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Zendesk vs Help Scout for Multi-brand Value

If you’re a cool organisation and you talk to your customers, chances are you’re using Zendesk. It really brought SaaS helpdesk to a usable place where it was easy and a pleasure to use. Recently however a new sheriff is in town: Help Scout. In this blog post I go through our experience at Synacy and the reasons why we’re switching help desk systems over just 30 bucks.

At Synacy, we look after a number of brands and companies all of which have in common a reliance on efficient, timely and accurate customer support. We also cater to different types or personas of clients within these brands and could be said to require a degree of complexity relative to the average startup company. We also have far less bureaucracy than the average corporate or more established company in the industries we operate in.

We have dedicated front line staff which are supplemented by others in our company who will deal directly with customers on a part-time basis. These are typically engineers, account managers, other specialist managers and even the CEO. This means our agents have more responsibility, more decision-making authority and more access to those able to formulate higher level responses to issues.

This also means they have a higher expectation placed on them and really do have the ability to take ownership and solve a customer issue, as well as proactively champion a solution to improve our customer experience overall. Of course, with power comes responsibility and with this leeway there is also a potential for worse customer service since they’re not on a “script” or strict procedure which enforces a “minimum standard” or standard operating procedure- so far we’ve resisted implementing these and instead try to ensure our staff have a full understanding of the systems and processes at their disposal.

History

It was much simpler 5 years ago in June 2009 when we signed up to Zendesk. We were managing one brand with around 5-10,000 customers and were coming off a Thunderbird mail client with the Quicktext extension used by 2 support agents. We had a system and we knew were were growing. We were signing up bigger companies and they expected ticketing systems that issued numbers and had very definite automated emails.

After testing a few different ticketing solutions Zendesk was selected. This was largely due to the fact that we had it setup how we wanted it while other companies still hadn’t responded to our pricing enquiries, were negotiating pricing, required us to install dependencies and spin up servers or were open source and lacked structured support from their developers.

From that stage it was too easy to turn it on from pilot to production. As a nice touch it even allowed us to enter the ticket number we would start with. We started with ticket number 16000 and sometime in June 2009, the first real ticket 16001 was answered.

Zendesk tickets

In 2014, at the time of this writing, we’re answered over 100,000 tickets on that same help desk, while also operating other Zendesk instances. Over those years we’ve been customers through some major milestones for Zendesk. We became a customer right in the wake of their series A funding round, we participated in the beta for the v2 “Lotus” interface that is the basis for the UI today, as well as the rapid increase in features such as Zendesk Voice.  As Zendesk grew, so did we and we now have over 20 people looking after aspects of front office. Consequently with our usage and increased headcount our Zendesk bill has grown too.

Zendesk

Part of the value we bring our customers is the ability to innovate and be responsive. We’ve taken great pains over the years to do so and our needs have more and more revolved around providing our services under different brands for various market segments. In doing so, we looked to Zendesk as our standard solution. We want to add all of our relevant staff including the specialist managers, engineering and account management experts, while specifying the ‘brand’ items like email customisations and rules.

While Zendesk has added “light” agents to try to address that it seems like an afterthought and doesn’t fit our needs. The branding aspect is also a late addition and Zendesk multi-brand, as was explained to me by some of the Zendesk guys in a meet in Sydney, is essentially a separate Zendesk instance. The commercials also seem inescapably bad – for multi-brand it’s $195 per agent per month. This is a cost that even when discussing with bigger corporate or government organisation colleagues seemed to be expensive.

While I don’t doubt they have some users who see value from this level of plan (with some discounting presumably) it wouldn’t be us, or my colleagues. The thing that can’t really be reconciled is that with us testing new business models and brands for some of our distribution channels our entire support team might only answer relatively few actual tickets while not needing or using any of the other “enterprise” level plan functionality. While I think it’s a great top line revenue play to link the size of the agent team to their overall pricing, from the customer end I feel it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that we’d have to pay so much more per agent when none of the agents use the new functionality- why not just charge for the added functionality?

Clearly this approach wasn’t going to work for us in the longer term- going from $30 an agent to $195 just isn’t feasible. So, knowing the multi-brand capability and the pricing model we chose to make our second instance of Zendesk an entirely separate account. We provisioned this on a lower plan level and even though our agents had 2 Zendesk’s to check, we streamlined the process internally using some of the features for Zendesk to make it workable. This solved the problem at the time but it was the first time we’d hit something with Zendesk that seemed unreasonable to us. Talk about disillusionment with the buddha.

Things stayed like that for a while and like a good Zendesk customer, we also used the knowledge base part of Zendesk so our customers could find support articles and self-serve. We even deployed the nicer looking but essentially the same “help center” version that was rolled out to Zendesk customers. Again, there is a lot to like about Zendesk, the fact remained however that in our situation not all of our staff work exclusively on the help desk sorting through tickets minute after minute.

Luckily our service is, for the most part, usable without interacting with our support desk. Sure we’d like multi-brand but why does it cost $195 per agent when I can open a new instance at the lower price? Surely their unit cost isn’t increased. I’m not against people making money from their hard work – but this situation was literally forcing us to make choices about who can help a customer and who can’t based on cost.

While cost is a major driver in any business, when the help desk that is marketing as helping your relationship with your customer puts you in that position it just doesn’t feel right. The way we are, if you make us choose between you or our customers- we’re going to pick our customers every time.

Change

There were a few straws that broke the camels back. First was a requirement to support our core products in a language other than English by deploying a multilingual knowledge base and help desk. Second was since we’re growing internally we need to set up our own IT help desk to ensure our less techy staff aren’t left without help too. I expected to just login and enable the option which I had remembered was there on our main install. Of course, when I got to the screen for multi-language on one of our Zendesk instances it would cost us an extra $30 per agent per month to enable it.

Now, I have to make clear. It’s not about the $30. That is, our own business model isn’t bad enough to have to scrimp on customer service software. On the other hand, it is all about the $30. Before I proceed, I have to say this is no diss to Zendesk. They’ve made great software and have been reliable and great for us, but what Zendesk have done (perhaps they need to get their share price up for their big name venture capitalists since their IPO, I don’t know), is to bundle a bunch of features into an upgrade point minefield.

These features are all over their interface and spread throughout the advertising while being only available on the higher cost plans. This isn’t bad. They need to sell and they’re doing it smartly and honestly. However, we’re not talking about marketing. We’re talking about value. Not just for me either because we’re doing this for our customers. With that in mind, I feel that they’ve priced themselves a little too high, and for me to do the best for my customers, I’m going to spend less on external systems so we can reduce our operating costs.

Help Scout

Last time I looked for alternatives I couldn’t find anything that was up to the high standard Zendesk had set. This time around though I’ve found Help Scout. Their pricing is instantly better: all features for $15/month. There are no per agent upgrade points but instead add extensions you can pay extra for, such as their knowledge base extension named “Docs” which, happily for us, handles translations. Now to be fair to Zendesk, Help Scout’s feature parity is somewhere around 1/4 to 1/2 of Zendesk depending on which features you’re using. For our situation however, they have most things on Zendesk we use while charging per service rather than per agent for additional services. This feels fairer and rewards them to focus on features that people will pay for. This is essentially a “lean” pricing model and tests their assumptions of developing features that customers will pay for. There is no feature minefield or feature soup to hit your head on to upgrade, it’s just ala carte which we believe adds flexibility.

Help Scout tickets

Using Help Scout

Our comparison

The things we require that exist on Zendesk which also exist on Help Scout are as follows:

  • Help Scout has Workflows which is comparable to customisable views/automations/triggers in Zendesk.
  • “Saved Replies” is the equivalent to “Macros” allowing you to use ‘canned responses’.
  • There are integrations for the things we care about like Hipchat.
  • Zendesk and Help Scout have the ability to pull customer data from our core systems so agents have access to core system data about customers

The things we use on Zendesk currently which are missing from Help Scout are as follows:

These are the differences which are important to us:

  • With Zendesk, the knowledge base software is included on most of the paid plans while Help Scout’s equivalent “Docs” is $25/month. I feel this is a good value since the cost of Help Scout is $15 per agent per month, then you add $25 a month for Docs which allows up to 5 branded support sites and has translations. Don’t forget too it’s $25 a month, NOT $25 per agent per month.
  • Help Scout allows for as many mailboxes as you want and each one can be branded, styled and have work flows/views automated separately. You can still move tickets between mailboxes too (it’s like they’ve thought of everything).

So out with Zendesk, in with Help Scout

Not so fast but sort of yes we’re getting there. I saw a post from the CEO of Help Scout Francis titled the 12 advantages of being under-funded. As a values statement, I can definitely identify with bootstrapping and keeping really close to the action and your customer. I hope he keeps the model of paying for what you use, not just using the feature to get a higher cost from each agent. I think if they want to create new add-ons and charge reasonably for their use they should.

I’m trying to get away from the upgrade minefield where it makes it great value for those people who use all the features, but rather poor if you have to upgrade for only one you consider basic and then pay for each agent even though each agent may not be using it. Perhaps a more JIRA-esque model, which adds a per user cost for features you use, would suit Zendesk customers while keeping investors happy. Either way, when you find the same or better capability for far less money, as a business, you owe it to your own customers to move.

We’re still going to keep our main Zendesk install with over 116k+ tickets- for now, since it’s too entrenched to other systems and processes. Interestingly when I started writing this article we hadn’t yet rolled out to our agents for piloting but since we have they say they prefer Help Scout. It feels cleaner and faster so now we’ve begun looking at how to move those integrations out and into Help Scout and fast tracking our migration. Most likely by the next ‘refresh’ of our front end web sites we’ll probably switch over to Docs and Help Scout for all of our brands and get on with trying to deliver great experiences to our customers. Looks like this plucky “little” system can punch above it’s weight- being bootstrapped and from Australia I can relate on those counts too.

If Zendesk wants to keep our business, they should have a look at our pricing though I suspect we’re a rather small account for them. When we joined, we probably only had angels to answer to but now the VCs money is in and it’s mayhem 🙂

Seriously though, I suspect you’ll see more switches from Zendesk for those in the $15-$60 per agent pricing plan or if there is a matrix of requirements that just happens to fit. I guess Zendesk need to figure out if clients like us are worth keeping. And for all the hoo-hah on company blogs saying they’re switching from Zendesk to Help Scout for a more “personal” service with Help Scout because it “looks just like email”, that’s just rubbish. You can customise Zendesk to remove all signs of ticket numbering and make it look like a normal email, just like you can customise Help Scout to have ticket numbers. It’s really about the 30 bucks.


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