Help Scout Looks To Boost Collaboration For Businesses’ “Catch-All” E-Mail Inboxes

It’s probably reassuring for online shoppers and the like to know that the generic-sounding address they e-mail—-usually dubbed something like help, service, or contact—is actually manned by people and not robots. And TechStars Boston 2011 graduate Help Scout is looking to make life easier for the humans that are responding to those queries.

“We know that every business on the planet has some sort of catch-all inbox that typically goes to group of people,” says founder Nick Francis. “Anytime that account gets more than 10 emails a day, it becomes a bit unmanageable. Help Scout helps you manage the chaos.”

Without Help Scout, Francis says, employees are left to find alternate ways to inform each other on how a request or e-mail is being handled—like BCCing or sending separate e-mails to colleagues, and passing notes in person or shouting across a desk.

Help Scout’s platform sifts through the e-mails that come to those catch-all inboxes, and enables different users to collaborate on responses. There are features for assigning a customer e-mail to an employee, passing along notes before sending the e-mail, and creating a draft e-mail for review. (See screen shots below.) Help Scout’s big focus is on customer service applications, so incoming e-mails pushed through the system are assigned a ticket number to track how they are dealt with throughout the process.

The technology launched about seven weeks into this year’s TechStars program, and Help Scout scored some business with its TechStars mentor Jason Henrichs, COO of Boston Web-based banking startup PerkStreet Financial. “It’s really dangerous to think the target customer is always you, but halfway through a mentee session we realized we’re totally a customer,” says Heinrichs.

He says his firm was using the manual shouting and passing notes method of collaborating on customer e-mails. Help Scout technology helps them more efficiently scale as they grow customers for their Web-based, cash-back debit card account product.

“We add a collaborative layer on top of email,” Francis says. His startup is working on closing a $400,000 round from a group of 15 angels—including David Cancel, Dharmesh Shah, Joe Caruso, Chris Sheehan and Brian Balfour. It expects to

do another closing in September, he says.

Help Scout is another in a string of area companies we’ve written about recently—like Cambridge, MA-based Yesware and PowerInbox—that are making their money by pumping up existing e-mail platforms with new functionality.

Help Scout exists as a standalone Web app that users can log into separately. But it can also be set up to send notifications directly to inboxes, informing users if a new ticket has been assigned to them, or if a customer has responded do an existing thread. Help Scout users can work through their e-mail interfaces and respond to tasks using simple keyboard commands, without leaving their original screen, Francis says. He says 1.5 million notifications have been sent through that platform in the past three or so months.

The startup has accrued a mix of more than 400 paid and free customers. It charges on a per-user, per-month basis, with a few different plans. Help Scout plans to target a range of industries, but Francis cited e-commerce as a big potential market. He hopes employees there will abandon apps like Google Docs to use his software instead. “They understand the value of personalized customer service,” Francis says.

Help Scout is focused on nabbing more customers and developing additional features like reporting and the ability to forward to an outside e-mail address or vendor, Francis says. The now-Nashville-based team plans to set up its operations full-time in Boston this fall.

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