A look behind the scenes: Customer support at mailbox.org

mailbox.org offers their customers personal technical support via e-mail. Many users appreciate the free service but naturally, there is also criticism – for instance, when some problems remain unsolved or response times don’t meet the users’ expectations. Today, we want to take a closer look at the Helpdesk team and explain what they do.

Our brand and communications manager Cordula Velten talked to Sebastian „Ben“ Knopp (pictured above), who leads the mailbox.org Helpdesk team.


Ben, you are customer service team leader at mailbox.org, JPBerlin, and Heinlein Hosting. How long have you been with the company?

I started in 2014 as a customer support worker and then went on to lead the Helpdesk team in autumn 2015. That is what I do now.


What motivates you in your job?

It’s the mission of mailbox.org. The protection of people’s data and privacy is important for maintaining a liberal society and I like working for a company that really lives this idea. Our users recognize and and appreciate this as well, and it has also helped mailbox.org to become more well-known to a wider audience – especially after we won the „Stiftung Warentest“ product comparison a few months ago.
As an IT person, I am also attracted by the technical aspects, of course. One might easily  underestimate the complexity of the interaction between a sophisticated server infrastructure and the groupware running on that infrastructure. mailbox.org is, technically speaking, not just a simple service but a system that has a dozen different protocols in use. Things can get complicated when you need to deal with different kinds and generations of devices, software versions, as well as individual customizations, peculiarities, and errors. That’s a lot of software from different sources and we want all of it to work in concert, which is a challenge.


What kind of support does mailbox.org offer to its customers?

When it comes to technical support, we need to differentiate between private end users and business customers. Requests coming from private users are exclusively dealt with by e-mail communication for economic and practical reasons. However, in urgent cases our support team might call back the customer on the phone if a problem can be dealt with quicker this way. Our business customers can book regular telephone support as an option in their package. And when they sign up, our product manager Holger Kötzle becomes their personal first point of contact.


How many people did you work with when mailbox.org launched in 2014?

At the time, there were four of us working in customer support. However, consider that the support team does not only serve requests from mailbox.org customers but also those coming through our other business operations at JPBerlin and Heinlein Hosting.


What about today?

By now, the Helpdesk team has grown to seven staff in total and we are expanding further – just one week ago, a new colleague has joined our effort!


How are things in the team?

It felt very rewarding for us in the team when we won the Stiftung Warentest product test in autumn 2016. Since the organization that conducted that product comparison is so well-known in Germany, we saw a massive increase in the number of new private and business customers, which effectively doubled our user base. Naturally, all this means an increase in support requests, too. It is normal that new users tend to need a bit of extra help before they know the tools and services by heart. In addition, we understand that it can be a challenge for many users to cope with the fact that mailbox.org is a continuously improving and evolving product. Whenever there is a new functionality or tool there will be an increased number of support  requests. In the weeks before Christmas we unfortunately had a few problems with load-balancing and software bugs on our servers, which customers of course noticed as well and asked us about.
Over the past months, we all have accumulated a fair amount of overtime hours because there were simply too few people in the team at the time to cover all requests. If you then experience service disruptions on top of that, I admit this can be a bit of a strain on morale.
However, I am very pleased about how my team has kept up their spirits, and faced up to all challenges with admirable dedication to get the best-possible outcome for all customers. At the end of the year, we all reviewed the team’s performance in a two-day workshop and decided on a number of adjustments. As a result, we are very confident and motivated going into the new year 2017.

How many support requests, or “tickets” as they’re also called, do you receive in a day?

On average, we get about 150 to 200 new tickets every day. If there are service updates or disruptions, then there will be more, of course. On top of that, we get additional messages or updates for any existing tickets that are already on the system.

Interview support mailbox.org

Well, it’s hard to say if that is a lot…

Just going by those numbers, it may not sound like that much but consider the time effort associated with handling each request. Simple cases might take just 5 minutes to resolve, but some requests can require several hours of error analysis and the sending of e-mails back and forth – especially when there is not just our customer, but also external partners or third-party suppliers involved. Now multiply that with 50 or a 100…


What are typical problems that people contact the support over?

On the one side, there are everyday issues that can be handled directly and independently by the support team: Forgotten passwords; questions about tariffs, payment methods, or how to set up a new mailbox; also the particular question about when a previously deleted e-mail address will be available again.
Then we have cases where a system administrator needs to get involved. For example, when it is required to reproduce a problem on our side first in order to be able to devise a solution.
Very time-intensive are those requests where customers have built highly customized groupware solutions based on mailbox.org, extended by add-ons, plug-ins, and other third-party software. This means there are components which come from other sources but when they cause problems, we will still be contacted first. Considering our basic mailbox costs just 1,- Euro a month, there are limits to the amount of individual support we can provide in such cases. Sometimes, we are plainly unable to solve these kinds of problems, because we do not have sufficient access to the end-user device or insufficient knowledge about the particular third-party software used. A good way to get help in these tricky cases is to post a question in our user forum – often, there are other mailbox.org users who work with similar configurations and are willing to give advice if something doesn’t quite work as expected, based on their personal experience.


Why are there sometimes delays in responding to requests?

Although we are receiving a constant stream of support tickets, we do not necessarily respond to these in chronological order of receipt. It is important that we prioritize and schedule tickets – just like a hospital’s A&E department would do. If there is a case where someone can no longer access their e-mail inbox, then that is an important issue to resolve quickly and other, more general requests need to wait. Sometimes, there are users who do not know this and complain because we did not respond to them on the same day.
For the most part, we do manage to respond to requests within 24 hours but some cases also need more time, because we are required to follow internal processes or wait for one of our Admins to become available. They might be involved in other work at the time, or happen to be ill, or on holiday – just like other normal people.


Do you make a regular effort to spot optimization opportunities, to improve how the customer support handles things?

Of course. I am not just making an effort spotting, I am also actively changing how we do things! For instance, we recently made adjustments that help us reduce response times overall.


Can you be more specific – how does the system work?

In principle, there are three levels of support in the Helpdesk team, and depending on the complexity of a request, it will go through one or more of these levels. The first-level support is responsible for delivering a quick initial response. They prioritize tickets according to urgency and decide if they can respond immediately or whether they need to get additional know-how to solve the problem. The former is often the case with general questions that get asked frequently – these will receive an immediate response.
If a problem needs to involve a system administrator, then the request is escalated to the second-level support stage. The second level will take care of the case until resolved and usually manage communications between the mailbox.org customer and our technical staff.


And what does the third-level support do?

Well, the third level is our team of e-mail, groupware, and database administrators. They get involved in those cases when something needs to be analyzed or handled directly on our servers. What is new is that these admins can focus on solving problems and no longer need to also respond to customer tickets directly. Instead, they feed back to the second-level support, and the Helpdesk team keeps the customer in the loop about things.
In the past, these tickets were passed on to the administrators together with the full responsibility to also communicate with the end user. As a result, they were often in a dilemma: Either do what is basic customer service to help one customer at a time, or their actual job of keeping the systems running and extending our capabilities – which helps everyone. Tickets often sat with the admins for days because there were always “more important” global issues to address. Consider that the nature of the work of a system administrator also requires that they get extended periods of time in which they can really focus on a complex problem without interruption. That’s simply impossible to do if there is also a stream of support tickets demanding a 24h response.
From now on, our admins can fully focus on solving any technical problems on the servers and feeding back information internally to our support team – which is much more efficient for them to do than the previous way. The communication with the customers remains the responsibility of our new second-level support, and they are much better suited (and also specially trained) for this task.


Is there anything else that has changed?

Yes, there’s more. We also made sure that more staff is actively present during peak times. That means mainly mornings, when most customers log on to their systems. We can really see the positive effect these changes have on customer satisfaction but are continuously monitoring performance to see what else we can do to improve.


You mentioned earlier the User Forum that is available on the mailbox.org web site. To what extent is the support involved there?

As a general rule, the forum is all about users helping other users. Our support members or administrators may interact with the forum but not on a regular basis – they can only help as their workload allows, in their own spare time. It is important that the forum has and keeps it’s defined place as a voluntary extension – it is in no way a replacement for the regular Helpdesk. A main reason is that the forum lacks the functionality of a proper ticketing system and so, offers no way for us to deal with requests as a team in a structured fashion. You know, basic things like being able to refer requests to a particular support member, tracking individual requests and their progress to make sure they are dealt with as they should. Given our economic constraints, we must use any resources we have as effectively as possible – it’s as simple as that.
I want to mention, though, that we have many motivated and experienced “power” users who are active in the forum. These people make an excellent effort helping us and others and we are very grateful for what they do as part of the community.


Final question: If you had one wish about how things might change for the better in customer support, what would that be?

I would wish for some users to be more positive, cooperate with us more, and appreciate that we are doing what we can to help them. Of course users pay a monthly fee for their mailbox, which can be as low as 1 EUR. However, those fees are not sufficient to fund hours of individual support, especially if we are asked to solve problems around third-party software with which mailbox.org has no affiliation. Now, in light of this, also consider that most of our direct competitors do not offer any technical support at all to their customers!
We are always happy to help, if we can, but we also want to further promote issues around encryption and data security at mailbox.org. It will be much easier for us in the Helpdesk team to do this if we can work together with the users in our effort to solve related problems. On the one side, many users are sending us great e-mails, giving constructive feedback, and encouraging us to keep up our efforts – this makes us feel good and is very motivating. But on the other side, we sometimes also get messages that convey an unduly demanding and reproachful attitude, even up to the point where in one particular case, somebody threatened legal action before even describing what their problem was.
If I had one wish, it would be a more friendly and respectful interaction with each other, across-the-board.


Ben, thank you for your time and for answering my questions.

(This interview was conducted by Cordula Velten, a new colleague in the PR & Marketing department, who started in January 2017.)