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Lessons Learned From WordPress Plugin Support

A year and a half ago I released my first premium WordPress plugin, Advanced Ads. It’s true that once the plugin was out, my most important task was support. Support is a crucial element that determines not only the success of the project, but also how happy everyone will be, me included.

With this in mind, I constantly optimized my approach to providing support. Let me share with you what I learned. Read on to find out:

  • what I learned about support,
  • the four sides that will help you understand each request,
  • which fears of mine proved to be unfounded,
  • what an efficient support system looks like,
  • how to optimize support.

What Is Support? Link

The main purpose of support is to help people use and understand a product. Therefore, support is not only an email reply or documentation. It extends to the following:

  • making features self-explanatory,
  • writing understandable labels,
  • fixing issues caused by other plugins,
  • making the user feel like you are ready to help.

Beside helping others use your product, you also benefit from support.

The Few Speak for the Many Link

I spend a lot of time with every problem reported for the first time, because I know that for every person who reaches out, many more might not and either live with the pain or go somewhere else.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Good Reviews Link

If your plugin is a free product hosted on an open platform like the WordPress plugin directory or is a paid product in a marketplace like Envato, many people will at least scan the reviews. I am extremely proud of the 4.8 rating of Advanced Ads, and almost all of the reviews emphasize the support. This probably doesn’t hurt sales.

Plugin Review headline5
Such feedback tells you that you are headed in the right direction. (View large version6)

Learn More About Your Users Link

Most of the features and add-ons of Advanced Ads7 are based on feedback from users. Be open and they will tell you what features they are looking for. Their feedback will also help you find mistakes in your documentation, missing examples and poorly labelled buttons.

The Four Sides Of A Message Link

I was lucky to have learned of the four-sides model8 during my studies in university. It basically states that only when all four aspects of a message are considered can a conversation be considered effective.

Let’s take a look at the contents of a not-so-uncommon support request:

I can’t activate the plugin.

The Facts Link

Facts are the objective matter. In this statement, the user is telling us that it is technically impossible for them to activate the plugin.

You might reply with a solution if the message is clear, or you might ask for details, like whether they are referring to installing the plugin or activating the license key.

Self-Revelation Link

What is the sender telling you about him or herself? Because some key information is missing, they might be inexperienced in asking for support. They also might be in a hurry, given the brevity.

Relationship Link

The user is also telling me what they think of me. Do they value my time less than their own? Are they embarrassed to ask for my help and so are keeping it short? In general, adding some friendly words or even a simple “Hi” is a good start for both sides.

The Appeal Link

Finally, the user wants me to do something. Clearly, their message has no obvious call to action, so you need to find out. Sending a link to the instructions or a list of possible issues, plus an invitation to contact you again with more information, is normally a welcomed reply to general questions of this nature.

Taking the four aspects of a message into account helps me to find out a lot more information in even the shortest of requests and helps me to anticipate the right response in terms of both content and tone. Normally, their following reply to you will tell you whether you’ve done well.

Putting yourself in their shoes also helps. I worked as a freelance developer for a couple of years and am a publisher myself, so there is hardly a situation I haven’t found myself in. Just letting the user know that you can relate to their situation is a huge step forward in any conversation that has a rocky start.

Keep in mind the four-sides model not only for messages you receive, but for ones you send out as well.

Being Right Is Not Helpful Link

The four-sides model also tells us that being right does not necessarily help. It might address the technical issue yet ignore the mental state of the user.

Consider the following reply from a plugin developer on WordPress when a user expressed worry about their ad statistics:

The stats in [plugin’s name] work just fine, but they are often hindered by caching plugins and crap like that.

While they might be right that there is a compatibility issue, the user is left without a way forward and might feel bad for choosing a caching plugin and instigating the error.

As a German with a right-to-the-facts mentality, I had to learn to address the non-factual side of messages before starting my business. Now, I find that addressing the underlying aspects of a conversation helps to solve problems much better than addressing the facts only.

Things I Learned About WordPress Users Link

Advanced Ads was not my first plugin in the WordPress directory, so I knew that support requests could be tough. Would users constantly complain, demand more features, or leave bad reviews without giving me the chance to fix them?

The truth is that all of these happen but, thankfully, are the exception. In fact, I do have to compliment the community for all of the positive feedback and help I’ve received.

Users Read Documentation Link

People are definitely reading the documentation and tutorials and watching the videos to learn how your software works and how to fix their issues. I know this because most requests of a kind stop after a solution has been added to the documentation.

It also helps to make users aware of the documentation by linking to it in your reply, rather than copying the text into your message.

Users Are Thankful Link

I’ve learned that most users appreciate hard work, a friendly tone and genuine concern for their problem. Helpful support still seems to be the exception, so standing out in this area should be easy for you.

24/7 Support Is Not Needed Link

A small team can’t possibly offer support around the clock. So, the more you show that you are just a human being, the more people will respect that you breathe, eat, sleep and have weekends, too. 24/7 support is not needed, so you don’t need to promise it.

Users Do Try Hard Link

Most WordPress users are not tech-savvy. However, I’ve learned that they are eager to try. They don’t seem to have a problem sending a debug.log file or copying a message from the error console, if you provide a link to a tutorial.

Negative Feedback Is Not the End Link

The first review Advanced Ads received on WordPress had a rating of one star. I was devastated and thought that was the end already. After going back and forth with the user, we cleared up the issue, and step by step, the review changed to five stars.

Direct messages from users often start out negative, too. If you understand the frustration people can have when something doesn’t work as expected and you’re cool and helpful in your reply, you might experience a conversation like this:

Client: I would like my money back for the Pro purchase. None of the features are useable. Please let me know the next steps for getting a refund. If you do not agree that a refund is needed, I’ll initiate a dispute with PayPal or, ultimately, with my credit card linked to PayPal.

Me: There is no need to open a dispute.

To be honest, I would like to learn more about the issue to be able to prevent it, in case it is not a conflict caused by another plugin. But your first priority is your site, and as a publisher I respect that without condition.

I just initiated a refund through PayPal and hope you find a working solution for your site.

Client: Thanks, Thomas. Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts of my site. […] I really do appreciate your help. The plugin is the best I have tried among the many for ad injection. Keep up the good work.

When you consider the four sides of a message, you will see that this conversation was saved with the “relationship” side, not by arguing. It started with a dispute and ended with a motivating compliment.

Show That You Exist Link

If you are now convinced that users have a positive attitude towards your software, you’ll probably want them to reach out to you. How do you do that?

I started by putting my name (and picture) on almost everything. You can find it in the sidebar of the home page, on WordPress and even in some messages in the plugin.

Human made sidebar widget9
The “Human made” sidebar widget I use to connect with visitors. (View large version10)

As a result, the vast majority of emails I get start with “Hi Thomas.” Many of them even include a small remark about how much they like my plugins or the articles I write about ads.

Think for a moment about the plugins you use and which of them have personal branding. How do you feel about them?

Personalization also helps both sides to remember that humans are involved. It is harder to curse someone whose name you know than to curse Company X that doesn’t even have an imprint on the website.

A Decent Help Desk Link

My first version of a help desk was simply my email inbox. There was really no reason to set up anything sophisticated before knowing whether this project was going to succeed. The only thing I regret is using my personal email address, rather than a dedicated one.

When Advanced Ads became my main project, the second version of my help desk was the bug-tracking tool Redmine, which I’ve used for other projects. This was better for following threads and for asking others to help out.

More than a year after getting started, I switched to Help Scout. I saw it being used by Yoast and Easy Digital Downloads and had been finding helpful advice on its blog11. This was definitely a huge step forward in support, especially because of certain features:

  • It integrates with my plugin store, resends receipts with one click, displays license keys and links to purchases.
  • It adds and removes subscribers to my MailChimp newsletter.
  • It prepares common replies.
  • You can set internal notes for yourself and colleagues.
  • Keyboard shortcuts are supported.
Happiness Report from Help Scout12
The “Happiness Report” in Help Scout gives you an idea of how valuable users find your replies. (View large version13)

Another useful feature is that users can rate replies. I personally find the written feedback most important to improving my service.

Final Tricks Link

For those of you who provide support of some kind, here are a few more tips that might help you.

Feature Requests Link

Having a dedicated page where users can leave feature requests and vote for other people’s ideas almost eliminated such requests from my help desk. I set up a feature requests page using the Idea Factory14 plugin.

The page is also a practical way to say no to feature requests, because the votes makes it obvious which ones you should focus on.

Set Up an FAQ Page Link

When I reply to requests outside of my help desk and ask people to contact me directly via email, I don’t give an email address, but rather link to the support page. Users will find the address there, as well as a short FAQ section and links to common issues.

Find the Lesson in Every Request Link

I believe there is a lesson in every support thread. It could be an issue to solve, a tutorial to write or a label to change. You don’t need to act on every single one, but over time you will see patterns.

Learn to Say No Link

Despite my genuine willingness to help, saying no is the key to staying sane. I can’t help every user set up the plugin, fix every third-party theme or implement every feature request. Start practicing actively saying no once per day and you will notice that you have more energy to focus on key tasks.

Be Honest With Yourself Link

I am not a miracle worker, and even the best support system is time-consuming. Be aware that you might be spending most of your week on support. Your time (and income) should justify this.

Set the Tone Link

If you like people and value the time they spend getting in touch with you, then hardly anything can go wrong in support. Set a positive and welcoming tone with a simple line in your initial reply. Some examples:

I am sorry to hear about your issue.

Thanks for reaching out.

I hope you are well.

I am glad to hear from you again.

You’d be surprised by how this changes the rest of the conversation.

Nurture Your Passionate Users Link

After a while, you will notice a few passionate users. They are the ones who update first, read your update messages and contact you when something doesn’t work.

The funny thing is that they are often the ones who first get in touch about issues, or make complaints or otherwise give negative feedback.

Be Nicer Than the Last Message Link

As a rule of thumb, try to be one level nicer than the message you get. Either add a nice comment or simply don’t act on your first negative impulse. Of course, saying that you’re overwhelmed with joy when a user sends you a bug report might be a bit much.

Final Remarks Link

The lesson I’ve learned in support is that it is often more about people than hard facts. This is especially true when dealing with people who are building their first WordPress website, purchasing their first premium product or writing their first email to a help desk. When we welcome these people to the community with a helpful and positive reply, we not only help them fix their issue, but strengthen the community as a whole.

After all, the foundation of WordPress is communication. On that note, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

(dp, al, il)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/10/supporting-product-providing-technical-support/
  2. 2 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/09/how-to-create-a-wordpress-plugin/
  3. 3 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/01/how-to-deliver-exceptional-client-service/
  4. 4 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/03/making-a-wordpress-plugin-that-uses-service-apis/
  5. 5 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/plugin-review-opt.png
  6. 6 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/plugin-review-opt.png
  7. 7 https://wpadvancedads.com/
  8. 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-sides_model
  9. 9 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/sidebar-widget-opt.png
  10. 10 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/sidebar-widget-opt.png
  11. 11 https://www.helpscout.net/blog/
  12. 12 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/happiness-report-opt.png
  13. 13 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/happiness-report-opt.png
  14. 14 https://wordpress.org/plugins/idea-factory/

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Thomas fell in love with WordPress as a freelance developer in 2010 and now focuses on his ad management plugin Advanced Ads and website monetization for his client’s and his own project about word-games. Dare to challenge him in German Scrabble.

  1. 1

    Wow, very good article! Thanks for spread so much valuable lessons here. :)

    5
  2. 3

    Very very interesting article! Thank you.

    2
  3. 5

    Corey Maass

    June 30, 2016 3:51 pm

    *Great* article. Doing support changed me from a grumpy, know-it-all programmer into (I hope) a more pleasant person.

    I especially love the sympathetic phrases section. I now have most of them setup in text expander, I use them so much:
    HT = Hey, there.
    HTH = Hope that helps.
    SFT = Sorry for the trouble.

    4
    • 6

      Using TextExpander is definitely the next step for me, now that I figured out the most common phrases I am using. I can also confirm that support can change you for the better.

      1
  4. 7

    You wear your heart on your sleeve. I can see why your clients like you. I’ve picked up a couple of your great ideas to use myself. Thanks, Thomas.

    3
  5. 9

    Steve Marks

    July 1, 2016 8:41 am

    Our 6 month old plugin is starting to get more and more support and this article has been invaluable. Love the ‘four-sides-model’ too. Thanks!

    0
    • 10

      I hope that your plugin needing more support is a good sign :). There is definitely a learning curve involved and I am glad that you could benefit from my learnings.

      2
  6. 11

    Vova Feldman

    July 1, 2016 8:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience Thomas. I’d love to check your Idea Factory page to see how it works so if you can share a link that’ll be great.

    SUPPORT TIP: A great way to reduce the back & forth with the user, especially if you are using Help Scout, is to add a usage-tracking tool like Freemius Insights. That will automatically pull the user’s environment details (WP version, PHP version, your plugin version, etc.) right into Help Scout, and will save you the additional ping asking those questions.

    0
  7. 13

    Very informative article. Love to read more!!
    Thanks Thomas

    1
  8. 15

    Lisa B. Snyder

    July 5, 2016 2:32 pm

    “NURTURE YOUR PASSIONATE USERS”
    Thanks for validating….I am this type of user and often feel sad when I frequently email about problems/hiccups in user experience that I notice. I hope my favorite plugin developers read your article and don’t cringe every time they see my email address show up on the helpdesk.

    0
  9. 17

    Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for the informative article from your experience.

    I have a 1 member team(and it’s me) for developing, supporting and marketing(not tried yet) my 10+ WordPress plugins. I love answering support requests, implementing feature requests and fixing bugs. Still, it is not my full-time job. Now I get less time to focus on development due to the huge no. of support requests.

    Currently, I use email support and it is not easy. What are your suggestion for me to handle this without losing my development time? Which support service you suggest for an individual developer?

    6

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