Improving support and how we talk about it

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.


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  1. I bought $5 in support points when they first came out; I remember this gave me an immediate subscription when you first made the switch, but they would be “held in escrow” in a sense until I needed support. Now with this new system I don’t see them or have the ability to cash them out anymore, did they disappear or were they used up by my “subscription” when I wasn’t looking?

    Comment by Jeremy — August 16, 2014 #

  2. If you ever had support points and don’t know if you still do, you can check the profile tab. If you have points, that’s pretty much the only place they still show up. (Also if the support tab tells you you’re a baseline member but suggests that you open a secure issue, you have points. But that’s really subtle.) They are cashed out from an account info panel.

    But, no, they were not used up by the subscription system. In general, support points are still out there unless you have used them up or sold them back. In some cases, support points can also be auto-sold off by the system if it’s absolutely necessary to keep your stuff online. But mostly they survive until used.

    There are a lot still outstanding, and they’re quite valuable. Maybe we should allow them to be sold on the secondary market. 🙂


    Comment by jdw — August 16, 2014 #

  3. On the page with the table, you say that (because a billing month is always 31 days long) one gets a 9.7% discount every February. Actually, that is only true for 75% of Februaries; the February discount is 6.5% in a leap year.

    You are quite correct. 🙂 -jdw

    Comment by Toby Bartels — August 16, 2014 #

  4. I have no quibbles with the two-tier support system as it exists now. It makes perfect sense. I do have a minor quibble with the new way in which it’s presented after clicking on the “support” tab, though. I typically will click on that tab to reach the menu that contains the link to the free support forum. The rewritten page for “support” strikes me as a little pushy in its effort to get someone to pay for support before the option for the forum appears a little further down on the page.

    I realize that this effect isn’t intended. I’m a semi-professional writer and also have been deeply interested for many years in user interfaces to computer programs and Web functionality, and it’s frankly difficult to anticipate all possible interpretations by a vast range of readers. Still, if you’d care to do that, I think I wouldn’t be alone in appreciating a direct link in the tab array to the support forum. If you’re concerned about misunderstandings by newer members, you could always add a bit of text to the page for the free support forum that suggests clicking the “support” tab for more in-depth options.

    Anyways, your hosting business remains one of the most delightfully logical and technician-friendly websites I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. ^_^

    Comment by Bumpy Light — August 16, 2014 #

  5. We feel it’s conceptually important to briefly cover why the option for individual private support doesn’t appear on your list of support options before we give you the list of options. The language used is definitely not intended to be “pushy” though, and I’d be interested to know how many people perceive it that way.

    Adding a tab for the forum is not something we would do right now. However, there is a (not-very-prominent) link to the forums on beneath the list of top FAQ’s. We’ve also been toying with adding another more visible Forums link and possibly a phpMyAdmin link to the “Quick Actions” box in the upper right.


    Comment by jdw — August 16, 2014 #

  6. Aha! I now see the “Forums” link in the FAQ section that you mentioned. A good technician should be observant. I withdraw my minor quibble. ;^^

    Comment by Bumpy Light — August 17, 2014 #

  7. The Forum, the Wiki, and the blog should have tabs at the top, to the right of the support tab where they are easy to find. It is a common UI practice to place these things in the main navigation menu.
    They are important to new users looking for answers. New users don’t know their way around the site and are suffering from information overload already. Easy is good.

    Comment by Dieter Donnert — August 17, 2014 #

  8. I have a few suggestions about the look and feel of the “easy-to-understand” table on the main support page.

    Firstly, among all comparisons I have seen on various websites that have different tiers of services or licenses, the feature is always the first column on the left, followed by the tiers (with their Yes/No/Comments) to the right. On this page though, they seem to be flipped the other way, with the feature list on the right most column. That looked odd. It may be better to switch this order.

    Secondly, the merged cells on features available to both classes look somewhat old style, along with the Yes or No centered on the merged cell but still making the column separator line between Baseline and Subscription stand out shouting “misalignment somewhere”. Of course, it’s easy to figure out what the actual layout is and why it appears this way, but this could also be improved by just repeating the answer for each feature (like “Yes | Yes” or “No | No” – the pipe symbol here stands for the column separator) instead of having merged cells.

    Thirdly, equal sized columns for Baseline and Subscription (the feature column can still be a lot wider than these, like it is now).

    Lastly, borderless table (with perhaps more vertical spacing between rows if necessary)! 🙂

    These changes would make it look better overall.

    Comment by S M — August 20, 2014 #

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