Friday, February 3, 2012

Online Support Solutions for Startups

helpHeadscape co-founder Paul Boag was recently quoted by .net magazine on the subject of customer service in the web industry, that, "As web designers, we like to think we just build websites. We don’t. We also offer a service to our clients. We are often so obsessed with user experience, code and design that we forget other important factors such as good communication, understanding business needs and exceeding client expectations. If we are going to prosper in 2012 we need to blow our clients away, not just their users.”

This is an important piece of advice that echoes a sure trend for this year. Support is the one element of most startups that gets the least amount of attention in early planning and can lead to headaches and business breakdowns later on. The bottom line is if you sell a product or service, someone has to be there to help customers and clients use it. By investing in their success, you guarantee your own.

There are several ways to execute an excellent support strategy, from forums to a full-fledged helpdesk. The option that is right for your startup depends on its size, the scope of your product or service catalog and the number of customers you have. In most cases, if your products and services deal largely with the web, online support makes the most sense. Below is a comparison of some of the best options for small business, made for startups, by startups.



Zendesk is a hosted helpdesk solution that can be set up by anyone overnight. Zendesk combines a professional-grade feature set with a beautifully simple Ajax-based user interface. They offer monthly plans from US$19 to US$349, and a free plan for the one-man shop. Since its launch, Zendesk has become one of the most popular online helpdesk solutions around, used by more than 15,000 companies large and small.

Why It's Good

ZenDesk's user interface is carefully crafted with meticulous attention to usability and style, and it is fully brand-able. The functions are intuitive and easy to learn, and the setup process is quick, guided every step of the way. It comes with features appropriate for online support, including tickets, email management, Facebook and Twitter integration, forums, knowledgebase and reporting.

Best of all, it is supported by several apps, including Highrise, SugarCRM, WordPress, Podio and others to make integrations easy. Tickets, Forums, Responses and Knowledgebase are all completely customized via custom fields and macros, and there is a slick mobile app for tracking on the go.


The Downside

Like most of the options on this list, ZenDesk is a hosted solution, which means you do not have 100% control over your data. Your knowledgebase, bug tracking and development discussions are a critical part of your startup's intellectual capital, so there is risk in putting it in the cloud. The benefit to this is that someone else is responsible if anything happens to it, and ZenDesk lives by example - their support is top notch. ZenDesk may also be a little too much for startups that only provide one service or have a small scope.



Built by Oregon design studio ENTP, Tender is a lightweight solution for small teams with a smaller scope that only need to provide support via forums and email. They offer plans from US $9 to $99 based largely on file space required and number of discussion filters. If you are switching from ZenDesk, Tender will import your data at no cost, and if you are supporting an open-source product, Tender is free.

Why Its Good

The solution is built upon a thorough knowledgebase, using Discussions to capture emails and web-submitted questions which can then be categorized and prioritized. They offer a customer front-end that is well designed and easy to follow, complete with fast and accurate search for self-help.

The Knowledgebase is the strong point of Tender,capable of segregating information between customers and team members, using a clean and easy editor. The reporting feature is a nice bonus, helping teams to stay on top of response times and support volume, or track which issue sparks the most feedback to help prioritize fixes.


The Downside

Aside from also being a hosted solution, Tender fills a specific niche, providing a simple solution for a low cost. As such, it is limited in its offering. There are no tickets or team tools for bug tracking or task management, and no social network integration or mobile app, so the tool is best suited for single providers or small studios. You also won't get any branding or customization options with Tender without forking over $99 per month. (formerly Assistly)


Assistly - now rebranded to - has been a favorite of design firms and startups including Vimeo, Pandora and Basecamp creators 37Signals. With the rebrand comes an interface-lift using the latest and greatest in UI design and interactive features. You can start using for free, with increased pricing based on the number of people needing access.

Why It's Good

At no extra cost, lets you customize every aspect of your support center, from the forms and structure to the look and feel. Team members can manage support requests coming from web-submitted questions or forum topics, social networks, email r support tickets from one place, using auto-response macros to increase efficiency.

The customer portal is designed to follow a familiar format of content and sidebar, but can be customized further with CSS. It drives customers towards self help first, powered by the highly configurable knowledgebase. You also have reporting and integrations, making it a hard contender to ZenDesk. To top it off, offers a free mobile app for quickly managing requests and accessing the support portal.

deskcom page

The Downside's pricing structure can be a bit confusing - charging US$1 per flex hour or $49 per full-time user account. For most companies, flex hours may quickly get out of hand if they aren't limited to administrative users or periodic maintenance by specific team members (checking Facebook weekly, for example.) It is also more expensive for small teams than competitors. The app-centric design of the agent desktop may also throw off some people who would prefer a more familiar website layout, but that can be remedied with the Assistly API.



Kyako comes in three flavors. with Kyako Resolve being the best option for startups. In addition to tickets, self-help, email integration and reporting, Kyako wraps in a customer profile database for better CRM activities and uses industry standard service-level-agreements to help you build workflows and meet issue resolution goals easier. Plans start at US$29 per month, per user for the hosted solution, or US$599 for up to 10 users on your own installation.

Why It's Good

Kyako is one of the only support solutions out there built for web businesses that offers a self-hosted solution, giving you complete control over your data and customization options without having to learn an API. The interface designed is based on extensive user experience testing to provide a comfortable experience, and the knowledgebase offers a step-by-step troubleshooter and suggestion system to help filter known issues before they ever reach you. To see how flexible it can be check out Envato's implementation.

The Downside

There is no mobile app or social network integration here, which may be a deal breaker for many app development and design teams, and the hosted solution can get expensive fast if your team has more than 3 people.



If you're part of a design or development team with enough time to spare and a desire to flex your creative muscle, WordPress offers an incredibly dynamic platform for growing your own support solution using their extensive plugin library and custom post types. Themes like WooThemes SupportPress can help you get a jump-start. This is probably the most cost-effective solution, but comes with added developmental responsibility.


Web designers and product developers may find forums to be enough for your customer's needs, and come with the advantage of self-service and allowing customers to help each other. One consideration you need to make is if you want your customer issues and your responses to be public. Vanilla is a brandable, highly configurable forum and community management module loved by website owners including boagworld, Penny Arcade and HubSpot. Best of all, it is free to host yourself, or starts at just US$49 for unlimited users and basic features.

Feedback & Desktop Support

If you just want to cut to the chase and offer a simple solution for gathering customer feedback, managing Q&A or providing direct desktop support, check out Mashable's review of Feedback apps or FreelanceSwitch on Remote Support options.

This is a guest article by Vail Joy who is a long-time writer, designer and copy editor with 15 years of experience in corporate business writing, music journalism and internet media design. When she is not hard at work designing something, she loves writing for, the free website builder.

Photo credit: BigStockPhoto


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