Rethinking Tech Support

by: Kevin Smith on: 12/17/2012

Now that it’s been a few weeks since we launched EllisLab Support, we wanted to offer a peek behind the curtain and share why we made such a dramatic change in the way we provide tech support.

The Old Way of Doing Things

Up until a few weeks ago, we provided technical support for all our commercial software in the public support forums. We put this system in place very early on, and it worked quite well when our customer-base was small and the volume of requests was manageable. EllisLab staff monitored the forums, and we were able to get good responses out rather quickly. Other ExpressionEngine users tossed in to help, and everybody was happy.

But as the number of designers and developers using ExpressionEngine increased, we found that the forum-based support system didn’t scale well. Why? Because forums have no mechanism to ensure that each support request gets tracked and resolved in a timely manner, or that requests get assigned and transferred over to the support person on call over multiple shifts, or that requests get sorted according to urgency or any other criteria. A forum isn’t a help desk, so many of the features of even the most basic help desk were missing, requiring us to cobble together workarounds. There was also no privacy, forcing customers who didn’t want to share sensitive information publicly to play coy with the details. All that mental overhead ran our Customer Advocates ragged, and worse of all, it didn’t make for a great experience for our customers.

It had also become evident that the economic model of the old system didn’t work either. As several third-party developers noted during the developer’s round-table this year at EECI, unlimited tech support that comes included with one-time software purchases just doesn’t scale. Many folks were surprised to learn that some well-regarded add-on makers were breaking even or actually taking a loss to provide support for their software. Of course, that makes perfect sense. The cost to provide an ongoing service isn’t well-supported by one-time purchases, and the disconnect only grows more severe as the number of one-time purchases increases.

Simply put, the system became a huge obstacle, and the economics of the support model had us stuck. We’d already tweaked things and improved as much as we possibly could with that creaky old system in place, so we knew we had to do something bold. We took a step back, thanked it for all the good times, and sent it off into the sunset.

A Blank Slate

With the opportunity to start fresh, we asked ourselves what kind of support system we’d want to put in place today, built from the ground up. Our chief aim was to create the best support experience possible, so we started with a few goals to help us define what that would look like.

Support people, not software.

It may be common to attach tech support to each particular website or software installation, but that doesn’t make sense to us. Whether you run a single hobby site or dozens of clients’ sites, you’re the one coming to us asking for help. That’s why with each of our support plans, you get an unlimited number of support tickets covering whichever site you’re working on.

You can submit a support ticket with questions about any properly licensed site you’re working on, even if that site’s license isn’t on your account. Each license is directly attached to a website. Each support plan is attached to a person. There’s no longer a correlation between software licenses and tech support at EllisLab.

Make it simple to get help quickly.

We studied the data behind our old support system, and we noticed something interesting. By far, the majority of our customers only need occasional help from our support team, but when they do need help, they want it to be prompt. For that reason, even our basic support plan includes an urgent ticket that gets a guaranteed response within 2 business hours, and there’s no obligation to keep a support plan around if you don’t need it. We couldn’t have dreamed of delivering this level of service under the old system.

Keep the conversations personal and private.

Customers often don’t like to share all the details of their tech support issues in a public forum, and who can blame them? Furthermore, it’s very difficult to have meaningful, one-on-one conversations in a public space where everyone can observe, chime in, and critique. It really had a negative effect that was hard to quantify. A private environment means both the Customer Advocate and the person we’re helping can share sensitive information, keep their responses frank and to the point, and keep the conversation on track for a much faster resolution.

Keep site login credentials secure.

We knew we’d often need to receive a troubled site’s login information in the course of providing tech support, and anything less than a completely secure method of sharing it simply wasn’t going to fly with us. We designed a system so that login credentials shared with us are transmitted over a secure connection, encrypted before they’re stored, and permanently removed from our system in 30 days or when you choose to purge it, whichever is sooner.

After a ticket’s first response, keep it at the forefront to rapidly respond and resolve it.

This one’s probably the most important goal because it was only possible if we rebuilt the support system from the ground up. As mentioned earlier, a tech support forum isn’t a help desk, so a team trying to provide tech support in an official capacity is forced to use a workflow that’s far less than ideal.

The new support system automates as much of the behind-the-scenes stuff as possible to let our Customer Advocates focus on delivering incredible support. For example, the new system handles the math behind determining when it’s time for the support team to take a new Silver, Gold, Platinum, or urgent ticket — since each of those types of tickets comes with a different guaranteed first-response time — and it automatically alerts the team when that time comes. Until that alert, each support agent focuses completely on the tickets that are assigned to them. That means each support agent is only handling a few in-progress support cases at a time, giving each person on the other end of that ticket much faster, more personal service. Instead of support resolutions taking days (or even weeks!) like we had in the forums, we’re now seeing most tickets resolved within a day of that first response. That’s an astonishing difference, and support customers are absolutely loving the new experience. It’s really allowing our Customer Advocates to do what they do best.

The Response So Far

We’ve already received lots of awesome feedback about the EllisLab Support experience, so let me share just a handful of it:

Yes, you cracked it! Awesome, thanks so much. This is totally
worth $49 a month!

Thanks sooo much for all the help you and your co-workers had given me. You guys are sooooooooooooooooo awesome!

By the way, you all have been a pleasure to work with. The way you work with your customers is great. As I work with you, I’m taking mental notes of the way your team approaches providing support to emulate some of what you all do within our teams support process.

The real magic here isn’t the new system, of course. We’ve got some of the smartest, most caring support agents I’ve ever seen working with our customers every day, and that’s really what makes the difference. The new support system just gives them a chance to be awesome. The old one didn’t.

We love delighting you and really creating an amazing experience, and now we’re set up to do that in ways we couldn’t have dreamed before.

Have you given us a chance to help you yet? Don’t forget, all license holders get 3 months EllisLab Support to try, no strings attached. To start your complementary 3 month support plan, just add Silver Support to your cart in the store and complete the order as usual.

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