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The criteria I use when choosing a web hosting company

When choosing your web hosting company, it is useful to have your list of criteria well defined. 

You need to have this list before you start shopping around, or else you will be sold features you don’t need and, worse, missing business-critical ones. 

Below are my prioritized list and some notes. Keep in mind that as a developer, I prioritize flexibility over ease-of-use. 

  1. Enough disk space for what the website needs. When starting, 20GB+ will work.
  2. MySQL database – I don’t think there is any hosting without this, but make sure you have it.
  3. Speed – this usually translates into have SSD drives on the server.
  4. SSH access – I need this for automated backups and for the flexibility to add automatic maintenance script on the server. 
  5. Ability to send email – be careful with this; some hosting do give you this feature on paper, but it is not actually working because the email gets discarded on its way out, and there is no back reporting on it. If you have an online store and you need to send out order confirmations, lost email can be very frustrating to you and your customers. 
  6. cPanel access – I need this as a developer because I manage many websites, across many servers, and it is faster for me to work with a familiar piece of software. When cPanel is an option, I know I can set-up things quickly, and there are also plenty of diagnosing tools. Even if you are not a developer, you will likely hire one at some point, and it will be easier for them to help you with cPanel access. There is one more reason to have cPanel. And that is, you can quickly move to another hosting company, by simply exporting your cPanel data from the current hosting and importing it on the new one. Without this option, moving to a new hosting company can be troublesome and time costly. 
  7. Let’s Encrypt feature for automatic HTTPS – this important to have, or you will need to pay additional hundreds of dollars for it. 
  8. On-demand backups; You need to be able to do a full account backup at any time and do this for free. Backups are a form of insurance, don’t underestimate them. 
  9. Excellent support – this is close to the last option because if I have the ones above, I can usually sort out any issues by myself. But you may want this much higher on your list.
  10. Unlimited (or alt least 3) subdomains. Subdomains can be used for testing something out of sight from the main website. They can be used for multi-language websites. For memberships set-up. And in advanced cases for performance reasons. So make sure you can have some.
  11. And finally, there is price. I’ve learned my lesson well: cheap web hosting will cost you more in the long run, in lost business, frustration, and customer satisfaction.

If you plan to use a WordPress site, the hosting I am recommending right now is SiteGround. It meets my criteria as a developer, but it is also friendly enough to recommend it to non-developers, because of their fantastic support. 

Contact forms done right!

What is worse than nobody contacting you for business? It is having to deal with a lot of Spam. Spam takes away from your attention, and it can potentially drown a valid contact request or a genuine request for support. 

I will be talking here about WordPress and specific plugins, but the general principles apply to other technologies as well. 

The contact form is an essential part of your business. You can get both feedback about how you are doing, but also it is a way for customers to quickly reach out to you, or for leads to ask presale questions. 

The easiest way to get a contact form in WordPress is to use Contact Form 7

But just installing and activating the plugin is not enough. There are two extra steps that I suggest you do:

First: get rid of SPAM. 

Yes, I know, in the first few weeks or months there will be no problems, but as soon as a script bot discovers you it will send a ton of Spam, and that will also affect your server reputation and your ability to send out email. Don’t wait for that to happen. 

To get rid of Spam activate and configure the CAPTCHA test. The one from Google works best, and I choose it most of the times. (If privacy is a big concern from you, I don’t know if Google can be trusted, so shop around!)

Second: Safeguard against email failure.

The way a simple contact form usually works is to accept the submitted message and then email you (the website owner) with the contact message. 

This way used to work well, but with the ever-increasing Spam problem, there is a chance that the contact email will never reach you. When and if this happens, you will never know. Unless…

Unless you also save the messages on the server where you can review them later. For this, I use the companion plugin Flamingo. Aside from making sure you don’t lose your messages, this collection of data can become a treasure when it comes to customer research: most common questions asked, or problems in interacting with your products and so on.

Bonus: Integrate with an auto-responder.

When you begin to get more messages than you can quickly respond to, a nice touch is to use an auto-responder to provide some quick tips or to reassure your visitors that you will get back to them as soon as you can.

When you do use Flamingo or an auto-responder, make sure you update your privacy policy to inform your users about that and be GDPR compliant.

A look into the (not so distant) future.  

Soon contact forms will be replaced with virtual agents/assistants. This is already happening, and it will be a game-changer — more about AI in a different article.

The Challenges of an WordPress Online Store

Having an online store is a good idea. It allows you to make revenue from your website and your offering. That is obvious.

What is not so obvious is that some challenges come with it :).

I believe in being prepared! So, if you’re looking to start an online store, or to improve the one you already have, read on!

This article will focus mostly on WordPress powered websites and add some general principles as well.

Shopping cart or no shopping cart?

It depends. I much prefer the experience of a one-click purchase. And in some cases that is precisely what you want to offer to your customers. When you have a lot of products in your offer, and it makes sense for people to buy more than one product at a time (like three books for example), then you need to use a shopping cart. For WordPress, I recommend WooCommerce, and some custom work on top of that to make it more user-friendly.

Coupon or no coupon?

Coupons are an excellent way to reward loyalty and to get attention for your promotion. A one-click experience does not lend itself well to using a coupon. There are other tools in this case, like custom links. But a shopping cart (like WooCommerce) can easily use coupons. Just make it obvious where to expect a coupon code. The default user interface is sometimes confusing for people.

Guest checkout?

In most shopping experiences, you are required to create an account before you can place an order. And there is a good reason for that. It allows for later access to your purchase history and the downloadable files you may have lost.

But sometimes creating an account can be seen as too complicated and unnecessary. I prefer this method of purchase. If guest checkout is essential for you, make sure the tool you are using allows for it. Again I have to recommend WooCommerce as they provide for this feature.

Keep the conversation going

Depending on the kind of business that you have and your offer, it may be a good idea to keep the conversation going with your customers or to hold their hand as they discover your product. To allow them to grow by making a more advanced offer, and, why not, to learn from them. The tools to use in this case is WooCommerce integrated with MailChimp. I am personally not happy with what is on the market today, so I have had to create my own plugin that would add specific tags for specific products. This approach allows me to segment the audience or to trigger campaigns based on the product that was purchased.

Also beware, that for bigger stores, the official MailChimp plugin does not work anymore as you would expect. There are a lot of timeouts and missed notifications. Especially true for when you have a significant influx of orders (for example you’ve just sent an email blast to your audience).

Provide support

Providing support should be common sense, but not everyone is doing this right. Your customers need a reliable way to ask for assistance.

I used to think that this would be too much work. But in fact, it is an excellent way to learn about your audience, what they need, what they like, and what is broken with your sales or delivery process. Do not ignore the support requests :). The “Contact Form 7” is an excellent plugin to use for this.

The Refund Policy

Buying things online is risky. Your order customers trust you, but the new ones don’t know you. To me, it makes total sense to make it risk-free for them and offer a full refund policy. Yes, some will abuse it. But for every abuser, there will be more people who end up trusting you more and making the purchase. The refund policy is also a strong statement of confidence in your products or services. Yes, they are that good!

And I agree, in some cases, a partial refund makes more sense. And in others, it is OK to offer no refund if the customer had plenty of chance to change their mind and did not. Like selling tickets for an event, and someone wanting to cancel the day before. In these cases, you have to make it crystal clear in the purchase process what the refund policy is and when it expires.

International clients

I still struggle with this one.

You may discover that you have a big audience in a country that speaks a different language. Say, French. You invest in the resources and process to translate your products and sales process into French to help your audience get to our product. But what you also need to be careful about is providing support in the same language. If the product is in French, and the purchase process is in French, the support cannot be in English. To me, that would not feel genuine. Like you did not go all the way with your offer, and you stopped right after the sale.

If I cannot offer support in French, I prefer to keep the sales process in English. This way, those who buy the French product will know that that is the only French part about it, just the product itself. But the shopping experience and support will have to be in English.

As I’ve said, I still struggle with this, and I cannot say I have found a solution that I am delighted with. As tools, for WordPress, I am using the PolyLang plugin.

The Mobile Screen Experience

Have a look at your analytics data, and you will likely notice that the mobile users are a big chunk, if not the most significant piece of your audience. Your store needs to be mobile-friendly. And again, I have to recommend WooCommerce here, but with some custom work to make it even more usable on the small screens.

Order fulfillment

Don’t forget about the second half of the shopping experience. Don’t stop at just getting paid :). Make sure your customers can get to their files.

You may have to use different tools for different products. Small files can be sent as attachments. For videos, you may be better of emailing links to a platform where the video is hosted (YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia). And for huge files, there are yet other tools to help, like Amazon S3 services.

Use this information to decide what kind of shopping experience you want to create and what tools you should use. And if you struggle with some challenges that I didn’t write about, let me know in the comments below.