Making Customer Support Sexy: Zendesk’s Help Desk Lovefest

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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.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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