Looking back, it’s hard to believe we’ve been using our new subscription-based support system for almost eight months. Wow, time flies. Overall, we’ve been very happy with this change. We really enjoy getting to spend time working with our members and helping them be successful with our service. The response from the people who’ve used it has also been almost uniformly very positive. So, right now, we feel like we finally got it right. Which isn’t to say that we can’t do even better.
It’s hard even to describe how fantastic it is for support to (finally) be self-financing like the rest of our service. It’s good for everybody, even people who don’t ever use it, because support no longer takes time and money away from other areas. To give just one example, it’s enabled us to put more sysadmin time into managing software upgrades, so we have more realms, more software packages, and upgrades make it to you quicker. Case in point: the PHP developers released PHP 5.3.29, a final post-EOL release of PHP 5.3 (which we salute them for doing) yesterday. It went live on our system several hours ago. That used to take us two weeks.
A rose by another name…
We have found that there’s still room for improvement, though, particularly in terms of how we talk about support with people who don’t understand the subscription model. The best way we’ve found to explain how it works is this: there is a choice inherent in our system. If you want individual support, like other hosting companies, we offer that for a small monthly fee, like other hosting companies, and the service we provide is a very good value. If you (like most of our members) are comfortable supporting yourself or using our community-based support options, you can get a substantial discount by foregoing the support.
Problem is, that isn’t how we were explaining it. So we’re revamping how we talk about subscription-based support quite a bit, though we’re making very few actual changes to how it works. We’re starting with the name. The “support subscription” is now called the “subscription membership.” If you don’t have one, you have a “baseline membership.”
Rather than having support as an optional add-on to your membership, we’ve decided to present the “support or not” choice as two types of memberships: baseline and subscription. The baseline membership is exactly what everyone is used to: a membership where the only costs are based on the hosting resources used, and support is available through the forum, FAQ, and wiki. The subscription membership has a $5.00 setup fee the first time, costs up to $5.00 per month, and includes individual support through email and our site.
So, basically, exactly the same as before except we’re presenting it as an either-or choice between two options that include different things rather than one plan with an optional add-on. This seems to be a lot more familiar to a lot of people, as it’s commonly not just by hosting companies, but also all sorts of software products and services. It also lets us present the two choices in an easy-to-understand table.
But don’t worry, we’re still us and it’ll still be a cold day in hell before we start offering “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Bronze” packages and filling up that table with lots of “UNLIMITED,” exclamation points!!!, and misleading monthly costs based on paying for thirty years in advance. We just want the people coming to us from those companies to better understand what they are (or aren’t) getting from us.
We’ve also changed how we describe the term of subscription membership. With support subscriptions, there was a minimum term of five months. With subscription memberships, there is a one-time fee for switching back to baseline membership that decreases over time, reaching zero after five months. These are almost identical. The only difference is that with a support subscription, a person who wanted to get rid of it had to make a note on their calendar to log in after the five months and switch it off. Subscription memberships can be switched off at any time. Importantly, subscription members who pay the switch-back fee still get the benefits of subscription corresponding to what they’re paying. So both plans end up costing the same and providing the same benefits for the same length of time. Just a big change in description, and a minor improvement in convenience.
The only material change we’ve made affects only people who have a baseline membership, switch to a subscription membership, switch back to a baseline membership, and then switch to a subscription membership again. The cost to set up the first subscription will be the same as before, $5.00. The cost to set up the second subscription, however, will range from $0.00 to $25.00 based on how long they were unsubscribed. The purpose of that is very simple and we’re not going to try to pretend it’s anything other than what it is: a way to ensure that unless that person waits a very long time between subscriptions, they were better off staying subscribed. Support subscriptions were never intended to be per-incident support, and the same is true of subscription memberships.
(We remain uninterested in providing per-incident support; we’ve learned our lesson there. The subscription plan is definitely a case where we did the right thing after exhausting all the other options.)
Making life better for baseline members
Aside from support, there are a few things that come up where people need us to do stuff. This includes things like recovering a domain that’s gone into redemption, restoring files that have been deleted, or having us generate an SSL certificate for you. After we introduced subscription-based support, people who weren’t subscribers had a rough time getting access to that stuff, and the workarounds we came up with were, charitably, suboptimal. (“Open an unpaid support ticket and then post the issue number on the forum so we can find it.” Ugh.)
To address that, we’ve expanded our Assistance Request feature. These new assistance requests aren’t free, but they outline the costs right in the description and are available to all members. There is still an advantage for subscription members, though. Since they’re already funding our ability to have people there to interact with them through their subscription fee, they get almost all of these at lower or no cost.
This will make things a lot easier for baseline members who run into those weird edge cases where they need something specific from us, but for which a support subscription is not appropriate. If we find more things that fit that bill, we’ll add them.
Cleaning up our support tab
The other major issue we’ve found was the support tab of our UI. There’s a word that is often applied to well-designed interfaces: discoverability. It refers to how easy it is to figure out how the interface works just by browsing around. The old support tab lit a poop-filled bag on discoverability’s front porch and ran off. We have a bunch of different support options to choose from and there’s almost no overlap so it’s easy to get it wrong. And effectively all of them were at least two clicks from the support tab, often hidden behind labels or link text that, sure, it’s relevant. (If you squint a little.) This worked fine for the (admittedly large) percentage of our membership that was born with genetic knowledge of how hosting works. But for people who were already having a rough time and were looking for help, it tended to kick them while they were down. Which is not cool. So we’ve cleaned that up.
The new support tab does three basic things:
- It lists your open and recent issues (if any).
- It briefly explains the difference between baseline and subscription membership and tells you which one you are and how to change.
- It enumerates and directly links to all the support options available to you and, if you don’t know which one to use, gives you a specific recommendation about where to start based on what type of membership you have.
We’ve separated our system status out to its own page, which shows both open system issues and anything from our Twitter feed that’s marked as a network status update. (#status) We’ve also added notification about open system issues to the main member page so you’ll see them right when you log in.
It’s our hope that the changes to our site will make support easier to find and obtain, and that the changes to how we talk about support will make the cost vs. support tradeoff easier to understand, and help each member feel like they’re choosing the right option for them.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.