Outsource WordPress Support (I Don’t, But What About You?)

I recently received a comment on my article on WordPress plugin support (that is, How Much is Too Much?).

Specifically, the comment asked:

So why not just outsource the support e.g. use a service that provides support to plugin end users on behalf of the plugin developers? Seems like that would save the developer a ton of time.

I thought that this was a great question, but as I began to respond, I thought that it may work better as a full post rather than a comment if for no other reason than to more easily share my own thoughts on the matter (but also to gauge other people’s opinions, as well :).

Outsource WordPress Support

First, I want to be clear how I define what it means to outsource WordPress support:

Outsourcing support is the idea that I will pay someone who did not contribute to the project in some way, and it more or less hired to handle questions and send me the most important ones.

This is very different than having someone else “on staff” or as part of the core development team handle support.

I mention this because I’ve no problem with the latter – I mean, I’m a fan of it – but I’m personally not a fan of the former case.

Before I explain why, I will say that I agree that it would save the developers a ton of time, but I’m extremely skeptical as to how it will affect the customer’s perception of the product (let alone the company), as well as how it will impact their overall experience. This is already a tough spot with developers and customers.

When it comes to being a customer of other products, I can’t help but think of how frustrated I get with convoluted call systems, automated messages, transcripts for support calls, and so on – I cannot stand being on the other end of those types of systems and I don’t want to subject my customers or users to that type of experience either.

To be fair, outsourcing support doesn’t have to be like this, but I think it’s more likely than not, and here’s why.

1. You Don’t Know Your Customers

When you outsource support to someone other than yourself or who isn’t part of your core team, then you aren’t getting to know your customer base.

To me, this is a non-negotiable. How can you support, build, and care about the service or product that you’re providing your customers if you’re not even sure how they’re using it?

Sure, you can ask for reports or information on the tickets that are showing up in the support system, but that’s providing you with a bit of insulation that may not be healthy as it relates to continually improving your work.

2. They’ve Less Passion For Your Work

If you opt to outsource support for your work, then I believe that it’s a safe assumption that no matter how good the person is at support, they will lack the passion for the work you’ve done.

Unless your primary goal is to make money, then there is no way that anyone else will be as passionate about your product as you. You’ve poured sweat equity and/or (re)invested money in order to build a product, so it would make sense that you and/or your team would be the ones who would be on the receiving end of any and all feedback.

You’d take it to heart in order to create a better product.

If you’ve got someone else handling support, you’re setting yourself another degree away from your work and your users, and if the person supporting the product has nothing more than a vested interest in a paycheck, then the lack of passion is going to show in the people who are supporting it.

3.  More Feedback Loops

To me, feedback loops are inherently neutral. That is to say that they aren’t good or bad, but it’s how they are used or what’s included in them.

I think you can argue that no feedback is bad feedback, but anything else carries some sort of merit.

If you, or someone else from your team, is interfacing directly with your customers, then you’ve got fewer feedback loops to jump through. Either you’re going to be talking directly to the customer, or your team is going to be talking directly to them, and this will result in a really tight feedback loop that keeps you less insulated from the customers. 

That’s a good thing.

But if you have a level of support that sits between you, your team, and your customers, then you’re relying on third-party support to give you feedback which may influence the quality of loop (not to mention making the feedback loop a little less tight, and/or increasing the number of them).

That’s a bad thing.

But That’s Just Me

As I said at the beginning, these are just my personal opinions on outsourcing WordPress support.

Also, I should mention that this is different than what some of the WordPress support services offer. Those types of services are more for support for WordPress installations, and the like. In this case, I’m talking more about a specific company or team dealing with support of one of their core products.

Anyway, sure – this is based on my own personal experience, but I understand and recognize that my experience is not indicative of how it works for everyone, and I’m all for hearing other opinions on this, too.

18 Comments

I’ll go ahead and say it: I would never outsource support to a team or agency that was not directly involved with the production of the product. The very idea gives me the chills.

Direct interaction with the customers is how we (product creators) learn what works and what fails within our products.

Direction interaction with the customers is how we build up a reputation for our products.

Direct interaction with the customer is one of the greatest ways to gauge a product.

Not only do I firmly believe that the core team behind a project should be heavily involved with support, I also firmly support the idea that the lead developer(s) should also always have a hand in the customer support. I’ve learned more about where my products’ weak points (and their strong points) are by directing interacting with the customers using the systems I built. Sure I advocate having a support team to help (it’s required once you get to a certain scale), but I will always, no matter how large my products grow, be involved in customer support to at least some degree.

    You actually came to mind when I was writing this post because I’m so familiar with what you’ve been doing with EDD, and how I see what’s happened over the last couple of years.

    I think support is a feature and that’s not something that enough of us are talking about – we talk about the experience being a feature, we talk about speed being a feature, we talk about how simplicity is a feature, but we (as developers, that is) aren’t doing enough of talking about how support is a feature.

    It’s arguably the biggest post-release feature that can make or a break a product (similar to what Michael mentioned regarding how it can negatively impact other products in the space).

    All that to say, I agree with you completely.

I think you’re spot-on with your sentiments. What you describe in your first case is known as a product-driven approach to marketing, and it fails more than succeeds. I think it’s the very reason we see so many developers flop in the WordPress products space. They know how to build great products, but they never took, or aren’t consistently taking, their market into consideration. Either it’s just not their strong suit –they’re developers after all, not business people, or it was the wrong approach to begin with. A very good example of this would be Chris Pearson’s introduction of Thesis 2.0 last October. He took a product-driven approach and, by most accounts other than his own, failed miserably. And he continues to outsource his support via forums. I assure you it’s a tactic he’s regretting and is causing him unnecessary challenges.

What you and Pippin favor is usually much more successful and sustainable–a market-driven approach. Learn who your market is, what their needs and wants are, and address those with your product/service. That requires having a much better, and ongoing, understanding of your market, and adapting your product to their “pain point” to use a tired cliche. To do that, it’s essential to be involved with your market, and that includes support, even though most people hate that aspect of it. Especially developers, who would rather be programming. Automattic requiring new hires to work support is an example of being market-based as well, just to throw another in there.

    I think it’s the very reason we see so many developers flop in the WordPress products space. They know how to build great products, but they never took, or aren’t consistently taking, their market into consideration.

    I think that this is also because there’s a bit of a gold rush going on in WordPress right now where solving problems is second to trying to make a quick buck (which is a shame), but I do think that those who aren’t in it for the right reasons will be out sooner rather than later.

    What you and Pippin favor is usually much more successful and sustainable–a market-driven approach. Learn who your market is, what their needs and wants are, and address those with your product/service

    That’s exactly right – the whole point in what I’m trying to do is built around the idea that I want to find a single problem (or a very similar problem set) and then try to provide the best solution possible for it.

    This also takes into account the feedback I garner from users (both good and bad) in an attempt to do a better job at tailoring the solution to their needs.

    Automattic requiring new hires to work support is an example of being market-based as well, just to throw another in there.

    Yes – and I’m a big fan of this particular approach. This is something that, as I continue to release more products (and pending they generate revenue) I’d like to do over time.

    But we’ll see – that’s a whole other beast that’s further down the road for now :).

    Really great thoughts, Michael. Thank you.

I am the same, I never outsource support for the reasons you have shared. Nobody knows my code than me (don’t quite have the luxury of teams yet!), and I feel that support is too important to outsource. Good support is it’s own reward, whilst I may not havethe best plugins out there, my support is praised. Whether that is because I write software that needs support remains to be seen :-D

    Nobody knows my code than me (don’t quite have the luxury of teams yet!), and I feel that support is too important to outsource.

    I’m with you 100%.

    Whether that is because I write software that needs support remains to be seen :-D

    That’s funny – all software needs support ;). Not even the corporate giants have it nailed down. FWIW, I don’t think imperfect people can create perfect systems.

Thanks for answering my question as a post. Everyones feedback is very interesting. I asked this question based on two observations. One, developers generally would rather be coding and do not like to provide support. Two, the WordPress repository and plugin marketplaces around the web are littered with evidence that support is not a priority to a lot of WP developers.

Each of these got me wondering if such a service would work as a business. These responses are an indicator that it may not be ideal for every developer but for those that just don’t want to provide it, want to scale and remove themselves from support, or are beyond adding features and are on maintenance mode with a plugin it just might.

That being said, I know there are developers that offer excellent support and are too close to let it be tainted by a third party and I respect that. Good support is just like good marketing. People will remember it even if the product isn’t that good. Thanks.

If we were only talking about free products that come from the repository I would agree but we are not. Marketplaces and support forums for premium products have the same issue.

“Support can easily increase to high levels which makes it difficult to support. If you have 10 downloads or 10000 you have the same amount development time but the support requests will increase.”

Precisely! So this actually brings us full circle.

It’s a nice ideal, but not always practical. No point persisting with bad support just to try an satisfy some ideal.

And none of those points are game breakers. In fact, if you’re committed to your customers, they shouldn’t be issues.

I am very good at support and good at development, but try doing both at once? It’s just not in my DNA to manage them both efficiently at the same time.

I’m not at a point of profitability to be able to build a team of devs either.

So I’ve tried hiring support staff, and am now using outsource support. I use Influx who are dedicated WP experts with development experience, not just some numpties reading off a “Did you…?” checklist.

Because – there’s outsourcing and there’s outsourcing. Outsourcing has (quite fairly) got a bad name. But businesses like Influx and what Kyle (above) is considering are entirely different.

Influx have much greater commitment to support than anyone I could hire. As well, they provide weekly reports to keep me in the loop about what is going thru support. They also assign as necessary to me.

It is in their best interests to be damn good, so they are.

It is in my best interests to make sure I stay in the loop and in touch with my customers.

Therefore, my experience is outsourcing to a specialist WP support business gets me much greater commitment than hired staff.

What’s more, using outsourced support, i get a team, not just one person, so training and retraining is less an issue.

And I must say again, these guys are WP experts, not checklist readers.

Oh, and then there’s the cost of support! As your userbase grows, so does support. If you are your plugin or theme for a once off charge, your cost of support as you start to hire can outgrow your earnings.

(And if I was doing it with devs, the cost would be even greater)

Outsourcing provides a much more affordable solution.

It would be somewhat defeatist to use those points made in the article (and in the comemnts) as reasons not to find the best possible front line support solution for my needs and the way I work. I’d be like Hilary saying “I won’t climb Everest if unless I can only use a team of fellow climbers. No Sherpas for me!”

Influx are my Sherpas and they are damn good.

You have to chose the solution that is right for you. For some of us, that is outsourcing, for others it’s not.

    You are right that outsourcing has got a bad name. I think the reason is that it is normally done to save money. Influx from your report seem to do a good job. I could not find them on Google. Could you share the link?

    It’s a nice ideal, but not always practical. No point persisting with bad support just to try an satisfy some ideal.

    Oh, for sure. Agreed.

    And none of those points are game breakers. In fact, if you’re committed to your customers, they shouldn’t be issues.

    No, I don’t think they are game breakers, but they are certainly important things to be considered – outsourcing can be done wrong (and, IMHO, it normally is), and it can be done right (which, as you’ve shown, does happen).

    For me – at least at this point with some of the things that I have going on – I don’t know if I’ll ever fully outsource, but using a focused, niche, and specialized is definitely the way to go.

    I was speaking in more general terms in the original article, but everything you’ve mentioned is spot on and I don’t really disagree with any of it.

Hi Ulrich

You can find their site at influx.com.

I think the other reason outsourcing has a bad name is it often done by companies with no experience in the product they are supporting. That’s why I like Influx, coz they know WP. I’ve been watching them, and they’ve come up to speed quite quickly with my plugins and are asking users the right questions, and questions that show they are developing a deeper knowledge of my plugins.

    Thanks! How quickly do they reply and how many days a week are they online? Where do you or they pull the line on the level of support?

    This solution is great for one man shops but I think you are better off building your own team after a certain size or getting fellow developers to help out. It can be good to have a level one support clearing the small and simple questions leaving the more complicated questions to the developers.

    I would be interested how you find the services in 6 months time.

      Hey Ulrich, I do agree there comes a point where support could be better off in-house, but as you say, for one person ops (esp those with a large client base and small income), guys like Influx are ideal.

      Since using Influx, I’ve gone from a dozen to 20 tickets I needed to attend to per day (which could easily be two hours work some days), to 3 to 5. Four years of doing support in this area I learnt that the average time per ticket each time you attend to it is 10 mins.

      That has a significant impact on my ability to get other work done. And certainly therefore makes for a happier home life since I don’t have to spread myself as thin, nor am I stressed about not being able to get new development done.

      As an aside, to increase my profitability and thus long term viability, I do need to do new development. The stuff I have now is for a limited WP market segment, which if sales are any indication, is becoming saturated (i.e. most people who will buy my plugins have).

      My plugins are popular, but to move out to the whole WP market, I need a ground up rewrite.

      That sort of thing takes focus for me. And I couldn’t find that focus consistently enough when I was doing all the support. I tried a hire, but that didn’t work because for something that was only an hour or two each day, they lacked the commitment to prioritise it.

      And thus we come back to guys like Influx who do have the commitment because it’s not an hour or two per day for them, it’s their whole day of which I’m a part of.

      The original article and some of the comments were reasonable on the one hand; however I found them a little blinkered by their own experience. It’d be like me telling people you *have* to use outsourcing if you want to be successful. Not so, of course. The only thing you *have* to do is what is works for you that keeps your clients happy.

      I will let you know in 6 month how things are going. Hopefully by then I will have this new plugin bringing in sales, so my current support model will be getting suitably challenged.

Outsourcing WordPress Support really depends on your needs. If you feel and see that your clients have a clamor for it and that you can’t exactly handle the demand, then go ahead. The choice is yours.

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