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 an analysis of the tweet’s content and its author—for example, whether they’ve interacted with the company in the past, and how many Twitter followers they have (a gauge of the complaint’s viral impact). It will use such cues to prioritize each incoming issue for a response and optionally forward it to a specific representative, based on whatever business rules you’ve specified.

There’s also a knowledge base built into Assistly, so if there’s a known solution for the merchant’s problem, you can call it up and send a Twitter reply with a link to a helpful post or article. The whole interaction, meanwhile, is tracked for future reporting purposes, so that you’ll know how often and how quickly you’re resolving customers’ problems. The scenario would play out the same way if the thread had begun on Facebook; the system also supports interactions via e-mail, community forums, online FAQs, live chat, and telephone.

Assistly has raised a bit more than $5 million in venture backing from Bullpen Capital, Index Ventures, Social Leverage, True Ventures, Salesforce.com, and individual investor Kenny Van Zant, an Asana exec who was formerly the chief product strategist at network management software startup SolarWinds. So far, the startup has signed up “hundreds” of customers, Bard told me in late May. While many are fellow Web 2.0 startups like 37signals, Disqus, Fitbit, Performable, Squarespace, Stocktwits, and Vimeo, there are also a few non-Web companies on the list, like DirecTV. Most new Assistly customers have previously struggled to monitor social media conversations using what Bard calls the “Frankenstein duct-tape solution—just Gmail and Tweetdeck.” But others come in search of a simpler replacement for their existing customer-support platforms, such as Zendesk or Remedy.

On price, Assistly is “orders of magnitude” cheaper than traditional customer support software from Remedy or RightNow, and roughly on a par with Zendesk, Bard says. At the moment, the company charges a monthly subscription fee that scales up with the number of employees using the system full-time. (There’s also an hourly “flex” system for employees who need to use it once in a while.) But Bard hints that a major change in the startup’s pricing system is on the way. “It’s a hugely disruptive business model that will simplify the experience for customers and enable even more companies to provide social customer support,” he says.

Bard says he’s convinced that as Twitter and Facebook settle into the mainstream, Assistly will scoop up a large number of small- and medium-sized businesses as customers. “I believe more and more companies will be forced to engage in the public channels, because the effect of not participating will be significantly more detrimental than participating,” he says. “Hopefully it will change the DNA with companies so that they become more customer-centric. The question used to be about metrics like ‘How do we lower the average call-handling time?’ and today it’s about customer satisfaction.”

Assistly is certainly giving off a competitive vibe, but it doesn’t need to destroy Zendesk in order to succeed, Bard says. “I think the space can sustain a couple of leaders,” he says. “My perspective is that it’s actually really good for us to have one another. We push each other further and are preaching the same thing, which is helping our customers deliver more support, which at the end of the day is good for everyone.”

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

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