I spent some time investigating and playing with various web hosting setups and CMS’s recently, including the popular trio du jour of Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress. This included sampling a number of the freebie templates available out there, seeing just what the state of the art is this year. Several observations cropped up, given that I spent a fair amount of my career as a code jockey. However, what I noted most was the frustration level when tips/tricks/workarounds and initial setup conditions were not well documented, or were virtually non-existent. My regular newsfeeds and daily reads tend to echo the same frustrations on occasion.
Despite improvements in the quality and quantity of available tools, you still hear folks complain that technical support had been deteriorating. Why? Likely a mix of reasons:
- Competitive pressures and time-to-market concerns: The “build it, ship it, fix it” syndrome.
- Economics: The budget dictates getting by with fewer resources, or running with outsourced/off-shore support resources that may not be capable of providing the same level of service.
- Complexity: More technically complex products, with a wider variety of user-specific configurations and data, and thus a staggering increase in the myriad possible issues and solutions to run through.
A contributing factor may be cultural: people have become conditioned to trolling through self-help forums and user groups for hours on end. From my experience, this often means sifting through a mix of information found therein: well-intentioned-but-useless tips; the random off-topic rants and diversions; patently wrong info and opinions; and thankfully the gem of a solution that someone bothered to provide online.
The Self-Help Death Spiral
A recent example of the frustrations with self-help forums: I went looking for an answer to a POP3 email issue with Outlook and Yahoo mail the other day – trying to find an answer as to why Outlook intermittently displays an error message saying the “incoming (POP3) email server has reported an internal error”, and you should contact your ISP if it persists (because of course it couldn’t be anything on the MS Outlook side of things …) After observing this little inconvenience over the course of multiple years, 3 laptops, 3 versions of Outlook, 2 or 3 versions of Windows, and 2 or 3 different Yahoo-hosted email accounts that I’ve had forever, my curiosity got the best of me. So, I went fishing, and found many folks have this exact problem -some with other email services as well. (Always nice to know I’m not alone, and misery does love company.)
I was appalled at some of the suggestions offered up as the “only way” to solve this problem:
- “Reload Windows” (Sure, just give me a minute)
- “Reload Outlook” (Yup, that will take another minute)
- “You shouldn’t be using Outlook – use another mail client” (Thanks for your opinion, but no)
- “Trash Yahoo mail and switch to something else” (Again, thanks, but I already have other email services)
- “Type in this command line string and it will fix things” (With no explanation as to what the command string would do IF the reader were to follow that advice … Really?)
- “Delete your Outlook mail file and start over” (Well, ok then … moving on to the next tip …)
- “Run this utility to convert your email to a different mail system” (Thanks, I’ll pass …)
And of course there was a boatload of links and copied text, all reiterating the advice found in “How to setup a POP3 email account in Outlook” that is readily available at Microsoft and Yahoo, and which is, of course, no help. (Particularly since the problem only happens intermittently.)
Going Further Down the Rat Hole
To add insult to injury, you also find the usual haters, off-topic posters, or folks jumping in trying to change the thread to their problem du jour instead of the original topic. Plus you find the self-appointed “forum police” who subscribe to the “knowledge is power” philosophy, are plentiful. They generally:
- Delight in admonishing folks for posting their question in the wrong place, using the wrong terminology, the wrong format, or the wrong “please sir/thank you sir may I have another” forum-specific syntax that likely is not documented but is “tribal knowledge” if you have the time/patience to hang out in the forum all day.
- Delight in making the person with the question jump through numerous hoops, hurdles, and non sequitur data gathering – only to then bless the unfortunate question-poster with incomplete, vague, techno-babble answers when it is all said and done (perhaps because they have no real solution to offer.)
I found another gent had already posted my exact question on one of the various forums I visited, and the thread was noted as “resolved” – so I was eager to fast forward to the solution. The exchange went on for 3 pages, with the poor gent patiently restating his question, very specifically defining it as being related to Outlook and Yahoo POP3 integration. That resulted in some “forum trolls” twisting that into an off-topic discussion of Outlook Express (?!) and abusing him for his grammar, choice of words, and not following “forum protocol”.
The net result of my excursion: 1) a raft of frustrating threads – ending in a couple of suggestions, but no real answers, and 2) multiple dead-ends where folks give up and the thread dies, or 3) the originator says they don’t know what they did, but things now work better. (BTW – I elected to just live with this little annoyance for another decade.)
Grab the Stick and Avoid the Death Spiral
The obvious alternative to the self-help route: pony up and pay for support, engage with the real subject matter experts, and decrease your dependency on free “expert” opinions. But as we all know: often those paid options are simply not available, or they are a more expensive way of getting to the same frustrating set of suggestions/solutions. There simply may not be a set of knowledgeable resources that is being paid to address the number and depth of questions that exist because there is no economic justification for it. In that case – the forums are the only logical choice.
Despite the above horror story, I have often found the user/help forums to be the superior knowledgebase-of-choice where info is provided by (presumably) well-meaning, collaborative, motivated users, who have learned from trial and error and are willing to share their experiences. Since a hybrid approach may be in your future no matter what – embrace the self-help option(s), figure out the “protocol,” and contribute as well as take!
Ultimately, the most satisfying scenario is working with vendors who subscribe to the philosophy that “real” warranty support and technical assistance are what keeps customers coming back. How can you tell? Look for this combination:
- A robust FAQ page covering the popular/usual topics AND pointing to other sources for deep dives
- A searchable company-maintained knowledge base, again with obvious deep dives available
- A link to a second level support staff that hopefully brings depth and breadth of hands-on experience
- Access to the third-tier escalation resources in a timeframe called out within the SLA
- A formal avenue for design requests and suggestions from users – users who have already voted with their pocketbooks, and who have a vested interest in seeing the product improve
- Moderated forums, with vendor participation, so things don’t get out of hand, and …
- All of the above are: included in the purchase price within reasonable warranty periods; or available for a reasonable all-you-can-eat optional fee; or available for a T&M fee
Mission Impossible? Perhaps in some cases. But the strong vendors will ultimately gravitate to the top. Quality players who endure in the industry will, over time, build: better, more intuitive products, based on customer feedback; better up-front documentation and on-line help/debug; buoyed by more robust back-end support systems and services. That’s what keeps the customer satisfaction numbers and the repeat business metrics in the range where the story will just tell itself in the resulting press release.