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Competition, Crisis Management & The Community

Competition, Crisis Management & The Community

Yesterday, I read an article in the WPTavern written by Jeff Chandler, about Headway Themes and the possibility that they may be experiencing financial difficulties. The article contained a lot of speculation (admittedly so, by the Tavern), and when I see things like this, I make it a point to separate the facts from the speculation. The facts are as follows:

  1. Clay (one of the principles of Headway) acknowledged a problem early on and while details were lacking, stated that his intention was to get things in order.
  2. People started to complain on the public forums about lack of response (screen shot was provided).
  3. In a Slack Channel, customers discussed reasons (based on speculation) for lack of support.
  4. A couple of support people said they were not laid off but are no longer involved with the company.
  5. (Anonymous) Sources *CLAIM* they did not get paid (whether or not they did is subject to speculation).
  6. (Anonymous) Sources *CLAIM* that sales of Headway have declined (whether or not they actually HAVE is also subject to speculation).

On items 5 and 6, the Tavern has reported it exactly as they should. Sources have informed the Tavern of such, but the Tavern makes no claims as to confirmation of whether or not it is actually the case.

I am not going to get into the discussion of whether or not this is sensationalism as some of the WPTavern comments state. Everyone has their own ideas as to what constitutes sensationalism and they’re generally all different. Also, I am not going to get into the discussion as to the underlying motivations behind the writing of the Tavern article. It’s something going on in the Community and writing about what goes on in the WordPress Community is the WPTavern’s mission.

So, with that said, let’s get onto the real purposes of this post. In short, I’m seeing a company that in the past has been respected, now being vilified for what *might* only be a bump in the road. ← my speculation here. Clay has been supporting one product (Headway) and just introduced another (Pressmatic – a potential competitor of DesktopServer). In any world (but especially the software world), you can test the snot out of something but when it goes to the public, you’re going to find yourself supporting things you hadn’t tested. Different system configurations, software combinations, and other outside forces can have a HUGE impact on you. We run into it with every single release of our products and sometimes, even in between releases.

We’ve all seen GINORMOUS organizations bring on a new product that crashes the website (can you say Imagine how something like that might impact a smaller company. It’s possible that Pressmatic just brought on more support issues than originally planned. It’s possible that Clay *IS* working feverishly to bolster support and would rather focus his attention there to get it handled as quickly as possible than respond to every single trouble-ticket in the system. It’s possible that they are in talks for an acquisition and need to keep quiet while all the fine details are taken care of. Heck, it’s even possible that there are some extremely personal things impacting his life right now (but let’s hope that this is not the case). It’s also possible that he was abducted by aliens. The point is, this whole paragraph is based on speculation as well, and we just don’t know.

In all of this, the truth is we don’t know the reason for the lack of communication, but we can definitely see its effects.

The Competition

I’m sure that one of the first thoughts many of you will have, after having read this far, is that of wondering why I would write about the “Competition” without tearing it down. After all, when we’re talking about a company that offers a product which could potentially have a direct impact upon our sales, something like this can only be good for us, right? Not so fast.

To start, ServerPress believes in the philosophy that a bit of competition is good for everyone. It pushes everyone to be better thus resulting in a better service, or product. Without healthy competition, companies will many times rest on their accomplishments without moving forward. We have enjoyed customer loyalty for some time and we’ve been working extremely diligently on our next major release. But we’ve also kept in mind that our current customers need support so that they can provide product for their customers, and so, while servicing them might be seen by some as getting in the way of moving our software forward, we know that it’s the service that people are investing in; the software is simply a tool to make things easier.

In the case of Headway, we have several customers that rely on Headway Themes for their customer deliverables. If they cannot get support from Headway, they might come to us. Headway has been a part of their livelihood and that livelihood relies on them being able to resolve issues and work in a forward manner as efficiently as possible. It’s what workflow is all about. We share many of the same customers. When one of them is affected, it impacts us, too. It’s one of those outside forces that impacts our internal operations. But we don’t want our customers (or anyone, really) banging their heads on their keyboards, so we do what we can to help, despite not being experts in all things Headway.

Service First

While it may seem on the surface that we are an “apples to apples” competitor, the reality is that the software is only part of the equation. At ServerPress, we have always considered ourselves a “Service” company first and foremost. When people pay for their annual subscription, they are paying for Premium Support and Services. Software updates are always included in the subscription because it goes to the end of making our service easier to offer. And yes, they do go hand-in-hand, but with a large customer-base, we will always look at Service First. In other words, we look at our software as a gateway to our service.

Headway & Pressmatic seem to be “Software First” companies. Their business model is based upon licenses and expirations (We refer to “Memberships” while they refer to “Licenses”). I am not saying that it is wrong to operate a company that way so much as to say that it is a different operating philosophy which dictates the choices we’ll make in our respective companies in our day-to-day operations. Any time we make a change or addition in our software offerings, the first question we ask is, “How is this going to impact our service?” The answer always has to be that it’s going to only go to improve our service, or we either scrap or retool the idea.

Crisis Management

The situation with Headway could have been (and possibly still can be) avoided had there been a bit of Crisis Management involved. In my opinion, Crisis Management is an often overlooked aspect in business and it seems to be even more so in the WordPress Community. Crisis Management has to do with the message you wish to send to your community when things take a turn for the worst and go horribly wrong.

In the case of Headway, based on what I read in the Tavern article, the (insert expletive here) started hitting the fan when a customer of theirs who must have had some influence posted a public complaint about the company. Things can turn on a dime after something like that happens; a bad review, a bunch of “me, too’s” to a public post, a tweet that turns into a storm. In short, the day before the post, things might have been going great, but the day after, it was all downhill.

Whether I like to admit it or not, I have quite a bit of past experience with Crisis Management, AND IT MATTERS. In Headway’s case, according to the article, Clay responded to the complaint once it had built up some steam. Responding is good, waiting until it builds up steam should be avoided, however. Now, realizing that we need things like sleep and we cannot be everywhere all the time, it’s always possible that something can get out of hand before one is even aware of the issue. But a response is always needed and this is where I think things got a bit out of control. There was an initial response, but apparently, there was nothing beyond that. One of the key factors in Crisis Management is to assist your customers in regaining the confidence they might have lost; hand holding, assurances that you’re going to be there, responding to people in a timely fashion. All of these things are first and foremost during good times, but they should be even more so at the forefront of your day-to-day during an actual crisis.

Crisis Management also allows you to craft your message to the public. This is really important because YOU are the only one who knows what’s REALLY going on with your company. Everything else, as I started out in this post saying, is speculation. Crafting a message that is honest, transparent, and direct is paramount to regaining your position within your community.

I am constantly telling my kids that screwing up is human nature. Companies will screw up, too, because they are run by humans. What matters is what those companies do when they’ve screwed up. Making it a point to be there for the customer to support THEIR livelihood goes a long way toward regaining their confidence AND gaining a customer for life.

The Community

The WordPress Community is fantastic and forgiving when it comes to bumps in the road. It is mostly built up of small businesses and entrepreneurs (all of whom, it turns out, are human). They understand that “things happen.” They just need to know what’s going on. So, in all of this, the only thing I would encourage is that the Headway folks release a statement and stay in touch. Give as much information as you can. Let your customers know. They have livelihoods, and a few minutes of your time setting the record straight will go a long way to helping them determine the best way to support those livelihoods.