Why Gamified, Community-First Support Will Be The Future

17 min read

… at GridPane and everywhere else.

This document/post/thread is going to be updated as we get additional feedback

There have been some concerns voiced over the last 24 hours or so about our new Panel plan and our shift towards Community Support and what all of that means.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of people that have decided that the words “community support” somehow equals “no support.”

This is both false and it’s probably going to be detrimental to anyone who decides to not upgrade to Panel under our current (and best-we’re-ever-gonna-offer) promotion.

What follows is the really long version of all of my current thoughts on this “support in public” initiative.

The really short version though is as follows: our team will continue to be providing support 24/7/365, just as they always have been. Investment and expansion of the support team will continue just as it has, for years. Our team will be monitoring and responding to questions in the community forum.

The biggest shift will be that every single question that comes in will now be public-facing. Anyone will be able to answer it (and we will reward people for doing so) AND anyone will be able to learn from each and every single ticket.

Each additional question that gets asked will benefit the entire wider community.

This is exactly how almost all plugins and themes – and WP core – handles support. There are also huge billion-dollar publicly traded companies like Cloudflare that use the public-facing forum support model.

This is a move in the right direction and will have huge benefits for everyone in the community as a whole.

TL;DR

  1. The long-term goal here is that we will have a well-organized, searchable, indexed collection of all of the knowledge of our broader community, easily accessible in one place. Right now we have literally thousands of trouble tickets with mountains of information TRAPPED in them. This benefits no one. By moving this out into the open, everyone benefits.
  2. 95% of support tickets are not GridPane bugs/issues, most of which are already covered in an existing KB document. People simply need help finding the right docs and using the right phrases in their searches. These tasks should not be escalated to an engineer, they can be solved. Doing so in public adds value with each new question because people learn the correct phrases and terminology. 
  3. Our goal is a self-sustaining alternative middle ground between ultra-skilled but very expensive support and underpaid lower-tier support. The average “intermediate” GridPane user has far more knowledge and practical WordPress experience than the average lower-end support technician. Our users will get stronger with every question they ask AND with every question they answer. Some of the best learning is done through teaching.
  4. All of our bugs and issues will become known and addressed faster, in public. Accountability goes up across the board. New features, suggestions and fixes should become greatly accelerated. The community will collectively keep track and keep everyone up-to-date on any known bugs/issues.
  5. The community will quickly become one the most valuable resources for self-managed hosting available anywhere, with solutions documented for almost every single scenario. We already have done much of this work through our Knowledge Base. This community will reinforce and strengthen the KB with each new addition and interaction. 

Once I started writing this I realized quite quickly that this is actually a book in the making and not just a simple blog post. So what we have here is a somewhat streamlined version of a longer work in progress. Exciting chapters like “Why People Think Their Support Is Good When It Actually Isn’t” and “The Negative-Feedback-Loop-Race-To-The-Bottom” will have to wait.

For now, to keep this manageable, we’re going to focus specifically on this handful of pertinent points:

  1. How we envision Gamified Community-First support
  2. Why ALL support requests should start in a public forum
  3. Positive feedback loops and exponential ROI, for all of us
  4. Why this support community will be better than alternatives
  5. What other options GridPane customers will have at their disposal
  6. The forcing effect of being an active participant in support
  7. “But what happens when things break?!?!”

If you’re not already signed up to the community, you can do so here:

Join the Community Forum here.

How we envision Gamified Community-First support

The long-term goal here is that we will have a well-organized, searchable, indexed collection of all of the knowledge of our broader community, easily accessible in one place. Right now we have literally thousands of trouble tickets with mountains of information TRAPPED in them. No one outside of our company can gain access to this information. And, because of shortcomings that exist in all support tools, it’s barely even accessible internally to our team.

We want all of that collective knowledge to be freely accessible to all of our users. And we want to make steady improvements and investments in that vault of knowledge.

Every GridPane user will be able to access this information AND they will be able to add to it. It will become an invaluable resource to every participant. The more that one puts in, the more they’ll get out, across numerous axis – more on that in point #3.

Our current support team will serve active roles in curating all of the threads and actively solving problems in the support forum, just as they are doing right now. But in this scenario that knowledge isn’t trapped behind a walled garden, it’s available to everyone.

Community members themselves will also become curators, moderators, and recommended experts within the forum. Our goal is to create gamified rewards and incentives that would allow people to not only enrich their minds but also be directly paid (be it bonuses, prizes, or job offers, both from the community and from GridPane directly).

Posts/questions that have little merit will naturally get moved “down” and/or be archived away.

The “right” answer for any given problem will constantly be resurfaced and enhanced over time. One of the most common issues that people have is that they simply don’t know the right words or phrases to even ask their questions.

We will all be required to bring our best selves into this community forum. People who are rude or unreasonable will just naturally find their questions going unanswered. They will either adjust their attitude or they’ll need to seek help elsewhere.

Systemic problems will likely surface more quickly and as the strength of the community will grow with each new active participant. Person A who is asking questions today will be able to answer the questions from Person B next week.

We’re not the first ones to come up with this idea. Frankly, I’m kinda annoyed at myself that we didn’t move in this direction sooner. Almost all of WP (themes, core, plugins) works on the power of this model.

Why ALL support requests should start in a public forum

The vast majority of all of the support tickets that come into GridPane fall into the following buckets, in decreasing likelihood:

1.) Read the manual – there is extensive documentation detailing exactly the problem or use case the user is dealing with right now. They simply need to apply that information.

2.) Site-specific issues – these are not covered by GridPane’s support and they never have been. They are far too numerous and complex to narrow down from here (plugin-specific, theme-specific, etc).

3.) External issues outside of our control – infrastructure provider outages, API issues with third parties, outside DNS issues, browser caching issues, and so on.

4.) Unsupported use cases – “I need help with this email plugin…” and the like.

5.) Wide-ranging hosting consulting/advice – “What’s the best way to accomplish X…” etc.

6.) GridPane specific bugs/issues, either stack or platform-specific – less than 5% of all tickets.

More than 95% of all tickets that come into Freshdesk currently, are either unsupported, outside of our control, they’ve already been well covered by documentation, or they are things that we can’t feasibly support without additional fees (which is why 360 exists).

The VAST majority of the problems which we currently are faced with, in support, are issues that should not take away from our focus on improving the tools, the platform, and the community. What makes these matters even worse is when these problems are presented to us as emergencies or critical issues, when nothing could be further from the truth.

To make this as clear as possible, I give you the bomb technician example:

Your car is pulled over, straddling two lanes on a bridge. News and police helicopters circle overhead. You’ve exited your vehicle and you’re currently talking to The Villain on your cell phone. Meanwhile, a SWAT team bomb technician is defusing the bomb, placed by the villain, underneath your driver’s seat. While sweat beads upon their brow, and they delicately attempt to cut the blue wire, or is it the green one… you yell “NO, wait, WAIT!”

“I’ve gotta finish this Words with Friends game really quick…”

And the bomb goes off.

We get people submitting critical chats, almost daily, with questions like “Do you know when Ultimo 2.0 will be available?”

And we have six-figure engineers, deep in focus, who have to drop everything to read a message… which has NOTHING to do with their job at hand. The focus is disrupted, their attention is spoiled, and they now have to deal with the mental switching costs of getting back to hundreds of lines deep in whatever real problem they were dealing with before they were distracted.

Even amongst the tickets which are our “fault” (the 5% of tickets), these things should still flow through a community-driven forum because then the wider community can better track how we’re handling bug tickets and system-wide issues.

Almost all tickets are low priority, even the ones that people feel are a crisis for themselves. It’s incredibly rare for us to see a situation in which an outage or an error can’t be directly traced to a failure in planning that happened long before the current fire.

Many tickets – especially “emergencies” – get resolved within minutes of inception, usually because the submitter realizes the simple mistake they’ve made along the way. If you have to take a moment to compose your thoughts, instead of just tapping the bomb technician on the head, the quality of your questions invariably goes up.

Positive feedback loops and exponential ROI, for all of us

I firmly believe that the only way that you can truly become a “serious WordPress professional” is by committing to education and skill improvement. I can point to countless examples of people in our community that have said some version of: “I thought that all of this was WAY over my head… but I’m so glad I put in the effort to just learn the basics.”

Helping everyone in the wider GP family build the “muscle” of self-reliance is absolutely the way to go. Each and every single person who commits to learning this platform, this stack, the way that we’ve built the modular configs, all the hundreds and hundreds of pages of documentation… I just don’t see how that effort can possibly be wasted.

Each new trick that you learn, through the docs or through the community, is one more trick that you can then teach to someone else… which only strengthens your understanding of that trick or capability. And this isn’t just mental masturbation or “GridPane specific” knowledge that doesn’t map elsewhere. These are industry-standards driven insights around the literal building blocks of the Internet.

Our average “intermediate” user is far more skilled and capable than any cheap outsourced support team that you might find someplace else. We’ll talk more about that in point #4 next, but for now let’s just look for a moment at the value – to each user – of becoming more capable, by becoming more involved in their own support needs:

If the majority of all tickets are NOT caused by issues with the GridPane platform for the stack…

And if the majority of your time spent waiting for a resolution…

Is ultimately just time spent waiting for someone to point you to a piece of information…

Which you will then need to take in, learn, process, and execute on…

And your time is valuable…

Then only one of two pathways makes sense:

1.) Either it’s in your best interests (for both time and money) to learn these things sooner

OR

2.) Your time is far too valuable to learn these things at all, and you should delegate all of that effort (this is what we’ll cover in point #5)

By building a strong community-first forum – with people awake and active 24/7, looking to help each other. out – everyone is taking steps together in the same direction. Each question helps the next person with the same question. Each new answer – or each new rephrasing of a problem that has already been solved – is one step closer to having complete information, readily accessible.

It becomes that vault, that vast library of all information.

If the community gets just a handful of new questions answered each and every single day, by the end of the year there are thousands of new volumes of information in the library.

Right now each support request is an island, and there is only one inhabitant. And no one can benefit from what that lonely traveler has learned.

If we push all of the islands together, and we start sharing, we all benefit.

Why this support community will be better than alternatives

As I’ll cover in more depth elsewhere, there’s really only two possible edge scenarios that develop, in the context of a “hosting business” and what kind of support culture arises, if you extend the timeline out far enough:

1.) You either get really incredibly skilled, tierless support, a la Pagely, which is incredibly expensive.

2.) You get low-quality support because of what little investment there is, it’s spent on low-cost people, working as fast or as little as possible, per ticket.

And if you look at the wider hosting industry, or even within just “managed WordPress” you see exactly these two scenarios playing out… either really low cost and low-quality support at one end of the spectrum… or really outstanding support, which is very expensive, at the other end of the spectrum.

What we’re proposing here is a self-sustaining alternative middle ground, where we can make investments in the COMMUNITY, as opposed to making investments exclusively in a support team.

If we continue to hire incredibly skilled engineers, who pass their knowledge out to our team and to our community, and the community carries those messages forward and leverages that knowledge, then we arrive at a support culture that is both far better than the cheap options and far less expensive than the enterprise options.

Most of the “support” that people are getting, at really low-cost providers, is simply poorly paid people pointing out things that are obvious… read this log here, look at that document there, implement this fix as outlined here… and so on. They’re not talking to bomb technicians, and they wouldn’t know the difference if they were. The sophistication of their problems is such that almost any measure of help is a big leg up from where they currently are.

By being a GridPane customer, and choosing a different pathway for your hosting needs, you’re inherently blazing a trail on your own… but you’re doing so armed with exactly the right tools for the job.

When people go to Home Depot, they do so partly because they know that if they ask the right questions, the employees within the store can point them to the right tools for the job. But, and this is crucial, it’s still up to YOU to put the swing set together. You can’t just dump a pile of wood in front of a Home Depot employee and say “MAKE FIXED!”

We’re building a positive reinforcement engine. You’re choosing to be part of your own solution.

You do have other options… but they’re likely to live in one of those two extremes.

What other options GridPane customers will have at their disposal

Speaking of other options, let’s look at what else people can do if they want to get support, right now, from GridPane or anyone close to it:

1.) There’s shitloads of documentation. Like literally every single thing that you can do with the platform has been thoroughly documented. If we haven’t documented something PLEASE let us know. Because we will immediately do so.

2.) You’ll be able to use the Community Forum – This is what we’re building. Our team will also be there. It’s gonna be great. You should ask your question here because it will help future versions of… YOU.

3.) If you need the best support we have available and you want our team to watch your sites 24/7/365 then talk to us about 360 and Agency. This is not a sales pitch for that. But that’s one of the things that we’ve built to solve the myriad types of problems that people experience. If your sites are important and/or you don’t want to know how to solve things, look at 360.

4.) Hire someone directly from the Community or hire someone on Upwork – there are lots of experts here within the GP family and many of them are standing by, waiting for your call. We’re going to build communication channels and leader boards for exactly those people.

You basically have two free options – both of which involve learning.

And you have two paid options – one through us and one through individuals who know GP well.

With the former options, you’re investing your time to grow your skills and empower yourself.

With the latter options, you’re investing your money to buy back your time.

If anyone has suggestions for a fifth or sixth option here, we’re all ears.

The forcing effect of being an active participant in support

One of the things that we occasionally see in support, which I really wish never happened, is shit like this:

Client: “This site is down! This is an emergency! Why does this shit always happen with you guys?!?!”

GridPane Team Member: “It looks like your domain name expired. Your renewal failed for whatever reason… we actually can’t help in this situation… at all. Sorry.”

This kinda shit is really unacceptable. I understand that people get frustrated but our team works incredibly hard to help EVERYONE, even people that aren’t paying customers of ours. And this kind of attitude and treatment is sadly far too prevalent.

I don’t think it would happen in a public setting. I don’t think that people actually are dicks in public. But when they can be so in private, especially to a technical support agent, for whatever reason, they’ll let their anger fly at the drop of the hat. No matter what the cause.

By making people present their problems publicly and ASK for help, from the wild blue “out there” then you have to do so respectfully. You have to do so with an open mind and with a healthy dose of human decency.

“But what happens when things break?!?!”

If there’s a legitimate issue with our software, we’ll absolutely fix it. Just as we always have. Platform integrity is our highest priority. We already have people standing by 24/7 and nothing is going to change in that regard. We have SLA’s for support and application availability that positively impact ALL account types, no matter what you’re paying. 

If something breaks on our end, we’re likely going to know about it before you and we’re going to already be working on it as soon as humanly possible. For everything else, our community and/or our team will help/teach you how to diagnose and fix things. The vast majority of “emergencies” tickets are completely out of our control. Rest assured that if something is broken, and we can fix, we will. 

The truth is, you simply don’t need anything other than the existing knowledge base for 99% of anything that could go wrong, unless it’s an actual GridPane bug (which we’ll fix).

Wrapping Up

The GridPane community forum and gamified support will be a game-changer for everyone, in all the right ways. Everyone, even our own team, will improve their skills and grow as WordPress professionals.

We’ve been excited about the release of the new Panel plan for a while, and a big reason for that is for the benefits it will offer to the community as a whole.

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