The Best Darn Customer Support Tools for Startups

We’re fanatical about customer support. It’s one of our differentiators. So this is not a choice we’ve taken lightly. We’ve evaluated each of these platforms for the full trial period and we’re circling around a winner.  Yes – we really did run customer support through each of these systems and switched just about every month for the last 6 months. Smile

Note that, for us, having great email support so that customers could create cases by just emailing our support address was a requirement.  If there is something we didn’t answer, feel free to ask us below in the comments!

The nominees are…

DIY Email & Tagging

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We started here and it’s a perfectly reasonable solution when you don’t have much volume. Scott and I created a support@kickofflabs.com account and shared the login. I simply used Sparrow App and my iPhone for email. You can use tags if you’d like, but it’s easy to see if the other person replied and email is ubiquitous.

PROS: FREE – No overhead – Perfect for 1–3 cases/day – Use if you are just getting started.

CONS: No KB articles – Can’t tell open from closed issues.

ZenDesk

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Ultimately the default process and workflow appeared to be designed for a much larger, dedicated, support team. For example: To close an issue it had to first be assigned to an owner and owners weren’t automatically assigned when one of us replied. The process for managing a case via email was too complex to manage on mobile devices.

Although they have an iPhone app it was really only good for notifications. I couldn’t imagine a more confusing interface for simply replying and closing a case via a mobile app. I really wanted to love it, but I just got the feeling it wasn’t designed for small startups.

PROS: Multiple channels (twitter, email, chat, etc) – Work via apps – Reply via email – Email case management – Great for larger process heavy dedicated support teams.

CONS: Crazy process for a small non-dedicated team – Confusing App UI – Obfuscated the customer email addresses in notifications – Complicated email configuration – Slowest and least knowledgeable customer support if you run into issues

CharmHQ

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Disclaimer: We used CharmHQ during their paid beta so things have probably changed a lot since then.

The web case management UI was simply awesome. Just what we were looking for. It was a little hard to find closed cases, but otherwise the workflow was simple and the default process made a lot of sense for two people. Unfortunately there were a couple of email outages during our trial and the platform was clearly in beta still.

PROS: Amy & Thomas provided great support themselves – Simple elegant workflow – Pass customer properties like “paid” to help prioritize cases. :) – Post answer follow-up tracking (bug, feature, etc)

CONS: Beta outages – No reply/close via email – No public support site or KB system for customers.

TenderApp

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Tender came with rave reviews from some of our trusted peers. It fully supports reply via email and even a bunch of reply tags to manage cases without opening their app. Awesome.  They also provide great customer support site with KB and public forums. At $24/month for 3 agents it was nearly half the cost of the other solutions we evaluated.

Tender was everything we wanted from a pure support system. It let us keep our natural flow via email (reply & mange cases) and publish a simple support site. But half way into our trial (Which was 30 days at the time.) we started noticing delays and missing emails. Their email channel began to falter and it caused us to miss cases. After this happened several times during our trial we gave up. We also found their KB article management/publishing system confusing for admins.

PROS: Great web based support – Lowest costing professional looking solution – Simple workflow combined with email case management – Integration with their bug tracking solution (Lighthouse) if you are using that.

CONS: Credit card required for trial – Can’t cancel yourself – Email support channel was too slow and unreliable

Assistly

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Assistly is owned by Salesforce…  It’s clear that this a low-end offering (in a good way) compared to Zendesk. The default process and tooling is built for small teams. They even offer pricing to add unlimited “flex agents”… which would be perfect for a small non-dedicated support team.

The UI and web support site functionality felt very similar to TenderApp, but it’s a lot more powerful. For example: You can also connect it to monitor your Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles. It can create cases out of @mentions and even search results for keywords. If a case comes in via twitter you can reply directly from the tool and close the case! You can even configure chat support on your site.

One feature I liked was the simple customer history view where it showed glimpses of the past tickets that each customer had asked. Perfect for adding context to the requests you get.

Finally – Setting up this system and your channels was the most well thought out of any of the solutions reviewed here. Unfortunately they did not support agents replying to or closing cases via email.

PROS: Simple setup – Great multi-channel support – Flex agents for smaller, non-dedicated teams – clearly separated agent versus admin UI – Cheapest solution to monitor twitter & Facebook

CONS: Doesn’t support reply or case management via email

UserVoice

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They feature the simplest workflow with complete two way email integration. Simply replying to a customer case via email will assign the question to you and close the case. The case will, of course, be re-opened once the customer replies… but most of the time this is the behavior you’ll probably want. We didn’t have to think about process and we like that. :)

Like most of the other tools reviewed here UserVoice supports a public support site with forums & knowledge base articles. It also has an option for customer feedback. This way your customers can create new suggestions and vote on other ideas in public. Although we aren’t using this yet for KickoffLabs I’ve been using it for over a year with a mobile app that I shipped and it works great.

The agent UI features a 3-pane list, case, detail view that’s pretty familiar to most people, but there is a bonus feature that I loved… a leaderboard. Your startup probably has a bunch of competitive people working there and it’s great to have a little extra motivation around customer support. Points are awarded for replies, quick replies, and customer kudos.

Uservoice is missing integration with Twitter, but does support a rich Facebook app for your pages. If you ship an iOS app they also have an SDK for direct app integration.

This is my favorite solution and the one that we’ll most likely be using for the next year.

PROS: Simplest process – Reply & Close cases via email – Leaderboard for motivation – Unified app for customer feedback voting & helpdesk.

CONS: Lacking Twitter, chat, or phone integrations – Most expensive white labeling solution

And the winner is…

If you are just getting started don’t bother setting up any complex system. Just use email. Once you start to get overwhelmed…

Uservoice

For the simplicity of workflow and excellent email case management.

If covering the widest possible set of channels is important for you and you don’t care about reply via email then I’d recommend Assistly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bellenger Doug Bellenger

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up! We use Zendesk and it does the trick, but I definitely agree with your review above on it being clunky and the apps being a pain to navigate. 

    • Anonymous

      Yeah – I really thought we’d end up with Zendesk. I thought that apps would be icing. They just got too frustrating to make them count for much. 

  • Anonymous

    6 months of finding the right tool is a lot of time and your sharing this is SO useful! Lucky Uservoice to come tops in your list. Josh, please do consider checking out Freshdesk – I strongly (and with bias) believe your team will find useful. Multi-channel and smart automation features.

    And a correction if I may – Zendesk is not owned by Salesforce.

    • http://www.kickofflabs.com Scott Watermasysk

      Freshdesk was next one the list. I am hoping we finally put this testing behind us…but if not, we will let you know. 

      BTW, does Freshdesk support responding and closing tickets by email? 

  • http://blog.assistly.com Alyson Button Stone

    Couple of things: Zendesk is not owned by Salesforce. Assistly does support handling tickets through email.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Alyson. 

      I’ve made the update wrt salesforce. Thanks! 

      When it comes to email support… yes – you can accept tickets via email… but the agents can’t reply via email and close tickets. It’s in an email from your own support team. So if they were wrong and we missed something… let me know. :)

      • http://about.me/matthew.trifiro Matthew_Trifiro

        Josh,

        You are correct. To reply or resolve cases requires that agents be logged into the Assistly desktop. However, there is good reason for this. If you have a support team of more than one person, you really need absolutely reliable record locking so that only one person is ever editing or modifying a case at a time — otherwise, there is no way to prevent agents from overwriting or double-responding. An email-based reply/resolve tool cannot lock records, and with any decent volume you will probably start seeing a lot of collisions.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks for the extra confirmation – In our case (A startup with < 5 people where none of them are 100% dedicated to support) we understood that risk but wanted the increase the mobility and timeliness of our support agents.  

          We figured two replies were better than a very delayed one since people never do a great job of leaving the agent desktop open.  To help with the  collisions we set everyone up to get a lot of notifications.  We deal with extra email for tickets that aren't ours… but at 90% of your startups the volume is low enough to make this practical.  I'm sure our needs will change when we eventually require a dedicated support team. 

        • Anonymous

          And note that I still consider you a strong runner up because of your other functionality. :) 

        • http://www.kickofflabs.com Scott Watermasysk

          While you are correct on the technical aspects of why this could be tricky…the reality is customers want answers quickly and they generally want them yesterday. :) 

          I really enjoyed using Assistly, but it caused delays in how fast we could respond to support requests which means our customers were not getting the absolute best level of service we could provide. 

          As an alternative, maybe Assistly could deliver a better mobile experience. 

          Finally, being a frequent end user of support tools as well, I can assure you having multiple people respond to my support requests is an OK problem. I would recommend in the future you error on the side of speedy responses instead of strict order. (most companies severely understaff support as well). 

      • http://blog.assistly.com Alyson Button Stone

        Ah, yes! You do have to be logged into the agent desktop to respond–your suggestion was passed on to the devteam for consideration for future releases. Keep the feedback coming! Happy holidays,

  • http://twitter.com/lauraglu lauraglu

    Love Uservoice! And I’ve tried a lot.

  • Oleg Maximoff

    SaaS services, so popular, and so expensive.

    Consider including UseResponse (http://www.useresponse.com) in this list.
    It’s self-hosted (yeah, you won’t depend on user agreements and lots of limitations of SaaS services) PHP/MySQL solution with full sourcecode available on purchase.

    P.S. … and you’ll have to pay for it only once and use what you bought forever (however upgrades past 1 year after purchase isn’t free).

    • http://www.kickofflabs.com Scott Watermasysk

      SaaS models are generally only more costly if you do not value your time. I would highly recommend to anyone trying to build a business to not spend a single minute of their time self hosting a support app. 

      This doesn’t mean there is is anything wrong with Oleg’s app (it might be excellent), but support is such a critical piece of the puzzle I can not see doing it on your own just to save a couple of dollars. 

      • Oleg Maximoff

        Other side of same situation, you want something custom to collect feedback, or fix minor, rare, yet annoying bug. I’ve experienced waiting times from weeks to months when used Getsatisfaction and Uservoice support communities.

        With our software you get personalized support approach and you may get fixes in hours and new features implemented in days/weeks.

        P.S. For large communities, and with functionality we are going to add in next few month, similar (in terms of these future features) plans will save like few hundred bucks.

        P.P.S Sometime you need more control over functionality and design, and again thats where we step in.

        • http://blog.uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

          Hey Oleg,

          I’m not sure where you’re getting your data about UserVoice. We have a very active support team and are constantly fixing issues, often on the same day it’s reported. While there’s certainly a trade-off between controlling the schedule with hosted software and waiting on a SaaS company to act, saying that UserVoice changes takes months is a bit of an exaggeration.

          -Evan Hamilton
          Community Manager, UserVoice

      • http://twitter.com/Use_Response UseResponse

        I think Saas is like narcotic where you pay on monthly basis and there is no way to control your data which can be confidential in one or another way. Plus you will NEVER leave Saas service, as all your feedback and community is there and the only way stop paying is closing community – not an option.
        UseResponse provides migration tool to migrate from popular Saas feedback services.

        Everyone decides – not only to save, but to control all your data.

        P.S. BTW, according to privacy policy of getsatisfaction – all that is posted in getsatisfaction is the property of getsatisfaction :) 

        • http://www.kickofflabs.com Scott Watermasysk

          On this we will just have to agree to disagree. 

          I am not saying it is not cheaper to host it on your own. However, if you factor in the cost of actually managing a deployed app, keeping up to date, and most importantly your time,  it is usually way better in the SaaS world. 

          I also say this after having spent 7+ years managing the development of a major enterprise application. I can assure you a vast majority of the market does not want to mess with setting up and managing servers. 

          • Oleg Maximoff

            There will be 2 categories of potentials customers, those who want to use SaaS, and those who don’t. We don’t aim to “eat a piece of the cake” that’s already on the dish of our SaaS competitors, we are aiming for second category, that’s why our solution is self-hosted, keeping in mind all pros and cons of this approach.

            P.S. or 3rd category as well – those potential customers who got disappointed and/or annoyed because of their recent SaaS experience (reasons could be different) and who are looking for something else that does the same but doesn’t have these flaws.

            From this point of view SaaS services can’t change and evolve fast enough, because they have huge userbase of millions of people who may or may not like these changes. They have to satisfy absolute majority of them.

            Newcomers to this niche, especially not tied with single solution instance that serves all customers, may respond to majority of feedbacks in real-time, or even provide custom solutions tailored per-customer, without affecting all other customers.

  • http://www.techhustlers.com/ MatchLites

    Nice list, I guess we all have our our taste of tools :)

    • http://www.kickofflabs.com/ Josh Ledgard

      Different needs probably. In our case we were extremely focussed on email support and simplicity. 

      • http://www.techhustlers.com/ MatchLites

        Yes, these are for sure awesome awesome tools for simplistic email support service!

  • http://twitter.com/helpscout Help Scout

    KUDOS to you guys for taking the time to give all of these a shot. It looks like our product Help Scout (http://www.helpscout.net) would have met your requirements as well … we’ll work really hard to be on your radar next time! :-)

  • http://twitter.com/4WalkMe WalkMe

    Oh how wonderful 

  • Ron Rosso

    Walkme is definitely the best one…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OT4CXGOO4YX6FEWSWTNVACFCIU Manoj

    I recommend HappyFox ( http://www.happyfox.com)
    to your list of tools for startups. We, a startup, have switched to
    HappyFox and have found that the tool has helped us provide better
    customer support and respond more efficiently to all our incoming
    requests. It has also been great value for money keeping our costs under
    control.

  • http://twitter.com/tiesvdpijnacker tiesco van de Pijnac

    Have you tried Casengo? its a new kid on the customer support tool block. it has a nice design and great usability. ( http://www.casengo.com )

  • Shelly

    This is a very helpful source. I’m looking at these for my startup also, and am having trouble keeping track of them all. Have you tried any other ticketing systems since, such as FreshDesk or UserEcho? Would love to hear your thoughts and how you have progressed.

  • David

    Hello, You should definitely consider adding Live Agent (www.ladesk.com) to this list.
    It’s been created and designed in order to fulfill all needs that other helpdesk softwares could not provide. It’s simple to use but still provides various advanced features. They provide both downloadable licence and monthly payment. We prefer the downloadable licence as we like to keep our data secured and in-house. I must add, that their support is exceptional. We use one of the low-cost programs and still get the 24/7 support service.

  • http://www.cloudstaff.com/ Dagmar Garrison

    This is indeed a very helpful article on the best customer support tools. Thank you for posting.