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?

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t know that I have much to add here, other than the fact that using helpscout has completely changed our business. We used a slew of the “DESKS” for support previously, but they all introduced a new interface to the client and we were constantly training clients on how to talk to us. Once we started using HS they were using something they already fully understood (email), and client satisfaction went way up. Not only because we weren’t dealing with the training piece anymore, but for the reasons you listed as well. It creates a more personable approach.

    Add to that things like Zapier integration and the helpscout API, and we can create all the features on our end that other desks offer, without clients having to learn anything new. It’s been a dream.

    I guess I did have a little something to add :)

  2. Dave says

    The biggest gripe I have with ticket systems, or at least the Genesis one, is that there’s no way of searching for previously asked questions and their answers.

    A forum system, over time, becomes an invaluable knowledge base were an answer can usually be found with a quick search, where as a ticket system requires you to submit a question for something which may already have been asked numerous times and then have to wait whilst someone gets around to answering your query.

    Whilst I understand Studiopress’ rationale for their new system it’s become significantly less impressive than the support systems over at Catalyst and Thesis which are the gold standard, (with thesis I’m talking about the forum not necessarily the theme ;) )

    I can see the value of ticket systems in some areas but in others, if it aint broken don’t break it.

    • says

      Hi Dave,

      The issue is that next to no one was searching anymore. We were getting the same questions asked via new threads, or people posting on threads that were long since dead, or on discussions where there were already twenty or more responses, and it just created confusion. Imagine searching and seeing a dozen threads spread out over three or more years. Are you going to read any of those?

      As one of the people providing support, I felt horrible missing people wanting help because of the volume of support we were receiving and I’m happy about this change. We will bring back community forums, and community members are completely allowed to support each other, but support from Gravity Forms will happen through the official channel of our ticket system, so that we can track, assign, and really make sure that support needs are handled the right way.

      • says

        I’d like to say that we experienced similar issues which is one reason we moved to tickets. We feel that community input is super important so we also set up a new community based forum where users can provide each other feedback, help with custom issues, and even support for folks who prefer to avoid the ticket system.

        Also, I just want to give Chris a huge thanks for this article. It is very well written and explains so many of the things we have tried conveying through our responses to why we made the switch and why we kept the community forums instead of just killing forums completely. Both models are great for different reasons so thanks for that last section.

        • Dave says

          Nick,

          The problem with the new system is that the answers given to ticketed questions are not available to view by the rest of the community. If they were it would make an extremely useful resource.

          Also, Genesis is aimed more towards the turnkey type user and as such the community forum is lacking enough knowledgable ‘coders’ who could help with answering questions. Hence the reason for almost 200 unanswered questions over the past 2 months. That’s not because of a lack of willingness from the community but because they don’t have the skill level to help.

          If the ticket system is here to stay then would it not be worth providing a way for the community to benefit from access to all ticketed questions and their answers?

          I would have posted this on the community forum but, as you know, discussion of the subject is frowned upon ;)

        • says

          This reply is actually for Dave, but I can’t reply to his comment because the comments don’t appear to thread that deep…

          You are correct. With a ticket system it doesn’t make the tickets available to the general public as a resource. But tickets typically contain back and forth as well as confidential information, so that’s an issue.

          The answer is a Knowledge Base. A Knowledge Base that is created and constantly updated based on incoming tickets. Have a ticket that would be helpful to all users? Turn it into a knowledge base article. Not the ticket itself. But the issue and solution from the ticket. Then it’s available to all users and searchable.

          That is exactly what we will be doing with Gravity Forms. We will be building a Knowledge Base and constantly updating it as tickets necessitate it to be updated with new information.

          We will also be launching new forums for our user community, but they will not be for official support purposes.

          So it’s all about the resources you provide to the users combined with using a ticketing system.

  3. says

    Chris, we recently made the same choice for AdSanity. It wasn’t an easy choice though. We’d been supporting our plugins solely through our support forums for over a year and a half. When we first decided how we were going to support our plugin, we looked at other successful plugins on the market.

    I happened to be at a WordCamp in Seattle last year talking to Shane Pearlman about how they were supporting their commercial plugins. He brought up a great point about having public forums. If potential customers saw how responsive we were, they would be more willing to purchase a support package from us. That’s how we originally set out with support, but over the long run the support forum just didn’t work as well as we’d hoped it would. Very rarely was it used as a resource by other users. I regularly went through the topics tagging them with keywords that I thought customers would be searching. We’ve kept our forums open as a historical resource for our customers, but we no longer allow posting to them.

    Back in May, we switched to a ticketing system – Zendesk. That switch has increased our response times dramatically. In fact, more than 80% of our support tickets are now resolved within 8 hours. The number one reason for that is because we can use canned responses like you mentioned. We still have the ability to create a public knowledge base so that we can reduce the number of requests that we get. So far, I’m loving it.

  4. says

    I’m torn on this issue.

    I use Gravity Forms, and 99% of the time a question I have has been answered by a quick search on the forums.

    Then again, for my plugin, I have a support ticket system and it works well.

    I’d love to see some sort of combination – a ticketing system that also has a knowledgebase – useful articles that answer common questions (I suppose this is where an FAQ comes into play).

  5. Steve Hanson says

    While I’m not a WordPress guy, I’ve been Lema-fluenced (yes, I just created a new Lema-djective), and I’ve been in the helpdesk space for a long time. These solutions are great for resolution times, consistency of answers, etc. One of the things I appreciated about HS when evaluating them was their “don’t have to learn a new UI” approach. And yet, I’d like to challenge that as well.

    The computing world has changed dramatically in the last few years. Everyone and their grandmother has a smart device and they want to consume information in different ways all the time. I’m starting to lean towards the tools that have an slant towards collaboration, which seems to bring about a balance between forum and ticket. Being able to use an interface one is already familiar with (Twitter, for example) to input a request with a hashtag that automatically starts off a business process — that’s where even more profound productivity kicks in. There are many products competing in this space (I won’t endorse any particular one here for sake of objectivity). My hope is that more grow toward finding that balance point between interaction and automation.

  6. says

    i been looking for a ticketing system for my new site and yes a knowledge base integration will need to be a key feature.

    This way your customer/users will be able to do some level of self service before opening a “new” issue with us.

  7. jennifer562 says

    I appreciate the community forums simply because I can quickly search for a response and more times than not, get it right away. I guess I’m all about that instant gratification!

    But, agree with the ticket system being a more direct, streamlined, and problem-specific option. My biggest problem with these have been receiving two different solutions for the same problem, both of which never resolved the issue. This has happened on more than one occasion — where the support gave me two different responses. And, although I understand there is more than one way to resolve a problem, it was really frustrating to not get a complete answer.

    At my job, we use a ticket system, and we’ve complained countless times of people asking simple questions they could have easily looked up — such as how do I print a test. In those instances, we try to direct them as much as possible to our online user manual and forums. I’ll be honest and say I’ve done this, too! Ha. I guess it goes back to laziness. You can be lazy with forums and ticket systems. Is there support for that?

  8. says

    I think a key thing here after reading comments is everyone loves forums because they love to search for an answer (you’re the 1% who do search). I also think that another fact that may be looked over is beyond support forums you can also search documentation. I know within WooThemes as we see trends we try to improve our documentation, which is also kept up to date unlike forum posts from a year or two ago about and old version of a product.

    tl;dr – Documentation is searchable too, also can be more reliable and up to date than old forum posts.

  9. modemlooper says

    Switched to tickets and its the best ever because it cuts down on needless comments. Users post an issue you respond without others adding in reolies that convolute the issue.

  10. says

    I haven’t tried HelpScout, but I’m not sure what the hype is about it.

    First, it doesn’t have an integrated Knowledge Base and you’d have to watch a whole webinar on how to integrate with Clarify and ScreenSteps Live (which I suppose aren’t free either) so that you can have a KB.

    Second, it doesn’t seem to be able to track time spent on each support ticket, which is also a must-have, especially when you outsource your support to another company (which happens more often than not).

    HS is not even fair when comparing themselves with Freshdesk from a pricing perspective at https://www.helpscout.net/help-desk-comparison because they have plans starting at $16/month/user and their most popular plan is actually$25/user/month (not $29). Plus FD have a knowledge base feature, time tracking and other numerous features (disclaimer: my company uses Freshdesk and so far we love it).

    Yes, HelpScout might be simple to use, but as some point, simple can be a bit… too simple.

  11. says

    Regardless of what system is utilized, make sure that it is utilized.

    I recently invested in the Soliloquy slider (the developer license as well as the dynamic addon). On my design site, the slider images are misaligned to the point that I can’t use Soliloquy as it stands. I placed a ticket request on July 8th, and two follow-up questions days apart. Thus far, no response from the developer. I am in ticket hell. I am considering asking for a refund.

    If this had been on a forum, another user might have stepped in and helped.

    Ticket systems also make it difficult to gage (pre-sale) how a developer responds to requests. A forum is transparent support. Ticket systems obfuscate the quality and responsiveness of the vendor.

    • says

      I don’t know if posting here made a difference, but I just got a response on the Soliloquy ticket with the answer I needed.

      No answer or updates since July 8th with their ticket system. One post here, and magic happens. When is the Chris Lema Support Motivation ticket system coming out of beta?

      ;)

  12. says

    My biggest problem with forums is that often the answer you are looking for is in the middle of the tread and sometimes you have 21 page threads. A lot of times this is because of the issues mentioned in the article (other people adding their issues to the question) but it makes it frustrating to try and work with.

    I think the ideal solution is a ticket system when you want a specific answer to your own problem, and a “stack exchange” type Q&A site for more generic “how would you do this” type stuff. KBs are also valuable but I think they could still work with the Q&A site and leave the ability for someone to “comment” on the answer if it changes over time (thus helping with the issue of outdated KB articles). For the KB portion you’d want to have some sort of “support verified” flag that you can put on accepted answers and maybe a way to search for just those verified “articles”.

    The last thing I think that would make the whole system perfect is a way to migrate a Q&A question to a ticket (if it needed a specific response) or a completed ticket to the Q&A for future help and input.

  13. says

    I’m planning on implementing HS for my upcoming paid plugins, since forums are difficult to navigate. yes, its easy for a user to search (if they bother to) but getting help can be a nightmare.

  14. Carl Hancock says

    Chris does an EXCELLENT job of pretty much nailing it. The parts about users piggybacking on other people’s support threads on issues they think is what they are also encountering but really aren’t… that was a major problem. This post does a great job of explaining why a ticketing system is better than a forum for paid support.

    Now I’m going to be lazy and re-post a comment I made on Brian Krogsgard’s PostStat.us blog about this subject. So the information below was also posted as part of a comment on PostSat.us but explains more about why we made the change and our plans for the future…

    Support forums are great for community driven support. But when you are trying to manage support for a paid product and you have a team of paid support staff trying to manage things via a forum… it’s a logistical nightmare. Forums aren’t made for support. They are made for discussion.

    I’m surprised we held out as long as we did. We’ve been using HelpScout to manage all other requests and Priority Support for the last few years and absolutely love HelpScout.

    Our support team was coming to it’s breaking point over their hatred for dealing with support via the forums so it was time to do something about it. Everyone here loves HelpScout so it was the logical choice.

    After the initial support request, the user interacts with our support team via email. We interact with them via either email or via HelpScout’s web UI which is beautifully streamlined. It’s not bloated with tons of features that we don’t need, want or will never use like other help desks.s

    We have plans for leveraging HelpScout’s API in the future to build either a Gravity Forms Add-On or a standalone HelpScout WordPress plugin that we can then use to display a users tickets on our site so that they can view and reply to tickets via our site and not just via email. If it is done as a standalone HelpScout plugin and not an Add-On then it’s something we’ll release to the community via the WordPress.org plugin repository.

    We are also working on our own plugin for managing product documentation. I’m surprised as hell that a solid solution for this does not exist given it’s something that every commercial theme and plugin developer needs. So we’re building one. We also plan on releasing it to the public via the WordPress.org plugin repository once we deem it ready for public use.

    Lot’s of changes, but all so we can continue to provide the highest level of support possible to our customers while continuing to push our company forward and build a better product(s).

  15. says

    Great article Chris, I think that one of the reasons why people like forums better is that they feel they can find their answers right away without having to wait for someone to answer a ticket. But when you look at the time spent searching, trying things that don’t work because it’s not the solution to your particular problem, having someone answer you specifically through a ticketing system is probably faster.

  16. says

    I’m a noob compared to the peeps on here. And I fully understand that a business is trying to make money and if expenses supporting the product get unsustainable, you have to make a change.

    But when WooCommerce went to the ticket system – if I recall my frustrastion correctly – they shut down the forum. So, all previous built-up answers were gone. And there was no forum in place to ask other users. At least that I was aware of.

    So, it sounds like many users of a forum are making the forum unsustainable for “official” support.

    My suggestion is that a company start with an official ticket system. But also have an official forum for their users, with plenty of caveats that NO official support people read the forum.

    THEN when the question is answered in the ticket system, have a function that allows and *encourages* the user to post the full thread to the official forum, or knowledgebase. So, it’s more like knowledge-garden. With users constantly planting answers.

    And if the ticket system is paid support, the company could *maybe* even incentivize posting the question/answer in some way with a small rebate, or coupon for future support. That way, the user gets their answer, and others can benefit. AND support might not need to answer the same question over and over.

    Just a thought.

  17. Dave says

    @Carl Hancock,

    Sounds like you’re taking the right approach with your ticket system.

    Out of interest, how easy will converting tickets into a knowledge base be?

    • says

      Because HelpScout isn’t like ZenDesk, etc. this is a process we’ll have to handle ourselves. We plan on pulling a link into HelpScout via their apps API to display a link within HelpScout.

      Whoever is handling support for that ticket if they think the information in that ticket should be turned into a knowledge base article then they’ll click that link, provide the issue and solution and then submit the form.

      Then someone else on our team will create the knowledge base article based on the information.

      It won’t be an automated process. Tickets can’t simply be published as a knowledge base article because they are more of a conversation than an article. So before it goes from ticket to knowledge base article it would be refined by someone who will write up the information as an article.

      Some help desks automate this process more, but i’d prefer the method above because it will produce a more refined knowledge base article even if it does involve more manual work. Quality is going to be more important.

      This isn’t something we have implemented yet. Baby steps. But it’s coming.

  18. orgspring says

    I never got past the trial version of help scout, but I might take a closer look based upon the recommendations of the people posting here, whose opinions I respect.

    I’ve been using desk.com and really like it. It allows us to do single validation along with our membership/client portal, so we don’t have to worry about some unathorized user getting a hold of a support email and clogging the system. It also pops a ticket right into salesforce, whcih I can use to further slice and dice my data.

    It works, but we do get a few comments every now and then about clients trying to figure out their way through the knowledgebase and support portal. That’s not ideal.

    I’m wondering, for the people using help scout without a knowledgebase where you can post info or videos, have you found your support requests increasing because those other information pieces are not being offered?

  19. Rich Owings says

    I’m not a fan of ticket systems. I’ve now been waiting 36 hours on a response from StudioPress, for something I could have solved myself if I could have checked the old forums.

    • says

      Rich,

      You may want to check your spam folder and make sure that @copyblogger.com is whitelisted with your email service. I’m not seeing any old tickets in any of the buckets I have access to. Definitely nothing that old.

      • says

        i agree with the first part of rich’s comment. NOt being able to look around and find stuff on your own is a drawback of ticket only systems. but systems like desk.com, which we use and like, give you knowledgebases where readers can find their own stuff. As a side note, copyblogger support has always been good to me. Never more than a day for response

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