Making Customer Support Sexy: Zendesk’s Help Desk Lovefest

8/4/10Follow @wroush

If it weren’t for unhappy customers, San Francisco’s Zendesk wouldn’t be in business. After all, the company makes Web-based help desk software that’s used by thousands of companies to track, and ideally resolve, complaints submitted by their users. But Zendesk probably didn’t think that a plan to impose steep price increases, announced more than two months ago, would make quite so many of its own customers unhappy.

The ensuing revolt was splashed across the pages of TechCrunch and Hacker News and threatened to blossom into mass defections. When small Web startups accustomed to paying $99 a month for Zendesk’s service realized they’d now be paying $295 per month or more, the noise on the pages of Zendesk’s own support forum was deafening, with many users vowing to switch to competitors like Kayako or Tender. The crisis of May 18 was only quelled when Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane announced two days later that there would be no price increases for existing Zendesk customers—ever.

The company had at first offered to grandfather existing customers into the old prices for one year, but many forum commenters rejected this as a mere delay of an unacceptable price hike. The infinite extension, which came as part of an unvarnished mea culpa post from Svane, seemed to appease most critics. “Thanks for hearing us out,” responded one Zendesk user from Atlanta, GA-based Paper Tiger. “Making mistakes is part of doing business, but it’s what you do to fix them that shows you what you’re made of.”

Maksim OvsyannikovThe repricing episode was an uncharacteristic gaffe for Zendesk, where the “love your customer” mantra is so strong that there’s a little heart at the center of the company’s logo. “If we have one core strength it is to be in absolutely fanatical love with our customers,” says Maksim Ovsyannikov, Zendesk’s vice president of product management, who hosted me for an interview last week. “And all of the organizations that come to Zendesk have this one thing in common, that they want to be in love with their customers.”

Exactly how Zendesk missed the mark with its pricing changes is a matter Svane addressed in his blog post. In the same e-mail where it had laid out the price increases, the company had introduced new community support and knowledge base features, and it had assumed, Svane said, that customers would see these as such an improvement that they’d be happy to pay extra. “Instead of our intended result,” he wrote, “many of you read my Tuesday e-mail and thought ‘You want to send me a big bill for something that I didn’t order and haven’t agreed to? WTF?’”

But when I visited Zendesk at its Townsend Street headquarters—its third location, after starting up in Copenhagen in 2007 and then spending a brief six months in Boston in 2009—I was less interested in how it managed the price-change fiasco than in why its customers cared enough to get upset in the first place. Somehow, the 55-employee startup has managed to make the unsexiest of product categories—trouble ticket management systems—into a topic that can get product managers, Web developers, angel investors, and venture capitalists all het up.

Zendesk isn’t the only company experimenting with fresh approaches to the age-old problem of customer support. San Francisco-based Get Satisfaction, for example, has attracted attention for its crowdsourcing approach (users with specific problems can subscribe to message threads where other users and/or company representatives might post solutions). And with so much of the business world migrating to the Web, the marketplace for Web-based help desk software is literally rife with competition, from Kayako and Tender to Atlassian’s Jira and UserScape’s HelpSpot.

But to hear Ovsyannikov tell it, most of the competing help desk systems were designed with help desk administrators in mind, not actual customers. “They’re mainly focused on the user experience for the agent—the dashboard or the console—but not the user coming to report a problem,” he says. “They make it really easy to track and resolve a problem, but really hard to submit the problem in the first place, so people don’t feel that it’s easy to communicate with the organization. That’s where we have really innovated.”

One of Zendesk’s signature features, in Ovsyannikov’s view, is the “e-mail only help desk.” Using this feature, Zendesk subscribers who want to keep things simple need only publish an e-mail address, such as “support@acme.com,” and the system will automatically route incoming messages to the right support agent based on rules the subscribers specify. Zendesk logs each issue and tracks whether it’s been resolved, but subscribers get to use their existing e-mail client as their help system, rather than having to learn an unfamiliar new interface.

Zendesk also developed a “drop box” help widget that subscribers can insert into their websites with just a few lines of JavaScript code. The code places a tab labeled “Support” or “Help” or “Ask Us” on a browser window’s left margin; clicking the tab opens a box that allows site visitors to send feedback, questions, or issues directly to help desk agents.

The more ways customers can reach an organization, the happier they’ll be, Ovsyannikov argues. “The first inertia that was added to Zendesk was when our customers started hearing from their customers that the support was all of a sudden so much better because of these multiple ways to connect, to close the gap of silence,” he says.

One of Zendesk’s biggest clients is Twitter, and the way the red-hot Web messaging company has implemented Zendesk illustrates the help desk system’s flexibility. If you go to support.twitter.com, you’ll see a page that looks for all the world as if it’s simply another section of Twitter’s own site. But in fact, the page is entirely powered by Zendesk. “It’s a very nice example of how customizable the application is,” says Ovsyannikov.

Twitter’s Zendesk site is notable for another reason—it’s very heavy on FAQ-style information, with the aim of making it easy for customers to find out the answers to questions on their own, before they end up opening an actual trouble ticket. This is the “knowledge base” feature of Zendesk, rolled out in May. “Twitter is innovating with a new concept that nobody except the founders understood a few years ago,” says Ovsyannikov. “So they knew they needed a very easy way for end users who have a lot of questions to ask those questions and to share ideas. At first it was ‘What is Twitter? and ‘Why would I use it?’ and now it’s ‘Can you help me recover my password?’ and ‘What does the direct message functionality mean?’” (Alas, I’ve been wanting to learn more about Twitter’s nascent Streaming API, but couldn’t find a word about it in the help center.)

But Zendesk doesn’t design its knowledge bases merely as cul-de-sacs to divert bothersome end users, Ovsyannikov says. “There is this intimate connection between the knowledge base and the actual support workflow,” he says. “If you land on a Twitter FAQ article and it doesn’t answer your issue, you can put in a comment saying you still have an issue that needs to be resolved, and with one click it would be escalated to an actual support ticket.”

A large proportion of Zendesk’s subscribers, naturally, are Internet companies selling or marketing their services online. But another large and growing chunk, Ovsyannikov says, are traditional businesses that may not even have a website. (For them, the e-mail only feature works best.)

He says Zendesk wants to go wherever businesses are meeting customers. That includes Twitter itself. As I wrote last month, the company has rolled out a feature that makes it easy to turn customers’ tweets into tickets—called, of course, “twickets”—and to conduct entire support conversations over Twitter. The company is also working to integrate its tools with the technologies its subscribers use, including mobile devices. More than 50,000 people have downloaded the Zendesk iPhone app, which allows employees of Zendesk-powered companies to manage support tickets from their phones, and the company is working on iPad and BlackBerry versions. There’s also an Android app.

Over time, Zendesk wants to grow beyond e-mail, the Web, and mobile devices to take account of all of the ways that customers interact with companies, including phone support and desktop screen sharing. “You will see all of that in the next 60 to 90 days,” Ovsyannikov says. “We are running at the speed of light here. This is most agile place I’ve ever seen—we are on a software iteration cycle of less than a week.”

Zendesk has raised at least $6.5 million in seed and venture funding, including a $6 million Series B round from Menlo Park, CA-based Benchmark Capital that provided the impetus for the itinerant startup’s move to San Francisco. (An earlier Series A round from Waltham, MA-based Charles River Ventures was what attracted the company to Boston. “We love Boston” CEO Svane told me, but certain things just weren’t working for the company there, such as winter. “When it’s snowing you can’t set up meetings,” Svane says. “There’s no networking, people stay in their offices or stay at home. It’s just a different culture.”)

The company is spending much of its venture cash on hiring—it needs Ruby on Rails engineers, search experts, user experience experts, even copy writers—and Ovsyannikov says Zendesk’s venture investors aren’t putting pressure on the company to turn profitable soon or hit arbitrary user numbers. “Of course we have growth projections, but we don’t have a requirement that we have to release this much product in this much time,” he says. “The requirement is that we innovate in ways that are relevant to our customers and prospects.”

In fact, Zendesk’s partners are doing some of that innovating for it. The company has released extensive application programming interfaces (APIs) that make it easy for outside software developers to integrate their own tools with Zendesk. “I just saw a video yesterday where somebody integrated this tool where you can leave a voicemail during off hours and it connects to a transcription service and within five minutes it e-mails that transcript to Zendesk,” Ovsyannikov says. “We are super happy about that. My road map of innovation is amended by thousands of people who are thinking about how to make Zendesk better.”

Barring an unexpected change in direction or a total loss of navigation skills, Zendesk seems likely to make it much of the way across that map. And even if it does get lost—as it did, briefly, in May—it can just turn to its customers for directions. They’ll be happy to tell them where to go.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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