Support is one of the most difficult and expensive aspects of a business. At the same time, it’s often a determining factor on whether a company sticks around for one or several years. One thing I’ve noticed most of the established WordPress commercial theme businesses have in common is their reputation for providing good support. But how did they find the individuals to support their products? How much are they paid? How are they trained?
Those questions and more were answered in a recent survey conducted by Steven Gliebe of ChurchThemes.com. He reached out to several large and small commercial theme companies to determine how they built their support infrastructure. Gliebe has graciously donated the survey results to WP Tavern with the hope other commercial theme business owners will learn some valuable lessons to apply to their business.
How Do You Find Applicants?
Companies such as WooThemes have a dedicated page highlighting new job openings while others hire from within. Cory Miller of iThemes said some of their best support people started out as customers first, “The best long-term support agents / techs we’ve seen have come as customers first. They love the product and they want to help other people get better. In fact, our support team lead came as a customer first.”
StudioPress has such a large community of customers and developers, they look within before advertising a job opportunity. In fact, the company has never externally advertised for a position to join Copyblogger’s support team.
Other responses included the use of job boards or hiring someone they already know through networking. The last time ThemeFuse advertised an open position, they glued a poster on the campus of one of their local universities.
Bryan Hadaway of CyberChimps recommends not using premium job boards as they didn’t yield better applicants than the free ones. When it comes to interviews, education means nothing to Hadaway. Instead, he’s more interested in experience and performance:
Education means nothing to me, experience and performance means everything to me. It all starts with the first email. I would say 90%+ of all applicants are immediately filtered out for sending incomprehensible, all-blue-text and otherwise unprofessional emails. Presentation says a lot about someone’s attention to detail, work ethic and overall professionalism.
How Are New Hires Trained and Is There A Trial Period?
A common answer amongst all of the respondents is that training is a never-ending process. Most have a trial period lasting three months while others don’t have a trial period. Those that hired a customer or looked within their product community to hire support representatives discovered they were almost fully trained.
Many of the respondents with a trial period explained that it’s used to determine whether the company is a good fit for the individual and vice versa. The only way to determine if an employee is a good fit within an existing culture is to work with them.
Do You Hire Employees Or Work With Independent Contractors (Is An Agreement Signed)?
Answers to this question varied largely due to the location of the company and the employee. For example, WooThemes is registered in South Africa and all of their staff in South Africa are paid as employees. WooThemes works with a payroll company in the US to handle payments to staff living in the US. Staff members outside of South Africa and the US are paid as independent contractors.
David Morgan of Organic Themes has a unique approach. They have a deal where support contractors are paid at a monthly rate for a couple of hours of their time per day. In addition to the payments, they are able to accept as much customization work from the forums as they desire. Morgan said “the deal worked out so well for two individuals, they went on to create their own WordPress theme customization site, WerkPress.”
CyberChimps hires employees directly but requires them to sign an NDA contract.
How Much Are Support Staff Paid?
The average range from the responses is between $10-$35/hour. The amount of pay appears to be highly influenced by the location of the employee. $20 to $30/hour seems typical for a Western Hemisphere. Those with more experience and responsibilities or in locations with an especially high cost of living may see $35/hour. The range for support staff in developing countries due to the lower cost of living might range from $10 to $20/hour.
iThemes didn’t provide an amount but responded they don’t pay their support staff enough.
WooThemes uses a slight variation of the Open Salaries formula for location by Buffer to determine pay rates.
Advice On Hiring Support Staff
Hire slowly. WooThemes hired too quickly and discovered that many were not fit for the support role after a few months. Conduct several interviews and chats with the individual to make sure you are hiring a person that is committed.
Say thank you as often as you can to your support team. They are the front line of your products, even more so than the actual developers. Miller hires for passion and commitment to the customer, the product, and their mission. For retaining good support people, Miller says “ensuring they feel appreciated and listened to is the absolute key.” Saying thank you goes a very long way.
Kim Clark, VP of Customer Experience at CopyBlogger Media says to “follow your gut and trust your instincts.” While part of the equation is to find people with the required skills, the other is determining whether their personality matches with the company culture. As an example, if you provide a flexible hours environment and you find that the person you interview is asking about a rigid schedule, you will find yourself constantly answering questions about how they should structure their time.
Seek out individuals that are long time customers or who have reached out to you in the past. According to Morgan, “those individuals will likely be loyal to your brand, and often become more than contractors, but friends as well.” WordCamps are an excellent place to find candidates to become members of your support staff. Morgan believes, “one fantastic support member is worth more than several mediocre support members.”
Since the support staff are usually the first people a customer will speak with in your company, make sure they are as passionate and enthusiastic as you are. David Perel of Obox Themes says, “support staff need a huge amount of patience and they need to be comfortable interacting with people from all walks of life.”
You’ll never know if an applicant is right for the job until you put them into the field and stress test them. Hadaway says to “care about and nurture the fact that those who make the cut have a say and their ideas matter.” Hadaway believes that “besides just caring for their team at the human-level and wanting everyone to achieve success, it’s just better for CyberChimps in the purely business sense to have happy workers.”
The Benefits Of Keeping Support In-house
Drew Stojny of The Theme Foundry and Chris Wallace of UpThemes have an approach to hiring and providing support that were different enough from the other responses to warrant their own section. Both companies keep support in-house where each member of their team contributes to the support load. Strojny outlines some of the benefits of providing support in this manner.
- Customers get first class service from the team that built their theme.
- We get a first hand look at customer problems and can react quickly with bug fixes and improvements.
- We get valuable insight into what our customers want, which helps us when designing new themes
UpThemes does support in this manner to prevent the burden from falling onto one or a few individuals. They’ve recently hired a customer support advocate to keep a pulse on the needs of their customers. This will help them prioritize pain points and to build better products. By having the entire work force contributing to support, it helps them learn how customers are using their products in detailed fashion.
Support Can Make or Break A Company
The results from the survey prove just how important a good support infrastructure is. Support can make or break a company as we saw with the open letter by UpThemes. It’s one of the most important aspects of a business and is imperative to its long-term success. There are so many companies providing terrible customer service, customers excitedly share their experience when they are treated right. Whether it’s a theme, plugin, or service, a business should be striving to provide the most satisfying customer service possible.