How to be a Support Channel (IRC) Superstar

by Joel Burton last modified Mar 20, 2012 03:51 AM
Contributors: Jon Stahl, Alexander Limi
Want to help our users in #plone in the most effective ways? Learn how you can become a superstar in our support channel!

Why This is Important

It Helps Plone

Our IRC support channel, #plone, is an amazing mechanism — 24 hours a day, every day of the year, you can connect directly with other Plone users and integrators. It's really one of the things that makes Plone different than our proprietary competition. And, even though many of our open source peers have IRC channels, ours has traditionally been a welcoming place for friendly, quality help.

#plone is a critical resource for new Plone users and integrators who are climbing the learning curve and learning to harness the power and flexibility of Plone. If we don't continue to give outstanding support via IRC we'll have a tough time engaging and retaining our future community superstars.

It Helps You

If that doesn't convince you, consider how being helpful in IRC helps promote your personal brand as a consultant. Who would you rather hire?

  • plonenewbie: How do I change the footer?
  • nohelphere: <rolls eyes>. That's a FAQ!
  • mrfriendly: You can do it through the web easily. Do you know how to get to the ZMI?

One of the authors, known for being a friendly, helpful contributor in IRC, often gets multiple consulting offers daily from his free IRC support — work which, if he could do all of it, would be tens of thousands of US dollars worth of business.

Here's a short, opinionated field guide to being extra super-helpful in IRC.

Making People Feel Welcome

Say “Hi” Back

Many users, when entering the channel, will say "hi!" (or: "is anyone here?" or something like that). Answering "Hi!" or "Welcome!" back will help reassure them that, yes, there are people here, and, yes, they can hear you (keep in mind that some IRC programs may not make it obvious that there are other people in the room, and this is likely to be their first visit to IRC).

It's also a nice way to make people feel welcome. It is easy to forget that this act, of asking a few hundred invisible, anonymous strangers for help, is unfamiliar to many new Plone users and can be quite intimidating at first.

Keep Our Diversity in Mind

Plone has a broad audience of users, but when we're online, it's easy to slip into the assumptions that we're a monolithic group. Try to keep in mind that not everyone in IRC is a heterosexual white man who speaks perfect English — and that we're trying, like lots of other open source projects, to be as welcoming as possible to a broad audience.

It's particularly easy, when referencing someone else's question/problem, to refer to them as "he" when their gender isn't knowable. Try not to assume.

If No One Can Help Them

Sometimes, people will pose questions about topics for which there's no expert currently in the room. This can happen most often with products like LinguaPlone, where not everyone uses the product.

Unfortunately, if no one replies to their question, they'd (fairly) assume that they may have asked the question in the wrong form, or that they aren't welcome to ask questions here, or that no one at all uses the product. That leaves a bad (and false) impression.

A great answer would be:

"Sorry, PloneNewbie, but it doesn't look like any LinguaPlone experts are here now. You might want to try back later — especially when it's during work hours in Europe."

Sometimes, their question was generic, but no one feels like they have time to answer (for example, longer theming or development questions). Let them know they might want to try again, or other places:

"PloneNewbie, it doesn't look like anyone can help with that now. You might want to try later, or ask on the plone-users mailing list."

If you know who the expert is, feel free to point that out:

"PloneNewbie, there doesn't seem to be anyone here who knows the answer, but try back during work hours in Europe, and keep an eye out for hannosch, he's the expert on this. If that doesn't work, try the plone-users mailing list."

Answering Their Questions

Help People to Ask the Right Questions

Often times, people will benefit from our help in clarifying their questions. After all, they're often seeking our wisdom and familiarity with Plone, not just our mechanical knowledge.

For example, if someone asks, "How can I create a DTML Method on disk?" (a part of technology stack that is generally antiquated), one of the best things you can do is ask:

"Can you tell us your high-level goal?"

Rather than merely answering their question. This way, you could learn whether they want to really create a DTML Method (long-deprecated, but still used for creating dynamic CSS in Plone 3), or whether they're following a very old tutorial on skinning HTML, and would rather be pointed to PageTemplates.

Asking people to clarify their questions first, is usually much better than simply saying "You don't want to; they're deprecated!" or teaching them to do something, then telling them that what they just learned is largely useless nowadays.

Help Them Divide the Problem

A lot of time, the answer won't be obvious.

It can helpful to walk them through dividing the problem into smaller pieces:

"When I add an image to a news item, it doesn't appear. Why not?"

After trying one or two obvious things — checking HTML Filtering, and looking at the rendered HTML for a <img> tag, it can be helpful to walk them through a problem dividing exercise:

  1. Does this work with other images or news items?
  2. If they create a fresh Plone site, does this problem happen there? (if not, it's much more likely to be their site setup, of course).
  3. Does this happen in a fresh buildout of the same Plone, without add-on products? (if not, it's likely to be a bug introduced by an add-on products).

This exercise is often very useful for new users — and not obvious to them. They can really benefit from being walked through it, and having it explained to them. Plus, it helps demonstrate effective problem-solving technique not only to the person asking the question, but to everyone in the room.

Be Honest About Your Advice

It's fine to guess, and you won't always know the answer.

It is good, though to be honest about your skill level if you're a new user — sometimes, other people like hearing that — it helps them understand that new users can learn quickly and help others.

"I'm pretty new to Plone, myself, but the book that helped me was…"

It's also important to gauge how "mainstream" your advice is. It's fine to offer a solution that is, at the time, somewhat experimental (as of July, 2009, this would include things like Deliverance, WSGI/Repoze, Dexterity, etc.) It's useful to remember, though, that new users don't yet have a sense of the parts and how they fit together; they may not realize that the new technology you're talking about is new and not yet mainstream. Without knowing that, you're robbing them of the chance to make a fair evaluation of whether they're ready for it.

Nicer and fairer is something like:

"You can do this kind of thing easily with 'Deliverance', a new Plone technology. It's a bit cutting edge, but there are quite a few sites deployed with it already."

Don’t Tell People to Just Google It, Even If They Can

While many answers about Plone are easy enough to Google if you know how to phrase the question, lots of people don't and being told to "just Google it" is a good way to make people feel stupid and drive them away.

Better:

"Hi, PloneNewbie! We've got a great guide to theming at http://plone.org/documentation/manual/theme-reference, or you can find it by Googling for "plone 3 theming"."

They Don’t Come Knowing Our Conventions

…and if we beat them over the head with them as they walk in the door, they likely won't come back.

A few examples…

“Use Paste”

When people enter and paste a long tracebook or code, it can be annoying — but so can immediate responses to "use pastie.org" (or worse, mutterings about "stupid users" or "people who don't read directions"). Keep in mind that not all IRC clients show the notes about a room when you enter it — they may never have seen our request to use paste, or may have missed it.

A better reply is:

"Interesting question. Before we can answer it, can we ask you, in the future, to send tracebacks [or code, or whatever] to http://pastie.org/past?"

Good to remember: People find it much nicer to be asked how to act in the future than criticized for how they acted in the past.

“Don’t Ask to Ask”

For some reason, we've developed a culture of the dorkiest middle-school joke in existence:

Q: "Can I ask a question?" A: "You just did! Har har har har!"

Rather than responding to "Can I ask a question" with "Don't ask to ask!", or some other semi-joking criticism/reply, consider just saying "Sure; we're here to help out."

Trust us: this don't-ask-to-ask cultural point doesn't win us any new converts to Plone.

Once They’re Done

Once their problem is finished, it's nice to let them know they're welcome back with other questions:

"I'm glad that worked; let us know if we can help in the future."

Consider Being Proactive

It's helpful to give people advice that may come up during the Q&A, once their problem is solved:

"Glad you got that fixed. Do you know how to backup your site?"

It's especially helpful to point them toward other resources for learning:

"If you want to learn more about Page Templates, a great, free book is 'The Definitive Guide to Plone'. It covers that."

If You Can’t Say Something Nice...

…someone else probably will, if you let them! :-)

Sometimes, you'll come into IRC in a grumpy mood, or angry about waves of new users and their predictable questions.

If you don't want to be helpful, please consider just sitting on your hands. There are plenty of other people who are hanging out in IRC in a helpful mood, and they'll have a lot more fun helping if they don't have to apologize for your grumpy remarks.

Sarcasm doesn't travel well over IRC, especially between strangers. Most people who aren't familiar with your legendarily dry wit will interpret your intended sarcasm as a rude put-down.

And that doesn't help any of us.