How to get great support as a technical user

  Wynn Netherland • 2013-02-14

One of my favorite parts of working at GitHub is helping our Supportocats answer support requests. Since I focus mainly on the GitHub API, I get to work with our more technical users. I've shopped at BestBuy enough to know what it's like when you think you know more than the staff.

Nearly nine months of helping technoweenie pursue Inbox 0 at the API Help Desk has changed the way I ask for tech support for other products and services.

Use the right channel

In the software industry, many of us have friends who have founded or work on some of our favorite services and tools. With those personal relationships, it seems easier to shoot an @reply or DM on Twitter. For site down questions, that's often good enough, but 140 chars just isn't conducive to describing (much less troubleshooting) most issues.

For GitHub, our support form makes it simple to reach out and say Halp! Sending an email to works, too. Including "API" in the subject line routes you straight to the API team.

Many open source projects have mailing lists, issue trackers, and IRC rooms to talk about issues. Find the right channel before you send a flurry of questions to a project maintainer.

Get to the point

Once your request makes it to the top of the support queue, it has to be grok'd by a human. Verbosity is your foe here. The more you write, the longer it takes to distill your words into your actual issue. Not just once, but each time your ticket is passed to someone else on the team, it has to be reinterpreted.

Include details

Your chances of getting speedy help go up substantially if you can avoid that dreaded "more info please" follow up. Photos, screenshots, URLs, stack traces, and other facts help speed up the six stages of debugging. If you're calling a HTTP API, the developer has a hard time refuting curl output.

Don't piggyback issues

Many request tools thread messages by subject or ticket number. You might be tempted to reply to that six month old email because the person who helped you last time seemed to know what they were talking about. Unless the issue is directly related, chances are you're delaying your new ticket because there's more previous conversation to wade through on the other end.

Don't be insecure

Most support queues use plain old unencrypted email. Please, please, please never send passwords, API tokens, credit cards, or other sensitive information in email. Always mask or omit sensitive info in email. Be sure to scrub that stack trace or log snippet you're including, too.

Be classy

You might have justified rage because a certain feature has been long broken and no one seems to care. Just don't let frustration undermine your own cause. Name calling and insults might make you feel better in the moment but it won't bring you any relief. Most support folks are extremely professional. They like to help or they wouldn't do what they do.

That said, humans are more inclined to help when they're treated like, well, humans.

Oh yeah, we're hiring Supportocats.

Wynn Netherland
Wynn Netherland

VP of Engineering at Abstract, team builder, DFW GraphQL meetup organizer, platform nerd, author, and Jesus follower.