From Support Forums to Ticket Systems

HelpScout-Support-Forums-AlternativeThis past week we heard the announcement from Rocket Genius – the creators of Gravity Forms – that they were moving on from using a forum as a method for customer support. This isn't the first or last move we'll see in the WordPress community towards ticket systems and away from forums.

WooThemes did it. StudioPress did it. And even Yoast has talked about doing it.

So I thought I would try to articulate why I think it's a fantastic move – even when so many people express frustration about it.

Before I do, let me state for the record that I've not had conversations with anyone from WooThemes, StudioPress, Yoast or Rocket Genius.

The opinions expressed are my own. So my logic may not be what drove their decisions. More importantly, if you don't like my opinion, just know it's my own and not theirs.

Don't go blaming them.

Why we love support forums

Let's face it: we all love forums. There's something so wonderful about doing a search on a topic, seeing so many interesting threads, reading them, learning new things, and even seeing our question answered. When it works, it's so perfect.

On top of that, Google indexes so much of it, that we can do a google search, find a link, jump straight to a forum topic, and get our answers, right?

How we use forums incorrectly

I think if we're honest, we can admit to three things we do, that maybe aren't so great when it comes to forums – and they all come out of laziness. There, I said it.

First, we create threads in a forum because it's easier than searching thru all the other threads. You do it. I do it. I probably do it more than you. Because I'm lazier than you. But that's besides the point. The reality is that even if I think someone has already solved an issue, I want to get my own answer for my very own unique situation. So I create my own thread. And it's only later that I find out it's been answered about 12 times. ugh.

Second, we apply other solutions to problems that aren't our own – only to make things worse. Come on, admit it. You read a thread, think it's kind of like what you're looking for, apply it without rigorous research and testing, and when it breaks things, you add to the thread because it didn't work. Even if it wasn't the same exact issue.

How do I know you do that? Because I do it. And I've seen you – well not you exactly, but others like you – do it too. We host forums for our customers at Emphasys Software (but it's not our ticket system), and I constantly see people misapplying solutions for problems they don't have. And the problems it creates are worse than the initial ones they had.

When I was growing up, there was a commercial for kids that told them not to take medicine when they weren't sick. Well the truth is that forums let us all do that. We take the wrong medicine for ailments we don't yet have.

Third, we change threads by adding our situation to it. Even if a thread is pretty focused in its initial post, we sometimes feel like it's similar enough to our challenge that we add our own situation to the thread. In doing so, we've just shoved complexity into the thread. Because we're adding a new issue to it (or maybe 6) and that complicates things AND invites others to do the same.

I can't tell you how many times I've looked at a forum post (again in our own systems at Emphasys) where the only commonality was the words “work order”. But that was enough for people to think that their a) performance issues, b) printing issues, c) email issues, and d) actual work order price calculation issue were likely the same thing. Guess what? They're not!

The most important things about support

Let's be really honest about two dynamics that are critical to how we should be thinking about this stuff.

1. When I submit a support request I would like a prompt reply.

Notice what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that when I post a support request I'm doing it for the community at large. That's a nice ancillary benefit but it's not the most important thing. Notice that I'm not saying anything about searchable indexed google-searchable responses. I'm just saying, look, when I send in something, I want a reply.

This is critical because if you don't know and can't settle on what's most important, then you don't know how to move forward.

I would hate submitting an issue only to have 12 other people twist it into other issues and then fight with those 12 people to get to the top of the food chain to get my question answered. Nope, I want prompt responses. And ticket systems do that. Forums don't.

2. When I pay someone for a product or service, I expect them to be around to support me.

Here's where we get into the implicit assumptions we don't talk about. But sustainability, from a business model perspective, is critical. If I pay you $30 for a product or service, and it then costs you $45 to support me, I can pretty much guess you'll be out of business soon.

What does that say to me? Well, it says that one of the most important aspects of building a support system is that it has to be easy and fast for our staff to use – such that the costs are low enough that we can continue to deliver quality support at a price point that makes sense.

When you use forums to provide support – not community-driven support, but official company support – your costs go up. It's a nightmare to use (and I'm shocked that Rocket Genius lasted this long doing it) when you have a lot of folks creating and adding to a lot of threads.

Why a ticket system is better

If the goal of a system is to be inexpensive (in terms of internal use) and enable incredible and quick responses, then a ticket system is much better. And one that integrates with email is even better – which is why so many folks are looking at, and adopting Help Scout. Here are the four reasons I've been looking at it (or a system like it) for myself and the folks I coach:

1. It integrates with email so people feel like I'm personally replying to them. That keeps things human.

2. It allows me to use canned responses like I already do in Gmail.

3. It gives me a rich history of my client interactions. People hate repeating themselves.

4. Metrics. You love them. I love them. And good systems capture them for us – automatically.

Do I hate support forums?

You might read this and read into it. Like thinking that I hate forums. I don't. I think they're great for community-driven support. I'm part of a couple great Facebook groups in the WordPress community where we use the group like a forum. I think they can be great. But when it comes to support, I love what folks like Rocket Genius are doing – by putting their customers (of which I am one) first.

Plus, with all that said, here's what I have heard from some of the above-mentioned companies. They understand the value that the forums have created and will be looking at using them (or something like them) as a knowledge base where they can publish lessons learnt or other great content so that others can benefit from the history of resolutions that have already been created.

And honestly, isn't that the best of both worlds?