There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to support. And at WooCommerce, it’s not any different. We invited Job Thomas, Head of Support at WooCommerce to join the Roundtable. This is a serious deep dive into the world of support. Whether you are curious about how their support has evolved. what makes for good support or simply what’s it like to be part of WooCommerce support, we have you covered.
A Chat with Job
Ronald, Robbie, Robert and Tonya talk with Job about:
- How he came from studies in educational science and theology to end up at WooCommerce
- If he has stuck with more of a supporting role or been in various departments at Woo and what the growth of his team has looked like
- What are the challenges and the future with makes sure support answers are found quickly both internally and externally
- The soft skills training that the support teams get
- How the training has developed looking back at the beginnings
- Where do you connect with customers who might not even know the right questions to ask
- Driving the sales and marketing process by what is being done on the support side
- WooCommerce Payments and how this affects support
- The future of growth, WooCommerce and support
- What experiences the panel has had with WooCommerce support
- What’s the space to help the Happiness Engineers decompress
- A large space of support with third party products
- How often they meet as a team
Connect with Job
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Ronald: Welcome to the Do The Woo Podcast Roundtable episode 137. Robert, did you know it was episode 137?
Robert: I did, because I read the show notes.
Ronald: Okay, well then. I'm joined here by three panelists and Job Thomas who's the head of support at WooCommerce. First, let me introduce all the panelists. I'm going to start just with myself, my name is Ronald. I work for YITH, and I'm being joined here by Robert Jacobi. Give us a quick one line of who you work for and maybe your highlight of the week.
Robert: Robert Jacobi, director of WordPress for Cloudways, and the highlight of the week, of course seeing all my friends here. Well, seeing them, everyone else is going to hear them but I get to actually see them.
Ronald: Good answer. Robbie, welcome back for another episode.
Robbie: Thank you. I'm Robbie Adair with OSTraining, and we have training on WordPress, WooCommerce, and various other platforms out there. And gee, now that Robert set the precedent, I'm going to have to say this is the highlight of my week, see? Because now he's put the stress on me.
Ronald: Still the right answer. Tonya, welcome. Welcome back after vacation.
Ronald: Tell us a little bit about your highlight and what you're working and who you work for.
Tonya: Sure. So hi, I'm Tonya Mork. I work for Automattic and I work full time in the WordPress open source project as a contributor there. Highlight of my week, well, I just came back from vacation so I'm still kind of in the mode of, where am I? What's going on?
Ronald: But further down in today's episode, I'm going to ask you more questions about that, where you've been. But don't reveal that yet, because that'll just make us all so jealous. But surely, this is also you highlight of the week.
Tonya: Absolutely, being here with all of you. You bet.
Ronald: Right. And we are being joined by Job Thomas. Job works for WooCommerce and Automattic as well, and you are the head of support.
Job: Yes, that's correct.
Ronald: Wow, that's a role... I sometimes ask people, do you ever have sleepless nights, and I can imagine you see a lot of tickets, a lot of problems, usually problems, isn't it? Because you don't tend to give compliments if you come through the support channel. So first of all, how do you sleep at night?
Job: I actually sleep quite well, mostly because I became a parent about 10 months ago, so every bit of sleep I can get, my body seems to want to take. So a blessing in disguise. I think throughout the years, you learn to distance yourself from what customers or users are saying to you. And it doesn't bug me that much anymore. I know that some of the team members find it emotionally super challenging, especially if someone is rude and swears a lot. I remember at one point, we received threats that someone was going to visit us at our offices-
Ronald: You don't have anymore?
Job: Well, we actually still have an office in Cape Town. No one's there ever, but we still have one in Cape Town. But this person was going to travel all the way to Cape Town and come to handle us and I was thinking, good luck. But so I think you learn to take distance from it because at the end of the day, you also learn to see the bigger picture in the sense that the majority of customers are getting in touch with us and they are the ones who are happy with our product that we see in the meet-ups, on the word cams, that we see in the reviews, they'll leave five-star ratings and so on. And that's people that are a big chunk of our business, but they don't need our help.
Also, the majority of our customers are really friendly and patient and understanding in terms of what we're dealing with. I think that if we're talking about what keeps me up, the people I have a much closer relationship with are the people working in the Woo division, and that's a group that's much closer to my heart in the sense that I everything make sure that they are doing well and that they have everything that they need to do their work, but also that their life isn't negatively affected by their works. And that's that they feel a space at WooCommerce to flourish. And I like that approach to leadership in general, creating space for ours to flourish.
Ronald: Nice. Tell me a little bit about your journey into WooCommerce. Where did you start and how did you first get involved?
Job: It's one of those journeys that doesn't make sense. I was working, so I have a background in educational sciences on one hand, and then in theology and religious studies on the other hand. And when I just moved to South Africa, I'm Belgian and I moved to South Africa for the best reason in the book, which is love. My wife is South African. So when I moved here, I needed a job and I found a startup college where I could join as a New Testament theologian, but it was a fairly toxic environment and I needed something else. Theology is not a field where there's loads of job opportunities, plus added to that that I found the field in South Africa fairly male and white, and I didn't want to be at another, one of those next to it. So I thought it would be good to not take up that space.
So I started looking around and one of my friends at the time was working for WooCommerce. That's before the acquisition by Automattic, and we just started brainstorming a bit, what would someone with an educational sciences background contribute to Woo? So I wrote a document that explained how I could help out with Sensei which was a product of WooThemes, how I could help with internal training, with customer education. And I sent that document to them to with an argument on why I should get that job and they were interested. I had an interview and they offered me a job shortly after that, so I tried a few different things since then at the company, but always stayed within what I think is educating customers and people.
Ronald: Wow. That's a fascinating story, it's really interesting. It's quite personal as well. So once you sort of started with working within WooCommerce, which is seven, eight years ago?
Job: Just under seven. Yeah, almost seven years.
Ronald: And starting in your regional role or where you are now, was that a straight-lined journey or you've doubled with different departments?
Job: Not entirely. I mean, I've always stayed very close to what we call Happiness. So we call the support division the Happiness division, which often puts a smile on customers' faces, well especially if they've received good support and they're not irritated with it. But when I started, I focused on those things that I described in my document and one of the first bigger projects I worked on was revamping the onboarding for employees at the company. It was a bit of a all over the show story, and I just tried to bring that together and bring a bit more line in that.
A few months later, we became the smallest team in the company with two people, me and the videographer, and we started focusing on training customers. So he focused purely on the tutorial videos on the documentations, on the docs pages on Woo, and I continued to focus on internal training and documentation. And we had a few people join to take on those roles later.
And then I think two or three years later, we did some restructuring within Happiness where we wanted to focus a bit more on timezone based teams, because we noticed that we were before that, focused on specialties, so we would have a shipping team, we would have a payments team, a pre-sales team, but in some of those teams there would be one person in the Americas, no Americas would always have more, but one person in the APAC timezone with not a lot of overlap resulting into know the team cohesion, struggling to bond with teammates, basically.
So we thought also that specialization to that degree, had some challenges, and I'm happy to elaborate on that in a bit. But we did an overhaul, focused on timezones, and I was only ETC+ based timezone person with lead experience and the head of support for the whole company asking if I'd be interested in that challenge. And I took it on.
And then together with the five and then later six of us, we led the division. So Automattic has a fairly flat structure, so the six of us would make the decisions, we would be coached by someone, but the leadership was done by the six of us until about a year ago, we came to the point where we noticed that no one really owning the decision-making process led to us not moving as fast as we could. So we created the division lead role for each of the Happiness divisions, and I applied for the one at WooCommerce, and here I am. The first six months of, well, of the first year, I took six months of parental leave so my experiences have been very interesting so far.
Ronald: Wow. Tonya, I know you have a lot of questions when it comes to support and self-help. Maybe you want to touch a bit on that, how that is structured.
Tonya: Yeah. I also have a little bit of experience in helping to reshape and reorganize a support division, so I have lots of questions there, but that's probably a bit more off topic. I think initially what struck me, and then we can come back to the self-service and self-help side of it, is the team has grown fast, right? You went from two to, what, over 80 or so now?
Job: Yeah. So I mean, we had more Happiness Engineers at the time. I was leading a team of two, including me, but there were, I think we at that time had about 20 Happiness Engineers in total and now indeed, we are I think around 85. So especially the last few months, we've seen a massive growth. To give an example, I came back from my second batch of parental leave in mid-May, and in the first two or three weeks, I assigned, I think, 15 or 16 people to a team. So it's not just those 20 people that we started with, there's been a lot of people moving to different team within Automattic, a few people going for other opportunities outside of the company. So there's also been a lot of moving through the Happiness division.
It's very rapid growth, and it's been interesting, challenging, definitely. I very much appreciate that new people coming in always bring fresh perspectives. I think it's dangerous when you are used to doing things a certain way that you take them for granted and don't question them anymore. So new people bring a lot to the table, the same goes, by the way, for leads. When I came back from my parental leave, we had eight teams by that time and six of the team leads were in it for less than half a year. So it's a very new group, again, which brings a very nice dynamic in the sense that lots of questions are asked. And I think if we can't give a good answer to the questions, then probably we shouldn't be doing things the way we're doing it.
Tonya: Well, that's right.
Job: But it's a good moment to reflect on how we're doing things and get those eyes on it. It also means that it's very challenging in terms of handing over internal knowledge. We used to, especially when we started, a lot of the knowledge was just in our heads and we would pass it on to the next person joining, but now we're moving much more towards an approach where we try to document things, where we try to put logic in how people go through all of the things they need to know of the company. We've recently, for example, formed a full onboarding team. So what they do is, these are a few people from each division, so it's across the support divisions.
So there will be a few people from WordPress.com who are experienced, Happiness Engineers, a few people from Woo, a few people from Jetpack, and they will coach and guide the people who've just joined the company in making sure that their journey is fairly consistent across the divisions, but also across the teams because in the past, someone would be hired, given to you as a team lead, and you as a team lead would have a massive impact on their journey.
And there's advantages to that, but I think making sure that there's a little bit of overlap means that you also have a fairly consistent experience, make sure that we cover all ground instead of the ground that is the pet peeve or the thing the lead loves the most. And those are things we want to avoid because we want to make sure that people are given the tools from the beginning to become a good Happiness Engineer.
Tonya: Well, you're setting them up for success out of the gate, right, versus onboarding. Well, I can attest to this because I'm pretty new there myself, so onboarding is a tough process. Well, that training that you talked about and distribution of knowledge fits nicely into what Ronald was setting me up for to talk about self-service, which is how, and maybe talk a little bit about that, how that fits in well with your past too, with training and education as well, allowed giving the information that's needed, not only internally but externally, so that folks internally and customers externally can help themselves very quickly but then in a way that helps them to quickly find their answer and not always have to go with that one-on-one interaction.
Can you talk a little bit about that, how that fits in, and maybe what some of the challenges are or what the future might look like for that?
Job: Yeah. I think the most evident part where we're trying to address is in our documentation. Even before I joined Woo, WooThemes had moved from having the documentation behind a, I want to say payroll, because only people who were customers had access to the documentation.
I am very happy that that wasn't the case anymore by the time I joined because you are sharing so much insight into how your products work, into how useful it will be for the customer without them needing to contact you, without them needing to test it out, and I see the big value of that. When we look at, I think at the moment, I will have to check the stats, but I think we do about 15,000 interactions on a monthly basis. By contrast, we have over one million page views on our documentation on a monthly basis. So I think that puts it a little bit into perspective on how important that side of the business is.
And a big part of the sales channel, so people purchasing our products, comes via our documentation. So people have actually looked at what does this product look like in terms of setup, before they purchase it. So it's not just a matter of letting customers help themself, it's also allowing them to already get that preview of what does this product look like? So in that sense, I think documentation is super important. We've tried at Woo to focus a lot on making sure we have very good guides. One of the things that I do want to see happen more in the future is that we focus on user guides. We've done a lot of the manual type approach where you install the plugin, then you click on this in order to do this, you go there.
And we used to, I would say five, six years ago, we did a lot of use cases where I would say, "Hey, if this is the type of store you want to set up, you'll need these plugins, this is how you configure them and bring it all together." We aren't doing that a lot anymore, but I think those are very helpful for customers because WordPress in its core is a fairly modular system, and as people who work with WordPress a lot, we often know how to navigate those modules. That's difficult for people who don't work with WordPress, and I think some of the competitors of open source go well on that side. They create an all-inclusive package which has its downsides and downsides that people often discover later in the game when they want to do something and it's not part of the package, and because it's not modular, they can't add anything.
But that stepping stone for new WordPress users to go for that modular approach is difficult. So if we can show them how to do it, that's a step that I think could be super useful. We did that a few years ago, I worked together with someone from marketing. She would post on people using WooCommerce for selling coffee, and how it works, what the metrics are they're looking for, and then on the doc side, I created the very practical guide, how do you create the WooCommerce subscription side. And having that tandem where people could read the use case and the stories of people selling coffee, with on the other hand also, "You want to do it? Here's how," was very popular and we've had positive feedback on that regard.
Tonya: I can see that. You're showing people what's possible and giving them a starting point.
Job: Yeah. Exactly.
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And now let's head back to the show.
Ronald: Robbie, I know you're training. Is this something that you resonate with, that you have to show people almost the end goal and paint a picture, and then go back in the technical side of things?
Robbie: Yeah, absolutely. And listening to you talk about your journey to get to where you are there as head of support, I've got two questions actually for you, and that is one, once you got into that role looking back at the training that had been developed when you were from the training side only, did you look at it going like, "Oh, man, we should've done this, or we should've done that,"? I'm sure that seeing it from the other perspective of the support person, you're like, "Oh, we need to go a little deeper in this or we need to make this a little simpler," things like that.
And then the second part of that is, do you also now offer any kind of soft skills for your support people to understand better how to handle, because as you said, most people who hit support, they're probably not in their best frame of mind because they've been trying to fix something for three hours and they're just like, "Ah," so do you guys do any kind of soft skills training with your support people as well?
Job: I'll start with the second one, if you don't mind.
Job: One of the big differences between before the acquisition happened from WooThemes to Automattic was that before that, our support was focused on fixing the problem and we didn't pay a lot of attention to what surrounds it, the context someone is coming from, whether we're explaining things to them or not. And that's one of the things that Automattic has a huge influence in us changing that culture. So we would just, I mean, if people were lucky, they would get a hi from us. I'm exaggerating, but we now try to focus a lot more on building that relationship. So one of the things we've actually discussed this week with the leads is the importance of paraphrasing and validating in a chat session.
We will have users starting a chat with us, and we've noticed that paraphrasing what they're experiencing has a massive influence, not just on the rest of the chat because we've noticed a lot that what the customer is saying doesn't necessarily mean that that's the actual problem. They might not know the right terminology or, I should say, we might not know the right terminology because they also have their frame of mind and their context of what they're thinking they're dealing with.
If we jump to a conclusion, if they say, for example, this button isn't working and we jump to the conclusion that they're right and go on that, and I've had that myself a few times, before I know it, I'm 20, 30 minutes further to discover that the actual problem is something entirely different. And paraphrasing helps a lot in making sure that you start off on the right foot, but it also helps to build the relationship you'll have for the next 20 minutes, because it shows that you're active listening, you're not just telling them where to go, you're trying to understand what their actual problem is.
The same goes for how we encourage HEs to guide the user along the way. In education, there's a psychologist called Vygotsky who had the principle called zone of proximal development, which the summary of it is that when you're looking at training and education, you should always push someone's knowledge just outside of their comfort zone of what they know.
You can't go too far because otherwise it'll fall through the cracks and they won't pick up anything, but also don't stay within what they know because then they won't learn anything. So figuring along the way how to find that specific aspect. When we're talking to customers, don't just say, "Go there and do that and do that," explain why we're doing that, because the chance of them coming back later when they know and they understand why something is supposed to happen is a lot smaller than if we just tell them. We're training them to come back.
So these are things that they're very difficult, I think, to train in the sense of making a course around it, but these are things that we as leads from a very early stage try to look into when we're doing quality reviews. We've built a very strong culture in terms of quality reviews, we expect all of our Happiness Engineers to do quality reviews of each other on a weekly basis, all leads do quality reviews on a weekly basis, and we even do that in a public channel. So we do think that quality is something that should be hidden, it's not, from my perspective, not focused on performance reviews that we're doing this. That plays into it at some point in the year, but the reason we're focusing on quality is to make sure that we provide good quality for our customers and to help each other grow in that regard.
So I think soft skills are difficult to learn in a course, but it is something that is very much part of our culture to look into. And I've learned a lot about that over the years. I remember at one point, so I used to get fairly upset if people would swear in a chat or a ticket, and I chatted with a more experienced person and in the end, he was like, "Just ignore it. Just move on and focus on their problem, help fix it, and you'll see that they turn around."
And there are those exceptions of customers who just are in a foul mood, or they're just not nice people. There's a few of those, but that's a minority. The majority of people are just angry because of the frustration they're experiencing and they won't get out of it by you asking them to be nicer to them, so just fix their problem and that's going to fix their attitude.
When it comes to what we have changed if you look back, that's a very big question. Are you talking mostly about the training provided or about the actual product we've built?
Robbie: No, just the training. Because you were on the training side, and so I was just curious that once you got into support and you were actually, literally, answering support questions from people, did you look back at the training then and say, "Oh, we needed to put more into this, or we need to go in more detail here or less detail here or make this a little more high level for someone and then they can dig down,"? I was just curious if you saw where documentation wasn't working and training wasn't working that you had put together prior to seeing support and how it worked.
Job: The caveat there is that my first three months, I did work in support because they wanted me to get to know the product. And so I didn't start out entirely fresh. And so that was the part that was super intimidating. I started within the pre-sales team, and every single one of the four people there had at some point done over 100 new tickets on a day, which is a lot. So these are 100 different questions that they're asking, or 100 different emails with questions on how to do something. So that was extremely intimidating. I think, and it's a pitfall we're still struggling with sometimes, when we're looking at training, we tend to draw a line between internal training and training of our merchants or of our customers. And it's an artificial line in a lot of cases.
A lot of the stuff that we want the Happiness Engineers to know could be very useful for anyone using WooCommerce, but because it's an unfinished work in progress, it gets developed internally and it never reaches the documentation, for example. And I try as much as possible whenever we do look at training to encourage people to edit documentation to add frequently asked questions wherever possible. So rather than keeping it internally, to get it out there, because we can access the documentation just as easily as the internal docs we have. That's one of the changes that we do try to look at, is making sure that whatever training we have is something that is specific for our team and for our Happiness Engineers, and not something that other people could benefit from.
I don't think we are fully succeeding at that yet. I think there's room for growth, but that's one of the things I think I'd like to see changed. Another one is that, and that's also improving, as people we look at training very linear. I want to say as people, but I actually mean as Western people. That's not an international thing, or definitely not a cross-cultural approach to learning. And we tend to go with first do this step, then do this step, then do this step, and it's not always the most efficient way to work. It's also often not the best way to work in terms of how people learn things.
The other thing I have noticed a few times is that people, there's this talk about learning stars going around, and I sometimes hear people say, "Oh, this is how I learn." And the interesting thing with that is that the person who developed this approach, Kolb, he saw this as a cyclic process where you start maybe with what you prefer in terms of learning, but then you go through all the things you don't, just learn through practice. It's necessary to also do some reflection at some point, and to take that reflection back and form a theory about that that you then test out and put into practice again. And I think our training can sometimes be either super practical, but with not enough breathing space to look back and reflect on what has happened.
So those are things that I try to look at. We definitely have a lot of space for growth in those areas. But I find it fascinating and I'm passionate about making sure that we grow those areas.
Ronald: During the last meetup for the London WooCommerce meet-up, Robert joined us and it was one of the questions of how did you start with WooCommerce and how did you learn it? And would you have liked to be exposed to a different method or different training or manual? And Robert, maybe you can finish that. Your point was actually really interesting.
Robert: Wait, so I have to remember from yesterday what I actually said?
Ronald: It's more with regard to terminology of knowing how to ask, what to ask, especially if you're new to WooCommerce, isn't always that straightforward.
Robert: Yeah. So the one thing that really struck me, and there's a total point I want to get back to with regards to pedagogy and all that fun stuff we were just hitting on, but one of the things is how much one may not know about ecommerce in general and you might not even know the right question to ask. So the example I brought into the conversation was cart abandonment. You may not know that that's sort of a term of art that actually if you know that term, you can find a whole bunch of information that will help guide you through that process. But if all you think in your head is, "Oh, shouldn't I send an email to someone even though they didn't purchase something?" I mean, how do you get to that sort of soft skill stuff that then guides you into a more specific funnel?
Job: Yeah. It's a super difficult one to tackle, right, because it's difficult to capture in AI because AI doesn't click that that's what they want to do unless you tell it, or unless they've had enough opportunity, or it has had enough opportunity, I shouldn't AI a they. What am I thinking? But unless it had had the opportunity to learn something, it's impossible to guess, right? So a recent example we had was that we have a product called Product Finders, and it allows you to create a WooCommerce store where other people can sell on your platform. A lot of customers have no clue that how it would be called Product Finders. They are asking for an Etsy or an Amazon type store, but before we updated our search terms on our documentation, they wouldn't find anything. If they typed Amazon, they would've found Amazon has three, which is cloud storage, which has nothing to do with setting up Product Finders.
And it's a super tricky area of supporting because it becomes even more complex when you're looking internationally. There's certain fixed expressions in English, I'm obviously now going to struggle to come up with one but when I joined the company, I had no clue what people were talking about unless I asked. And I think if you're a native speaker in a language and a product is built in that language, that's going to be a lot easier for you to navigate your way around it. It becomes really more difficult if it's your second or even your third language, and then how do you get from that side, from the translated aspect or what you think it should be in your head, to the actually terminology you need?
I had the opposite experience where I spoke at an ecommerce event in the Netherlands, and by that time, I had been working for Woo, but I had been working from South Africa and my work was in English. So all my terminology of WooCommerce was in English and I struggled so often to find my words in Dutch because I didn't know the ecommerce terms in Dutch. So it's very interesting how that can also play a huge role, the language that you do your business in.
Robert: Yeah, absolutely. So that then brings me to kind of what you were touching on with cards and being proactive. Is there an idea to have best practices and standards around certain products for Woo? So you can say, "These are the products we support, but this is also the best way to do it," and then cherry-pick certain products for that opportunity or card, if we go back to the coffee shop example or an Etsy example? Are you guys also... Boy, this is a huge multifaceted question, are you also driving then some of that sales and marketing process at the end of the day by what you're doing on the support side?
Job: Yeah. So I mean, our marketplace is growing a lot, so we have, I think the last count was around 160 vendors also selling extensions on woocommerce.com. And we try to give a balanced view of those extensions. If someone reaches out to us and they're saying, "I want to do this," there's a big likelihood that multiple extensions will do something similar. In that regard, we obviously tend to recommend the things we know best, which is the ones that have been around for a long time, especially if you know the products well.
There's one of the vendors on the marketplace called SomewhereWarm and they've been with us from the very beginning. They build great products. We've worked with those products, I'd happily recommend any of their products without a doubt. With some of the other vendors, I don't know that well what their product looks like, how well they are supported, so I'm relying a lot on what they communicate to us. If a vendor pops up regularly in support, that's not a good sign for us because that's not something we want.
So yeah, we do try to find a good balance in that regard. We are currently building into making sure that we can ask users of those products for input, so we have a better review system than before. We're looking also into bringing support reviews to our marketplace because as I said, the marketplace is growing and I want to avoid where we end up with a system where... I at one point, just for tests, opened a chat with Shopify and I knew they had two plugins or whatever it's called in Shopify that did subscriptions. I just asked the person in chat, "Which one should I use of the two?" And they were extremely vague and beating around the bush, and I found it extremely irritating.
So I tend to encourage HEs to just, if you have no clue, look at the product listing, look at the documentation because it says a lot about the quality of the product, do a quick test, you have access to the extension, see how good of a UX access and make genuine recommendations.
That's definitely one side. We also will recommend things that we've built ourselves, obviously, because we know those really well and we know who built those. And I don't think I'm going to claim that all of our products are super user-friendly, but especially the newer ones, I'm really excited about. We've acquired subscriptions two years ago, the Prospress team also is before, when they were still a vendor on our marketplace, those were products that I would not think twice to recommend because not just the actual product, but also the support people behind it. So I'm very glad that they are now part of our company. The other thing that I see amazing progress in WooCommerce Payments, that's making it so much easier for merchants to worth with payments and rather than having to go to a different dashboard somewhere else, they can just stay within the WordPress interface, which is amazing.
Ronald: Also from a support point of view, are you excited that it's going to roll out and will make life a lot easier for you?
Job: Yeah, it's great in the sense that we have a lot more access to what is happening with when it comes to the payment gateways that are off sites, Square, Stripe, PayPal, there are so many different options all depending on which country you're based in. But there's a point where we can test the API and if that's working fine, we can look at the information that's being sent. But what's happening on the other side, you can also see if there's a response, but that's it. We can't verify what's happening on the other side. So the support process is way more difficult in those cases then, than with WooCommerce Payments where we have an extra layer, so WooCommerce Payments is built on top of Stripe, and we have a layer where we see a lot of the information that we need to help merchants out.
Plus again, they don't need to leave, we don't even need to have that layer because if we have access to the side of the customer, which in a lot of cases they will give us if needed, we can see those details because those details are there. So yes, the support is a lot easier with a product like WooCommerce Payments. And I mean, if something's broken, if it's built in house it's a lot easier to nag and develop or to fix it.
Ronald: Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about the future. I know WooCommerce Payments in coming, well, has just come out in six other countries. Tonya, you're always big on vision and future and think much bigger. I mean, how many WooCommerce installs at the moment? Four, four and a half million or five million? Something along those lines I think.
Job: Yeah. I think, so we've started looking more at active stores, so stores that are doing something rather than the amount of downloads. And I don't quote me on this, I'm being recorded, right? So this is difficult. But I think we're looking at about 350,000 active stores, but I might be slightly off. So don't be too strict on me. So if we're looking at that, it's a big amount of people and we are looking to grow, the product team is looking to grow. And at the moment, a lot of our efforts are focused on WooCommerce Payments because it's such an integral part of what people are doing. If you can't accept payments, you don't really count as ecommerce. So it's a pretty vital step in the whole ecommerce process, and making it as easy as possible for people who don't have a WordPress background to work with payments.
So that's getting a lot of our focus and attention at the moment. We are very engaged with making sure that's available for more merchants than just those six countries. We are very close to launch another four. I think we already listed on our documentation, I think Italy, Spain, Germany, and France are coming very soon, which I happened to have looked a few weeks ago, those 10 countries together cover 50% of our active stores. So that's a huge win, so it's amazing that we're getting there. We don't want to stop with just 50%. We also don't want to stop at 100%, we want to get to those countries that we aren't very present in. And localization plays a big part in that, and making the right partnerships.
So yeah, we've started, not we've started, we've continued to make sure that we build good partnerships with key partners in each of the, at the moment, bigger countries. But we make sure that the experience also, that the onboarding is localized. So I am based in South Africa. Throughout the onboarding process, the payment gateways that will be recommended to me will be the ones that work here. I won't be recommended anything that doesn't work here. So that's a very important aspect.
When we're looking at growing supports, one of the things we're noticing is that the type of merchant slash customer we're dealing with is expanding. While we would in the past mostly deal with developers, there is a big chunk of our customers that are now just shop managers. They want to have their shop working and they need help with that, which is a different type of user to deal with. It also means that sometimes, their problems are of a different nature than a developer. Developer often isn't too worried if something happens now or tomorrow. If you set the right expectations, it's a Friday night right before the weekend, their customer isn't that worried about getting it fixed so they're less insistent, but as we are working towards WooCommerce Payments, if your payment gateway is broken, you want to get that fixed right now because you're losing money if it's not the case. So-
Ronald: I'm going to ask you next year about the sleepless nights, because that might be a totally different thing then, isn't it? Taking on this extra responsibility.
Job: Yes. And that's a big responsibility, and we want to be there for our customers and we've, a few years ago, started doing some coverage in the weekends and now we are hopefully by the end of the year working towards getting 24/7 support, making sure that not necessarily to always fix problems straight away, but at least to do so triaging, to make sure that we do help those customers who urgently need help, but also make sure that those who have a problem, that could be fixed tomorrow, still have a first interaction with us. We make sure that we understand their problem, that we have all the right details to do the troubleshooting tomorrow, and make sure that they feel heard in that regard. So that's a big change from the support perspective that's coming, and that's something that we still are figuring out.
Our marketplace is growing, also the products we own ourselves. And a few years ago, and I told you earlier in the episode that I would get back to that, we had a point where we had specialized teams, but the downside of that is that you first of all are very dependent on who is available in the spot to help out. When you have timezone-based teams, you don't want shipping to be something in Asia-Pacific, payments something in Europe and Middle East and Africa, and pre-sales in the Americas. You want to make sure that every person in every timezone can ask questions and get an answer for that. So that's one side, but we want to make sure that we can answer those questions.
The other one is that if you're specialized, you're likely to use a bit of overview. I think it adds a lot of value if the person you're chatting with can get that overview, can see, "Oh, this problem you're experiencing with shipping, I think that might actually be a problem with your payment gateway as well. Let me zoom out a bit and have a look at that quickly." Or I'm noticing that your store's growing fast. If you're just in payments, you'll be like, "Oh, the payment gateway can handle that." If you have that overview, you'll be able to say, "Hey, I noticed that your site is quite slow. You may have to hire a developer to do some optimization, maybe you need to change your hosting platform to handle an increase in traffic." And that's one of the challenges we faced as specialists, is that you don't have that overview.
The other side of the coin is that now that our marketplace is growing, it becomes impossible to know everything. And we're at the moment figuring out how to navigate that, how do we keep still being generalists for the things that we should be generalists on, while at the same time making sure that people can dive deep in certain plugins and be fairly oblivious to other plugins and extensions, and we're being okay with that? So that's one of the things that we'll definitely be navigating in the near future.
Robert: That's sounds suspiciously like getting into a consultative solutions group kind of scenario. Would you be stepping on the toes of possible agencies and developers in that regard, or?
Job: I don't think so. I think we can build partnerships with agencies, but we have a few good partnerships with agencies and with experts. We do try to stick quite well to what our products are to focus more on the sales and support aspect, rather thinking about looking at the development side of things. That's not what we're there for. There's also tons of people in the WordPress world who are better at that than us, and who will give a much better experience to the customer. I see our role much more in saying, "Hey, I'm noticing this, I think you should hire a developer," rather than, "Let us do it for you."
And sometimes it's difficult because our team members really like doing troubleshooting, like figuring things out. Sometimes we do go a bit further than we probably should in terms of even configuration. I think it's good that we help customers in the process, but if someone has no clue how to set up a subscription site, they need a developer. They don't need help from Happiness. We're the ones who are helping them read the instruction manual, do the troubleshooting, but not configure something for them.
So no, I don't see that, I see it as an opportunity to grow those partnerships to make sure that we do get them in touch with developers we trust and value a lot, to get them in touch with hosting platforms that we believe are good for growing platforms.
Ronald: Usually, we ask the guest as well if they have questions, or a question to all of us. We all have different backgrounds. Do you have anything you'd like to ask us?
Job: I would be very interested, has any one of you ever chatted with support or had an interaction with support, and what was your experience? What would you have liked to seen different or what did you appreciate?
Ronald: Well, I have in fact, a couple of years ago, and I must say, the chat makes it a lot more personal. And what you've said earlier about how you deal with people and identify the problem, I remember that. I remember exactly that scenario, and I'm not sure if I was supported enough that it solved the problem, but at least I felt there was an ear listening to me. Going back a couple of years ago, I think before chat where you would send a problem, and this is maybe then also, maybe in my personal case but also from what I've heard, whether you don't explain the problem well enough because you assume that a Happiness Engineers know exactly what's going on, can you disable plugins? Can you activate a vanilla site? And that cycle can be quite frustrating as a user.
So I think the chat for sure has helped to triage dealing with problems. So I think for sure, it's a good thing. Yeah.
Job: Okay. I was going to quickly say that one of the things that we've tried to emphasize a lot in the last few years is the conflict test aspect is sometimes necessary, but I try to draw new people on only using that as a last resort, because it's so intrusive and invasive in your website. You don't want to do a conflict test. I do think that the Health Check plugin of dotorg is amazing in that regard. So if you haven't tried that, that's installed on your website, it's such a great tool. It's not always possible to use for testing some of the things we need to do with WooCommerce.
But yes, I think you make a very valid point. That's something that we try to focus on a lot. I think the challenge with that comes a lot of our Happiness Engineers don't run WooCommerce stores, so they're like, "Oh, just install the plugins." And you're like, "No, this is intrusive, this is a live website that's making money. That's our last resort we should go."
Ronald: Has anybody else got any firsthand experience, or maybe heard from clients?
Robbie: I've actually used the support a couple of times, and I mean, I can't remember exactly what it even was for, I think it's probably like a year ago. But I did get my answers. So I mean, I guess it was a pleasant experience because I don't remember it as being otherwise, and believe me, I have had some really bad support experiences as I'm sure all of us have. So yeah, I mean, I got my questions answered, I was kind of in and out of the support.
Job: Yeah, you don't want people to remember you.
Robbie: I do have a quick question, I know we're almost out of time, but do you guys keep historical information so that each help desk person can see that the support history of the client that they're working with?
Job: Yes, we do. I mean, that's obviously with the GDPR rules, we also have boundaries to that. It is often very helpful. We also try to leave notes on customers, if for example, they've done amazing work for us before and we sometimes will leave a note if they're asking for a coupon or for a test, just go with it. We recently had a discussion where we noticed that we started being a bit... How would I say? Our notes would set up a bias beforehand, and that's something we're trying to get rid of because you don't want to start the conversation and it already says, "This is a difficult customer."
So we try to use more neutral language in that regard, but yes, we do keep that. And also the history of a chat and the ticket often reveals the answer for future chats. So we encourage HEs to do a search and figure out if someone else has answered this problem. Yeah. Ideally, we also add to that step if you see more than five people, make sure that that's a doc so people can see it in there on our website.
Ronald: Nice. Tonya, I'm going to ask you now, where did you go on holiday?
Tonya: I knew you'd get back to that. Actually, we did a staycation, stayed around our local area. We had gotten fully vaccinated right before staycation started, and it was our first opportunity in over a year to actually go to our family's house, hug them, be with them, go to the things, the local stores and the local area things that we enjoy and walk in and sit down and do some things.
Job: Sounds lovely.
Ronald: I'm so glad I asked that, because that makes me feel good and quite positive about the future as well.
Tonya: Yeah, yeah. What was odd about it, it felt abnormal. That normal a year ago is now feels abnormal, and that was a very odd thing to try to come to terms with.
Robert: Yeah. It's almost like you need a Happiness Engineer to walk you through coming back into life.
Job: You need some new onboarding.
Ronald: A wizard to explain how this hugging business goes...
Tonya: Yeah, do that, would you?
Job: So our daughter was born in the midst of one of our COVID peaks, and I mean, it was obviously already emotional, but at one point, the gynie hugged us both and I was overwhelmed because I hadn't had a hug from anyone but my wife in, I don't know, five, six months. So it's weird, this event. It's really weird and I'm looking forward to hugging being a normal thing anymore.
Ronald: Yeah. Just a normal word cam where we can see all the Happiness Engineers and see they are all people. I just want to do a really quick round for all of you, just a quick question, maybe a super quick answer, something that's been on your mind throughout this episode that you'd like an answer on. Tonya, do you want to kick off? Have you got a quick one for Job?
Tonya: I've had one kind of gnawing at me, because we talk about the Happiness Engineers encountering someone who's not happy coming in, and how do you set them up for, we talked about people being able to thrive and flourish, how is that handled? I know that's probably a very big question, but maybe just a short answer of what's the space to help the Happiness Engineers be able to decompress?
Job: Yeah. So especially in chat, it's often very difficult on the spot, and we do have a policy that if you're not able to handle a difficult customer at the spot, or right now, sure, we'll help you later how to do it better next time, but just transfer it to someone else. One of the reasons that we don't list names on our chatbot, that's because we want to be able to transfer without the customer noticing. And this is one of the scenarios where we would say, "Just give it to someone else, and someone who has more energy to deal with that today." So that's one of the ways that we try to empower HEs.
Ronald: Robert, one quick one for you.
Robert: Quick one, quick one. I'm just so excited about the trajectory of WooCommerce these days. I guess the quick one is, yes I know WooCommerce is its own company with its own products and services, I'm thinking third parties that aren't in the store, or something. Is there a greater support plan?
Job: So we do also monitor as Happiness Engineers to do the org forums. So we provide support there as well. And that's a place where you don't need to be a paying customer of ours to get help. The reason that we point free users to that is that it's public, so it makes that we can reuse whatever support we've provided. So that's one area.
The second one is that we have someone who is full time focused on developer and community building in that regard. So he, for example, has worked in moving the developer specific docs from our docs website over to the developer platform of Woo, because we do believe the business is built on the idea that if other people can build their business on Woo, then we're going to do well. And that's a system that's worked amazingly in the past years. I think that's something we need to keep on focusing and making sure that other people can thrive as well.
Ronald: Nice. Robbie, have you got one?
Robbie: I've got a really quick one. How often do you guys meet as a team?
Job: As the whole division, I actually think not. We regularly have town halls, but we do that on the Happiness level. So that's with all Happiness Engineers because the experience is fairly shared. There's a lot of overlap, a lot of similar challenges, similar opportunities. So we have those, I would say, once every two months. We have a town hall with the CEO with the whole company every month. Each individual team will have a meeting on a weekly basis. As team leads, we meet weekly. And I also try to, this is actually the week that I'm doing them, it's each six months I try to have a call with each team as well where they can ask me anything, what's on their mind.
I said this to a few teams, but I'm always surprised how little they make use of the anything part in that. They're often very nice questions. I'm always prepping and expecting to be grilled, but people don't take advantage of it.
Ronald: I've got one question. I know WooCommerce is a huge asset to WordPress, and WordPress, knowing there's an ecommerce extension available, do you see, especially in the last 12 months, do you see people and maybe more people coming from WooCommerce to WordPress? And has that got some new challenges in terms of education?
Job: Yes. There are more people making that move, because people are just Googling, "Web shop," and finding what the solutions are. Interestingly that those conversation happened a lot when I attended that ecommerce conference that I was talking about earlier in the Netherlands, there's an ecommerce conference with lots of people there have never heard of WooCommerce. I even at one point made my round through the booths and someone of a local shipping company tried to convince me that I should get into ecommerce, and maybe, he was like, "Do you want to build a partnership with us?" And I asked him, "Well, I work for WooCommerce, have you heard of it?" And he was like, "No, not really. What do you do?"
And so it was like, okay, this is new and interesting. This is new and interesting, this is not a WordCamp experience. So yes, we have experienced that and I think that the result of that, we've invested a lot in UX people at the company. We have a lot of designers focus on making things as simple as possible. And I see that move within WordPress as a whole. If you just look at where WordPress is now, there was a lot of hesitation and lots of challenges around Gutenberg, for example, but to any new user that I've shown how to use WordPress, they found that very easy to use in comparison to-
Ronald: That's so true. That's so true. My own son, just like that, he finds the classic editor so old fashioned. How could you possibly use that? So yeah, you're really, there's a lot of reluctance.
Job: Yeah. And I think that that's a trend we see across the board and I am happy with that. And similar to how I am always happy when there is new people joining our division, I think people from outside of WordPress world joining the WordPress world is exciting because they bring new questions and challenges to the table. And I think it ultimately helps build a better product.
Ronald: I think that's how we started the conversation, and I think that's a perfect ending as well. I do have one small personal question. How can you live in a country where you find snakes behind your television set? And for anybody who is wondering what I'm talking about, Job has a beautiful blog, lots of stories on there, and I did a quick search and wow, that's quite amazing.
Job: I have to say, in the eight years that I've been here, I've only had a few snake encounters. That was the only one that petrified me. There was a boomslang, which is one of the, I think, top three most dangerous snakes in the country, in our cabin. Luckily in Cape Town itself, I've never seen a snake. So...
Ronald: If people want to get in touch with you, what's the best way?
Job: They can follow me on Twitter, that's Job, J-O-B, Tex, T-E-X, or just go via my blog which is job.blog.
Ronald: I think lots of people check out the snake story now. But thank you so much.
I'm going to thank our sponsors. We have friends, pod friends they're called. And our first one is GoDaddy Pro, and you can check them out on dothewoo.io/Hub.
And we have WP Activity Log and you can check them out on wpactivitylog.com. I think you could've guessed that one. So thank you to the pod friends to make this all possible.
Robbie, Robert, Tonya, thank you so much for joining me again as panelists of the Do The Woo Roundtable. And Job, thank you so much for giving up your time and giving us a good insight of what the support team does, but also the whole culture within WooCommerce. I find that fascinating. And of course, your own journey, how you've influenced your background, how that influenced where WooCommerce is today. So thank you very much and see you all again next month.
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