When Complaining Customers Hit Twitter and Facebook, Assistly is There

Alex Bard likes to start off his description of Assistly, the San Francisco startup where he’s CEO, with an old quote from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. It goes something like this: If you make a customer unhappy in the physical world, he might tell six friends. But if you make the same customer unhappy on the Internet, he can tell 6,000.

“That has never been more true than today,” Bard says. “The first thing that happens when we have a bad customer experience is that we try to find an answer. And if we can’t, we broadcast it, and we all infect many more people than in the past. This shift is putting an unbelievable amount of pressure on companies to be more responsive.”

The challenge for companies isn’t simply to contain the damage from distressed customers; it’s to track them in all the places where they might be sharing their grievances, from traditional Web support forums to newer channels like Twitter and Facebook. But the majority of companies are “still trying to figure out” social media, Bard says. That means even if they notice an irate customer’s tweets or status updates, they may be reluctant to respond in public.

That’s exactly where Assistly comes in. The startup,which Bard co-founded in 2009 with Gary Benitt, Brad Birnbaum, and Jeremy Suriel, has created a Web-based platform designed to help companies engage with customers in whatever channels they choose. Addressing a complaint publicly might not feel comfortable at first. But the benefit, Bard asserts, is that customers who feel heard will eventually have less to complain about. “Once companies start to understand that customer service is a philosophy and not just a department, you will see fewer and fewer people airing [a company’s] dirty laundry on Twitter, because there will be less to air,” he says.

The Assistly multimedia inbox

You might call Bard, Benitt, Birnbaum, and Suriel a serial customer-support startup team. Assistly is the fourth company they’ve started together, and three out of the four were in customer service and support. The exception was their last company, Goowy, a maker of Flash-based widgets. After the foursome finished a stint at AOL, which acquired Goowy in 2008, Bard says they saw the potential for a new social-media-aware customer support platform aimed not at big enterprises—a market that Bard says is well-served companies like Salesforce.com and Oracle—but at small and medium-sized businesses.

Of course, there’s already another customer support startup right here in San Francisco that sits squarely in the middle of the SMB market: Zendesk. But in Bard’s view, “Zendesk started out as a help desk product and then bolted on some of these social channels.” The difference, he says, is that Assistly incorporate social media into its offering from the beginning, “so social is an ingrained part of the product and the workflow.”

Here’s how it might work: Say you’re a customer support rep at Square (an actual Assistly customer) and a merchant complains on Twitter that they can’t get your mobile credit-card reader to work. The tweet will automatically show up in a multimedia inbox, part of a collaborative Web-based desktop accessible to your whole support team. Assistly will automatically create … Next Page »

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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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