. We don’t fault our users, we fault ourselves for not having a method of verifying a valid license key faster. The old method had us logged into our site and searching the license key details.
It’s not the end of the world of course, we’re not complete assholes and we really do want to help every single user past or present, but having the ability to verify a license key helps us to know if they’re using the latest version of a plugin which may have had some bug fixes or feature updates that could affect the answer we give to a support ticket.
We are trying to create a sustainable business so giving users a reason to renew and have a valid license key helps ensure that we are spending our time wisely in regard to supporting users who are supporting us.
Wow, that was a little long winded eh? Let me get to the point on how we’re handling license validation in our new forums.
As I mentioned in the beginning, we’ve built a bbPress extension that integrates with our FooLicensing EDD extension. In short, it asks for a license key when users submit a new support topic for one of our paid plugins. Upon submitting the new topic, we check our licensing API and return the license details that only our forum Admins can view.
This gives us immediate access to all license details as needed when answering a support thread. If valid, we troubleshoot and answer as you would expect. If the license happens to be expired, we can simply reply with a bbPress Canned Reply asking them to renew.
What About Our Free Plugins?
This was a tough one to get our heads around, but with our free FooGallery plugin gaining such rapid popularity, we had to take action. FooGallery support is given on the .org support forums but we are finding that more and more users want to extend it and customize it in ways we couldn’t imagine when we first released it.
Needless to say, the support requests there quickly went beyond simple bug reports and usage questions and quickly morphed into more advanced questions like “How to Include a FooGallery Album Shortcode in my Theme?” and “How Do I Change the CSS for the XYZ Gallery Template to do XYZ?”
If you’re a developer with a free plugin on the .org repo then you know what we’re up against. If you’re a user of any free plugin on the .org repo and have ever needed to customize a plugin’s features then it’s likely that you also know what we’re up against in terms of support.
Simply put, we have to draw a line somewhere for the level of support we can offer for our free plugins in order to continue dedicating our time and resources where they’re needed most.
We are now offering paid support forum access for all of our free plugins.
We’ve taken part of the premium support forum access lesson directly from Pippin and the Easy Digital Downloads team. EDD is a free plugin with a ton of great features and if you go to the forums, you’ll see a Basic and a Priority support option.
We’ve opted to continue offering basic support for FooGallery and our other free plugins on their respective WordPress.org support areas, but will start directing users with advanced questions to our paid support options.
You can view our forums here.