The Importance of Doing Customer Support

One of the many, many things I love about working at Automattic is the being part of a company that sees huge value in everyone spending time doing customer support, and acts on it:

“When you join full-time, you’ll do customer support for for your first three weeks and spend a week in support annually, for evermore, regardless of your position. We believe an early and ongoing connection with the people who use our products is irreplaceable.”

Automattic’s Work With Us Page

Every single bit of that statement is true: I did three full weeks when I joined last September, and I’ve already done an additional week this year.

And every day I’ve spent on support has been eye-opening for me; customers do strange and wonderful things to the software systems that we create, things that we as developers, and even we as testers, don’t even consider. Things you may think that sound like a soap-opera, but are people’s daily lives.

I’ve always believed in genchi genbutsu, go and see, and when we work on systems where our customers, our users, are spread all across the world using our site in a bad-mood on their low powered phones, on tablets, on old desktops, jetlagged using laptops on planes, the next best thing is providing them support via live-chat, and trying to understand the problems they’re facing then and there.

Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve come across very few companies who recognise the huge benefit that having every staff member spending time with customers brings. There’s a competitive advantage in doing this that lots of organisations are missing out on.

Domino’s Pizza did and so every staff member in head office was meant to spend 3 days in-store at some point*, making pizzas and serving customers. I did this as soon as I could and I ended up seeing first hand repercussions of a bug in our mobile ordering app that we didn’t even know about (and could fix in less than a day!).

But just because an organisation doesn’t formally encourage/insist on all staff having customer interaction doesn’t by any means mean that it’s not possible. In previous companies I ‘engineered’ ways of being able to spend time with customers/users of our systems. You just need to ask.

In a financial organisation I worked at, this meant a week of ‘phone jacking’, or listening into phone calls from customers in the call centre. I couldn’t take phone calls because I wasn’t qualified to give general financial advice, but I could listen and observe. I was the ‘test manager’ so I put it in every one of my testing staff’s performance agreement that they would do this too.

In the federal government I sat on Government shop-front counters with staff members observing customer interactions and real world software usage.

This is fascinating stuff that provides huge insight into how our users actually use our software systems and how we need to build our systems and products with empathy towards our users in mind.

I mentioned how I recently spent time on live chat support. One thing that hits you as soon as you start doing support at Automattic is how confusing the difference between (hosted) sites and (self-hosted) sites is for our customers.

One big difference between and sites is that sites allow users to upload custom plugins; whereas for security reasons, does not allow these. However, most of the functionality of popular plugins, like S.E.O, Contact Forms, etc. are already available for everyone on out of the box, so plugins aren’t mostly necessary.

But this translates into lots of support chats with users trying to find ‘Plugins’, and having to explain whilst we don’t offer plugins, you’ll probably still be able to do what you’re trying to achieve using our inbuilt functionality.

So I had an idea: why don’t we create a ‘Plugins’ page for sites, but design it as a pretotype, so that instead of offering plugins, let users know we don’t offer plugins but educate them on what plugin functionality we do offer.

I discussed this with a couple of people at Automattic who thought it was a great idea so I raised it as an enhancement, which, since we work in the open, you can actually see:

plugins enhancement.png

There was then a lot of (asynchronous) discussion on the enhancement where a design colleague would post different mockups and options and various people would quickly iterate over various designs using the feedback received. A globally distributed team for the win.

An early Plugins Page prototype

Fast forward a couple of months and after having been beta-tested, and A/B tested, all users will now see a Plugins Page: plugins page.png

This makes me so happy. And all because I spent some time with our customers. If I hadn’t spent that time, chances are that page would not even exist today.

*I knew of some staff who had been there 3+ years and hadn’t – it wasn’t really enforced

4 replies on “The Importance of Doing Customer Support”

The one time I had to do support rotations was at the beginning of my career more than 25 years ago. That was some massively complicated software and most of what I learned was how our customers had giant things they were doing that our software needed to support, and how hard it was to understand what they were doing!

But yes, I wish more companies had compulsory support rotations for engineers, testers, designers, and writers. I’m having everyone on my team do at least one customer-implementation trip this year (we sell a SaaS product to large companies), which should give a similar result for them.

Sometimes just meeting a customer in person helps, you listen to their stories, and understand their point of view.

By the way: pretty sweet to see the plugins idea you had come to life so quickly. Hurray!

Leaving this comment as a Blogging University student assignment, so please let me know if I commit any comment faux pas…

Thanks for the well-written post. Very perceptive of you to see an effective solution to the issue of repeated questions from users about plugins! And even better to propose that solution and work with people to get it implemented!!

Question for you about feedback regarding forums. Is there a button or link for forum users to give feedback to Automattic employees about bugs or issues in the forum? I saw something that probably has an easy fix, but couldn’t figure out how to report it.


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