How It Is

Support Politeness

It’s not overrated, it’s not out of date, and it’s something you need to do in all things.

I had a great time at WordCamp Miami, talking about becoming a WordPress hero and inspiring people to do more in WordPress even when they can’t code. I helped people figure out how to approach their favorite theme shops and plugins and suggest that perhaps they could fix documentation. I networked and met a lot of people who opened their eyes to opportunities. I told them the truth: companies ask me if there are more people like me to help answer questions.

One of the off the cuff comments I made in my talk was that people think that support is the ‘low end’ of WordPress because that’s how they treat it. What I meant was that I see a lot of people look at support, dismissively, and say “Well that’s a low end job for dumb people who can’t code.” and honestly I want to grab them by their shirt and shout “You’re the dumb person!” I don’t, mostly because that would get me arrested, but also because it won’t help.

Let me explain by telling you about my flights to and from Miami.

I live by a tiny airport, and I always have to transfer at either DFW or ORD. I went through DFW on the way to Miami, but I almost didn’t. As we got on the plane, they announced there was a horrible storm and we were all de-planing. No flights were going to DFW. So we all started calling American (my airline of choice) about options, and the crew removed luggage. Then I overheard the gate agent say that if people did not have any checked luggage, including gate-check, they could get them on the next flight to DFW. I rushed over, asked if I could get on the flight, and had a ticket in my hand. I said thank you very much. So did the people behind me.

When I got to DFW, I found the second half of my flight was canceled, so I went to the gate and asked about it. The gate agent was harried and I told her “You know what, take your time. Do you need me to step back?” She looked at me and asked if I’d mind ‘blocking’ for her, just standing there and acting as if I was being helped, so she could sort out other things. I agreed, and proceeded to say things like “I can’t believe how helpful you are, how dare you be so accommodating!” until she laughed too hard and made me stop. Then she pulled my information up and bumped me to a better seat. As she did so, they told her the plane had been diverted and she asked me not to tell anyone. I thanked her, agreed (though I told my family my flight was delayed), and we watched a tornado pass by.

Cat on the floor, screaming

If you can’t tell, I was nice to the people giving me support. I was polite, I treated them with respect, and I made sure to take a moment to tell them I appreciated their work.

You see, the problem with support is that it’s low end because that’s how you treat it. Certainly, when I call Time Warner and tell them “My DNS tables aren’t refreshing, I can’t get to this domain, how do I refresh them on my modem?” and they ask me “Did you reboot?” I get annoyed. I make sure to tell them, exactly, what I did, I ask them how to do things I’m less familiar with, and I say thank you when they explain things. But when they ignore what I ask to follow their scripts, yes, I get frustrated. I appreciate what they do, but they created a situation where my service is problematic and my experience was sub par because the way they’re told to handle people is to follow a script.

Let’s go back to airports. Sometimes things happen outside the control of anyone, like weather. When I was at ORD, my flight got grounded due to lightning on the tarmac. And when I say that, I mean we watched lightning hit the tarmac in front of us. It was a microburst storm, so we waited it out, boarded the plane, and then got hit by another storm. This storm was so bad, the whole airport was grounded for 6 hours. I spent four hours getting my flight sorted because all the flights were canceled. Did I get mad? Nope! It was not American’s fault all the flights got canceled, and it wasn’t their fault everyone’s calling to get help. When I finally got a hold of someone, I told her what happened and asked if she could get me home. She said she could get me on the first flight out and I said “Oh my god, I love you!” You see, I’d heard all these other people from my flight get multiple leg trips to our small airport, or not even to ours. And here I got an exit row aisle seat. I thanked her, and went to a gate to get my pass printed. When the gate agent did that, I said thank you for the extra work.

That’s when something amazing happened. The woman beside me did a double take and said “That’s right! Thank you very much, we do appreciate this!” And people around us suddenly looked sheepish and started muttering thanks. A small angry group became calm and polite. The gate agents told us where we could get pillows and blankets, and when I went there, I also said thank you. The same thing happened. People around me stopped snatching pillows and complaining, and they started being humans again.

I changed the feeling of support. I made the people helping me feel respected and needed, which they were. I made the people around me remember that these people were providing a service above and beyond the norm. I changed support from being a low-end situation to a valued service.

When you deal with support, when you have a problem and ask for help, remember that. We know you’re having a terrible day. Take a moment to breath deeply, calm yourself, and thank the people helping you. When you treat support like crap, you get crap support. It’s as simple as that. I’ve been out with WordPress folks and seen them lose their shit on coffee barristas, and I’ve told them “If you treated me like that in the forums, I’d ban you.” It slaps them in the face, because they forget somewhere down the line that humanity is what makes us human.

If you want more people like me in the support world, and I know you do, you need to start with yourself. Check yourself, treat people how you want to be treated, and when you read what they say, assume the best intentions.

And say thank you. It will change everything.

10 replies on “Support Politeness”

You’re right on about the script part. As someone who also did support for a number of years, I often go out of my way to thank people, and, when I’ve got time to spare, ask for their manager to provide an official compliment. In 9mo at a call center taking 25-90 calls per day, I got THREE compliments. THREE.

Good job turning “the mob” around. I’d have paid for that show.

You’ve hit the nail right on the head, Mika!

I often pity the poor people who have customer support type jobs. It’s usually not their fault that they’ve been dealt a poor hand by the companies that employ them. All too often they are tossed into the deep end of the pool and are given inadequate training, been told to slaveshly adhere to the infamous “script”, have no internal support themselves if they come across something not covered in the script, and often their performance is rated (or even mandated) by the number of calls they handle – not by customer satisfaction. All too often the folks who provide service to customers are the “fall guy” for short-sighted corporate stupidity.

I’ve dealt with customers of all sorts, from Fortune 50 clients to selling appliances at Sears. I’ve also been a customer over the same range. Often there have been “difficult” situations to deal with. Almost without exception, a well placed compliment, joke or even just sympathy will diffuse the most contentious situation.

Some time ago I opted out of the corporate world and hung out my shingle as a “go-to” guy for WordPress. I’ve gotten reasonably “known” as such and much of that is because I treat my clients the way I’d want to be treated if I were in their situation.

In many ways it just boils down to the Golden Rule. 🙂

One last specific point to make in reference to what you were mentioning about people complaining about WordPress support. I’ve found that they just don’t understand just what a many hydra-headed beast open-source software is. They think that WordPress is a corporate entity like Microsoft and they can’t understand why there isn’t someone that they could just call to resolve their problems.

Of course then there’s the perennial confusion between and

All oportunities for communication (with a smile)!

Such a great write up! I’ve got an extremely short fuse and it takes a lot of discipline to be that patient! Maybe I could learn a thing or two from you on that 😉

@Nick Haskins: Honestly, so do I. But the more I help people, the more it galls me how mean they are and the less I find myself being the mean person. Mind you, I do shout at people like “Wash your damn hands!” when they leave the portapotties… But that’s not mean I hope…

Saying thank you to someone whether what they do is their job or a random person helping on a forum, is the most basic courtesy. About a year ago I decided to start a blog using the WordPress platform and it was a huge learning curve even though I’ve been using and supporting (in a work environment) software for years. I am so grateful for the generosity of people like yourself who share knowledge, problem solve, and encourage newbs like myself. It’s astonishing to see people berate developers of free apps, plugins, widgets, snippets, and the platform itself.

Great lesson on your experience in the airport; one of the toughest jobs helping people who are already stressed from their travel experience. Gratitude can be contagious, just like anger.

@Leslie: I used to think people were just mean to us online because they can’t see our faces. Now I think it’s that we’re not taught the value of things. 🙁

Also? You’re welcome 🙂 I love helping people who say thank you (or my favorite “I messed up. Can you help?”)

Great article! As a Software Customer Support Agent looking back on my efforts to support various software users, It’s a joy to support polite customers — if they write back later It’s a pleasure to help them again a second time too. Lets be nice to customer support people and service people.

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