Zen and the art of customer maintenance


Chris Keall

ZenDesk founder Mikkel Svane: you can't hide customer conversations under a rug

“Five years ago, no-one worked on the helpdesk to pick up girls,” ZenDesk founder Mikkel Svane says.

Just quietly, NBR still isn’t sure that working in customer support is at the cutting edge of romantic careers.

Nevertheless, it’s a little hipper today – or at least very different.

ZenDesk was the first company to create cloud-based helpdesk software. And because it all runs over the internet, like other cloud software there’s minimal setup required, and small companies can access the type of services that only used to be available to big companies.

As with competitors who’ve emerged out of the woodwork, ZenDesk has aggressively integrated social media.

It’s also pushed transparency. A customer can rate a helpdesk experience at every point. And, more notably the customer can also access digital recordings of help calls.

Such openness seems a little excruciating, but Mr Svane notes “You can’t just hide a customer conversation under the rug somewhere.”

Or at least, you can’t anymore. “Social media has completely changed the balance of power,” The ZenDesk CEO says.

“A bad customer service experience will be get out there. It will surface on a review site or Twitter or a Facebook page.”

Raw levels of openness, such as letting a customer access their earlier voice calls and other help file data, and keeping the conversation going across social media channels, helps level the playing field.

VEND CEO VAUGHAN ROWSELL: Cloud-based helpdesk software helps Kiwi point-of-sale software company he founded support 30,000 customers in more than 100 countries.

Founded in Denmark and now headquartered in San Francisco, ZenDesk now has 25,000 customers worldwide.

New Zealand customers number among its early adopters, including game developer Small Worlds, point-of-sale software start-up Vend, Wintec and, at the top end of town, ANZ. Mr Svane spoke to NBR from Melbourne, where ZenDesk has its closest regional office.

Vend’s retail software runs in the cloud (itself something of a first; see www.nbr.co.nz/vend), and it lives a clouds philosophy.  So the company was naturally drawn to an online-only help desk solution – although it wasn’t initially ZenDesk.

"All the software we use at Vend runs in the cloud. Google Apps, Salesforce, Dropbox, Chargify, Yammer. We literally don't have a server at our office. So when choosing a helpdesk, cloud was the only option,” Vend head of marketing Nick Houldsworth tells NBR.

ZENDESK FOUNDER AND CEO MIKKEL SVANE: Radical approach lets not just staff but customers access recordings of helpdesk calls.

“We had been using a relatively small web-based helpdesk through most of 2011, and it worked okay for a team of two or three, but it became apparent quite quickly that it wouldn't scale very well. And it was proving difficult to properly organise our workflows,” Mr Houldsworth says.

Things like tracking inbound enquiries from new trial customers, measuring how they experienced support, how this influenced their decision to activate their account or not. Also, converting support tickets into issues for our developers to resolve, then monitoring the progress of those issues and keeping the customer up to date was hard.

The marketing man says Vend was also attracted to the way ZenDesk works with other cloud software.

“We tested two or three helpdesk platforms, and while all had nice feature sets and user interfaces, the primary deciding factor always came back to ‘How will it integrate with the other cloud software we use to manage our business?’”

ZenDesk had the jump on the competition in this area. “It lets us share contacts with Salesforce, so our sales and support teams have total visibility on each others’ activity. It integrates with our agile product development tracker, Pivotal, so agents can quickly create issues from tickets, and are then automatically notified when issues are resolved,” says Mr Houldsworth.

VEND HEAD OF MARKETING NICK HOULDSWORTH: "We literally don't have a server in our office."

Vend is using ZenDesk to publically share customer satisfaction scores, solicit feature requests, and host online Q&As and forums. If you’re confident enough to be transparent with your customers, this is your helpdesk software.

“It allows us to support customers on multiple channels, Twitter, Facebook, forums, email and web, from one unified platform,” Mr Houldsworth says.

It’s all neat stuff. But it’s no longer unique. ZenDesk and its hipster CEO may have pioneered the concept of cloud-based helpdesk software five years ago, but “Since a lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon,” notes Christchurch-based cloud computing commentator Ben Kepes.

Imitators included Assistly, bought by the giant Salesforce.com for $US50 million in late 2011 and renamed Desk.com.

“There are lots of players and lots of challengers,” Mr Kepes says, “But they’ve got good helpdesk software and they tie together all the social channels. They’ve got a lot of momentum.”

Mr Svane told NBR the sheer amount of data his company was getting back from customers helped it keep on touch of customer service trends.

Asked if his company is making any money, the ZenDesk founder says his company is still in growth mode (read: no). It’s well positioned financially, he says, having raised $US60 million in a private equity round before Christmas. His long term plan is to list on the Nasdaq.


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