'Okay' Support is not Okay at WPMU DEV

Gregory Ciotti | March 20, 2013

As the world’s largest WordPress plugin and theme shop, the WPMU DEV team interacts with thousands of customers on a daily basis and continues to grow their customer base year after year.

Despite the added costs of providing continually outstanding service for each and every customer, WPMU DEV founder and CEO James Farmer doesn't view customer service as an expense that needs trimming:

"Service is everything. I'm obsessed with us getting back to people quickly and solving any and all dilemmas customers may have.

We claim to be the professionals, the best resource you can have for WordPress ... and we've got to demonstrate that, and part of demonstrating that is showing that we are there to care for our customers.”

Farmer says he hopes to share this viewpoint to inspire those working throughout all of WPMU DEV’s projects to focus on delivering a great customer experience.

As a staunch believer in Whole Company Support, WPMU DEV invests in intensive customer service training for all new employees, and isn't afraid to be critical and honest when assessing employees’ abilities to talk with customers.

Farmer says these practices are important because they help employees become comfortable with unfiltered feedback from customers and colleagues, a process he deems critical to staying focused on providing service that truly leaves a positive impact.

The results speak for themselves: The WPMU DEV team is so confident in its ability to provide exceptional service that it allows public statistics to be shown for their support efforts.

If you want to come along and see how well we handle the 700+ questions we get a day, feel free to come and look!”

How to Maintain Consistently Excellent Email Support

For the WPMU team, this willingness to provide public statistics is part of a much larger strategy that they implement to maintain their impeccable service track record.

Farmer describes their efforts in tracking and conducting detailed analysis of their service numbers as the key ingredient to maintaining a superior customer experience.

The only problem, he says, was that this sort of meticulous due diligence wasn't previously available for one of their most important service channels: email.

For a long time now, we've been able to look at staff ratings, what people are evaluating as helpful, the number of posts we’ve answered over a period of time and all that jazz for many of our service platforms.

... but what we didn't have was a way to do that with email. This is one of the many areas where Help Scout has proven to be supremely helpful.”

While WPMU DEV is willing to keep their numbers public on outposts like the support forum, Farmer describes email as an entirely different beast. Obviously email messages must be kept private, but, at the same time, the team at large needs to be able to see what is going on throughout different customer conversations.

This convergence of protecting the privacy of outsiders while fostering connectedness amongst team members was a key pain point that James Farmer says Help Scout has alleviated. The pathway to alleviating this pain point for good was also pain-free, according to Ronnie Burt, WPMU DEV’s Director of Sales and Operations:

The main reason we chose Help Scout when evaluating all the different options was the ease of creating multiple inboxes—that is very rare, unique and powerful for a company like us!”

What’s more, the ability to finally keep tabs on email support performance with staff charts and response graphs is a feature Farmer describes as wanting for a long time.

This is where Help Scout comes in beautifully. Best of all, it no longer takes 2 weeks of training sessions to get new staff up to date.”

The Best Way to Scale Support

According to Farmer, scaling support starts with selecting the most effective channels for your customers (an issue we've discussed before).

For WPMU DEV, this means effectively utilizing forums (both posts and private messages) and email. Given that Farmer is a hands-on CEO known for handling support single-handedly in the early days of WPMU, we were curious to know why Farmer doesn’t place much customer service importance on phone calls:

I always tell customers: you're welcome to call us, but you'll only be able to get one of us. If you email us, you'll get 10 of us.”

Farmer also holds strong opinions on maintaining a balance between helping versus selling to customers when they contact you through these channels.

He cited GoDaddy as a company that relies heavily on phone calls because they are “constantly up-selling,” whereas WPMU takes a more subdued approach, focusing efforts on their hassle-free subscription model for their premium plugins.

According to Farmer, email is a better solution for WPMU DEV because it offers a much easier way to track previous customer conversations. This information is used to better understand customer needs rather than just trying to upsell customers on things they don’t need.

He also loves the simplicity of email because it gives forward-facing employees the ability to interact with customers right away:

With email, I don't have to wait for 4 weeks of training like I might have to do in order to get my employees prepared to use the phone.”

How WPMU DEV Empowers Employees (Without Breaking the Bank)

Red tape is a known enemy of providing memorable support, that much is certain ... but there still needs to be some semblance of balance.

At the end of the day, companies do need to worry about expenses. Virgin Airlines, a company that customers universally love, has had problems with cash flow despite their universally positive reviews.

How can businesses that love taking care of their customers empower employees to do so without breaking the bank?

According to Farmer, many potential problems in this area can be averted with a solid set of guidelines as well as a singular point person big questions are relayed to.

It's important to have some set of rules in place for employees, mostly because when things get too vague people just don't know what to do, and that's just plain unfair to your employees, even if you mean well.

I also think it's critical to have one person (maybe with a sidekick) with whom the buck stops on support questions. This person will be able to help the support staff when questionable situations arise.”

When faced with guidelines that are too loose or the lack of a definitive focus in relation to the companies’ goals, employees are often left without a game plan to rely on. In this sense, the flexibility that they've been given is more of a hindrance than a gift.

Farmer also views the hiring process as a key issue of employee empowerment that often gets overlooked. He says that it's hard to hire and train someone to be a better people person, and that an ability to interact with customers and to be trusted by the company are some of the most important attributes to consider when evaluating new hires.

What Happiness Metrics Does WPMU DEV Look For?

When it comes to support, Farmer says:

Okay is not okay.

At WPMU DEV, outstanding support is a must. In addition to providing employees with useful guidelines, the team uses quite a few methods to keep tabs on customer happiness, including:

Farmer says WPMU DEV sees maintaining great service as they grow as the #1 metric to be accountable to; they don't want to let growth deteriorate the average customer experience.

Additionally, while data is important, Farmer makes a clear distinction between numerical goals and “happiness goals” for customers and employees:

“People like to see stats and numbers and ratings ... it's motivating, it keeps people accountable, and it's fun to see improvements… but at the end of the day, my goal is to have the support team feeling not like they're working for us, but that they're working with us.

Farmer views employee feedback as the overlooked ingredient in evaluating customer satisfaction. When employees are happy, provided for and truly enjoy dealing with customers, it shows.

As a final takeaway, Farmer leaves words of wisdom for all of the businesses that wish to be known for delivering memorable customer service:

“Consistently great service is an inevitable outcome of treating each and every customer like they're the most important one you've ever had.”

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the Growth team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk that helps you build a company your customers love with more human, more helpful customer support tools.