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Providing (often free) support - options?


#1

Hi all,

I write and publish a software library called DataTables - a plug-in for DataTables that simple adds controls for developers over HTML tables. I’ve been fortunate enough (and bloody minded enough :-)) to be able to turn this into a full time business. That’s the background.

DataTables has a very active forum with 40+ new threads a day asking for help. Primarily that comes from me (solo founder), and recently the support requests just seem to have gone through the roof. So much so that I’m simply not getting any time to develop the software (I should point out that most of these are free support). Personally, I’m reaching a bit of a breaking point with it - I love being able to help, but I want to develop the software and therefore the business more.

So I’m planning on running a few experiments to see if I can reduce the load. My biggest concern with me reducing my support time is the forum being full of unanswered questions and lots of “why no answer” type threads and that putting others off from using the software, or buying the commercial add-on.

First experiment I’m planning on running is doing 1 hour of free support a day with a nice big timer saying “Developer support time for community support remaining today: 45min (what is this?)” (with a link explaining).

Another is simply not answering any questions that don’t provide a test case showing the problem.

Does anyone else have any thoughts or suggestions?

Regards,
Allan


#2

Are there any commonalities to the support requests such that you could automate or outsource answering the support responses? Any passionate, knowledgeable users of the library you could wrangle to pitch in to help?

The reason I ask is that I’d imagine the support forum works pretty well as an example of how well-supported the product is at the paid levels as well.

I could be wrong, though.


#3

We have used Datatables in our project for the last 4 years and had no idea we could buy support (we have bought some time for custom development though) so I would make it more prominent on the site and in the forums especially.

In your forum other than the Purchase button there is no mention of paid support and even if I click on Support, the free options are listed first.


#4

Hi Allan

my product is Perch, a self hosted CMS, so I can feel your pain with support. The majority of our support isn’t really related to our product but instead is general web development issues (people who are building websites for clients yet don’t understand what a 404 error is are a particular bugbear) or terrible PHP web hosting problems.

We factor in to each license purchase an amount of support time before that customer actually starts to cost us money. In reality some customers will never be profitable as they constantly ask questions however it all balances out so we’ve been able to continue with inclusive support.

Your issue seems to be with users of the open source plugin however. So these aren’t customers at all and haven’t paid anything? If that is the case then I think you are absolutely justified in taking a tougher line, if people don’t provide a test case I would be responding with a standard reply that explains they haven’t give enough information for you to help - and if they need someone to walk them through the issue you have commercial support - and link to it!

Being swamped with requests from free users is the main reason we don’t have any free trial download of Perch.

I didn’t poke around your site too much but it ma be there are things you can do documentation or tutorial-wise that help reduce the support. Providing video tutorials for Perch really helped to reduce the support.

Also, when people download the free version I think you should frame the community support as being a limited thing for very simple, non-urgent requests so that they see the default for commercial use of the product being to purchase support.

Rachel


#5

Here’s some food for thoughts (take with a grain of salt, I just came up with it… tomorrow I might think it’s a stupid idea.)

I’d make 2 support forums:

  1. A free one, for noobs like me :stuck_out_tongue:
  2. A premium one, where you spend most of your time answering questions.

Eventually, because you spend more time answering questions there (and insert answers from emails or whatever), the premium forum could become a valuable source of information in itself.

A new user could come, search the forums for an answer and see many topics related in the premium forum. Then it’s time to spawn a little ad in the corner of the screen that says “You can have a one day access to this forum for $X, or subscribe for $X/mo”

Or you could just make a premium forum. You already give your app for free, don’t you?

Whatever you do, I would keep the forum. You are creating content simply by answering questions, compared to emails where your efforts are for a single use.

Dang, I should add a forum on my stuff!


#6

Hiya Allan,

Congrats with turning OSS into an actual business. Hats off. Also, expect me to purchase a license from you in the next N months, as you solve a problem for my business.

Things I would be thinking of doing if I were you:

  1. Ordinarily the #1 thing to do is to create compelling docs/FAQs and hit people over the head with them, but you’ve got them and they’re fantastic. Hats off.

  2. Hire a virtual assistant who is at least minimally competent at the Internet and maybe HTML. They don’t have to be a programmer themselves. I use the folks at http://www.peppervirtualassistant.com/ – and when I say “the folks” I mean “for the last 3 years it has been one lady, Sugar, and she’s been a lifesaver.”

Tell your VA to go through the forums every day and reply to every single topic with a non-templated response which says, basically:

a) “Allan wanted me to tell you that he’d like to spend more time on community support today, but he’s absolutely booked on improving the software and ran out of time to answer questions on the forums. If this is a huge priority to you, you can upgrade to our enterprise support here [fill in the link], or hope somebody else answers this. We appreciate you using DataTables.”

b) “Hiya $BOB, thanks for the report of the issue. I’m triaging it for Allan, our founder. Can you provide a test case which reproduces this? We describe here [fill in the link] what we need in a minimal test case. This will make it much easier for him to figure out what is going wrong.”


#7

This is similar to our situation, but not quite the same. We have WP Migrate DB (the free version of our plugin) on WordPress.org and there are free support forums there. And we sell WP Migrate DB Pro will additional features and email support.

When there was just the free product and just me developing it, my responses in the free support forum were very spotty. Could be a day, could be a couple months before you get a reply. And so that set the expectations for the free forum. But as we’ve grown (we’re now a full-time developer and two part-time and hiring) I’ve recognized the value in providing great support in the free forum as it demonstrates the value of our support service and helps upsells to pro.

My suggestions for you…

  1. Do you have the revenue to hire a developer to help you? If so, then do it now. Even it’s just part-time. If you already have any active contributors, ask them if they’re interested in putting in more time in exchange for money. They tend to be the best hires as you likely already know their work and there’s no need for a trial period. If hiring remote, make sure the developer is experienced and doesn’t require mentoring as it is extremely difficult to mentor remote workers (I’m speaking from experience here). Assuming your customers are developers, they very likely have technical questions, so I don’t think a VA would be much use here. In fact, a VA would very likely annoy most developers if every time they request support they have to go through the VA first. It’s becomes a barrier to getting real help.

  2. Clearly distinguish between free and paid support. Provide a completely different support site for paid customers. Maybe even switch to using email. This gives paid customers more of a feeling of exclusivity and preferential treatment, which they deserve. This is the reason for that silly curtain between economy and business class on flights.

  3. Set expectations for free support. Rename all the titles of the “Fourms” to “Community Forums”. Make it clear that this is for users helping users. What’s the average response time for you to reply in the free forum? Just a guess is good enough. Put that right next to the submit button on the form with an upsell to buy support for an immediate response.

  4. Have you considered putting this on Github to encourage contributions? You could also use Github issues as your free support forum. It inherently sets expectations for free support.


#8

Wow - thank you all for your thoughts! This is fantastic and very inspiring! A couple of specific replies first:

@rachelandrew - I love Perch! Its a fantastic product that I use on a couple of sites and recommend whenever anyone asks. I don’t envy you backend support though!

@patio11 - Really interesting idea about a VA. I remember reading one of your blog posts recommending it a while back but somehow thought it didn’t really apply to me (too small a fish for what seems like something that bigger companies would have - just in my head though!). @bradt makes a good point about it potentially annoying some developers, but given the number of questions I get which are just routine, this might work out really well with such questions, while I would answer paid support questions without going via the VA. I’ll certainly look into this.

@bradt - There isn’t the revenue yet for another developer. Possibly starting to head that way, but I want it to increase a be a bit more stable before that stage. Regarding GitHub, DataTables is actually already on GitHub it just isn’t particularly well advertised (I’m part to avoid having the issue list filled with support questions rather than genuine bugs). Average response time - probably three hours (faster during the working day, slower when i’m asleep :wink: ). I certainly like the idea of the upsell button next to the post button.

Its going to take me a little while to process my thoughts on this I think, but a more clearly defined two tier approach, and making sure the documentation covers all the frequently asked questions sounds like it might be the way to go.

I think how I design and implement that clearly defined two tier approach is the part that is going to give me the most to think about.

If anyone is interested I’ll post back with results from some experiments I’ll run. In the mean time, any further thoughts and suggestions are very welcome!

Regards,
Allan


#9

You’re providing free support with a three hour response time? Forgive my bluntness, but that’s madness! Spend less time on free support, and more on increasing sales.


#10

I don’t answer every question in 3 hours! Some just go unanswered. But I’ve got a phobia (rightly or wrongly) about having the forum showing loads of unanswered questions, so I kind of figure, if I answer them now or tomorrow, they are still going to be there. This is a big part of my dilemma - how to keep the forum active, but reducing the amount of time I need to spend on it.

Allan


#11

Hi Allan,

I had to use datatables in a project one time and I really found it useful and extremely good. I highly recommend it.

About answering forum questions, I can see lots of it on stackoverflow getting answered by the community there (although there are some that do not get answered). What if you redirect free users there temporarily and see what happens?


#12

@tnorthcutt: Actually, I’ll provide you a counter-example. I do something similar to Allan (3-5 hour response time on support, for free). This is not wasted time, at all. Many clients download the free plugin, need some help getting it up and running, once they are wildly successful (and notice they get AWESOME support for it too), they start buying modules from me.

My support basically IS sales for the plugin. If I were to ignore them, this would be a major hit to my revenue. However, I will say that I hire a VA to do Tier 1 support on my community forums now so it takes up a lot less of my time. I handle Tier 2 requests now, so that’s much less painful. But support is absolutely the one thing that distinguishes me from my competition for the most part.


#13

That definitely makes sense. I think a key point is that you have someone else handling tier 1 support to preserve your sanity.