The Startup Diaries, help desk software.

Providing clear and responsive support for our customers will be an important part of the company. To support (hah!) that goal, I spent a few days last week evaluating several different help desk/support software solutions. There are a lot of different options and none of them were perfect. So, I thought I'd write up what I found thus far and see if any of you had additional insight.

First, let me lay out the features that are important for us. Also, if your requirements differ from the following, you'll likely evaluate the offerings very differently. These aren't in any real order:

  • Basics – manage tickets, rules to auto-assign tickets, public and private knowledge base.
  • Fully customizable external UI - our customers should feel the support pages are a seamless part of the company's web presence. In other words, I don't want customers to access the support pages and be looking around for clues whether they are at the right place.
  • Twitter based tickets (twickets?) – I find Twitter is where many developers turn to vent (and rarely praise) publicly. Meeting them then and there can provide a lot insight into your product and responding to such feedback can sometimes help everyone feel better.
  • Integrate with custom data sources – being able to pull information from other places, like our CRM solution, will be more important as we grow. Everyone exposes a REST API to do such stuff so this didn't end up being a big differentiator in the end.

After reviewing lots of different options, there ended up being three key contenders. These were the solutions I kept coming back to evaluate. None of them were perfect. I liked pieces from each. Unfortunately, there can be only one.


When I started, I thought for sure we were going to end up with UserVoice. They are possibly the most expensive ($85/mo/user annually) but it wasn't the price that pushed UserVoice to the back.


I thought they did a good job explaining their product on their web site. I liked the layout of their UI for managing tickets the best. It felt a little slower than the others I evaluated but not enough to bug me.

I also really liked the way they approached their forums and the voting system. They also did a good job integrating the knowledge base while asking questions and the reports showing how many questions miss the knowledge base look really useful. These features had me sold on UserVoice.


There is no built in Twitter + support ticket integration. They do have a "Inspector" that will show you recent tweets from the customer that opened a support ticket but that won't help you actually converse with the customer on Twitter. It does appear that you can pay for a service from one of their partners to get Twitter + support ticket integration but that only makes UserVoice more expensive and complicated. I was suddenly very disappointed.

I also disliked that you have to click a checkbox to leave a ticket "Open". I may be weird, but I want us treat tickets like bugs. A ticket is opened then answered and resolved, or updated and left pending. Only after the resolution seems to be good is the ticket closed. I could not find a way to get UserVoice to support this workflow. Again, I was disappointed.

I also wasn't confident that UserVoice's UI customization were sufficient to fully brand the support site as we required. I really wanted a few links to existing customers that had radically redesigned their UserVoice based support site. That would have given me the confidence the next two offerings did.

We found when evaluating as our CRM solution. After playing with their evaluation for a while there were some things I really did not like but knew we could address them.


Tickets flow like bugs. I described my ideal flow above and does exactly that. This fact alone propelled to the top of the heap.

I did not feel the ticket UI was quite as clean as the UserVoice UI. There is a whole lot of purple going on in However, I did like that tickets were opened in tabs. That made it easy to jump back and forth between issues. also has Twitter integrated. It worked basically like I expected it would. I did not yet know that there was a better way to do it.

Finally, listed many customer sites that customized the external UI heavily. That was encouraging. After using the trial for a while, I saw why so many customized.


Every help desk system except provides an email address where you can forward support requests and they get turned into tickets. requires you to connect it to an existing POP server. If you don't happen to have a POP mailbox available, you are just stuck. I'll talk about our mail infrastructure in a future blog post but I didn't have a POP mailbox laying around.

I was so surprised by this that I actually called support to ask if I was missing something. The support guy assured me I was correct and mentioned something about the dev team not wanting to be in the email business. He suggested creating a GMail account. That was a good suggestion as a workaround for the evaluation. I would have to use a different solution when it came to production.

Then there were many things about the external UI provided by bothered me. For example, they provide an "Email Us" link that takes you to a web form. Every time I clicked that link, I expected my default email client to open, not a web form. It bothered me. I wanted to change the "Email Us" link to "Contact Us" or "Submit Request" or something besides "Email Us". It looks possible but requires deep customization. But that's okay because we were going to need to do deep customization anyway.

Then there is the default template used to generate emails. It's horrible looking. Again, I knew that we would be doing customizations so I didn't worry about it too much. But still...

At the end of the day, I thought we'd be going but the poor "out of box" look and feel of unsettled me. So I jumped into one more deep dive.


I don't pretend to know the help desk market well but after searching for a while I came to believe that Zendesk is the top dog. It seems everyone in this niche ends up comparing themselves to Zendesk.


Like they open tickets in easy access tabs and the UI felt the most responsive thus far. I don't like the way the the sidebar for "Apps" looks or integrates but only UserVoice seemed to really do that well. Zendesk also allowed tickets to flow like bugs. So the UI was acceptable but not significantly better than

What was different was how Zendesk used rules to create tickets from Twitter. I let the site run for a while and it opened a fair number of random tickets caught by a search. There is a lot of noise in Twitter searches (especially for "wix"). In Zendesk I could create tickets by marking the tweets as favorites, plus other rules. That made so much sense that the Twitter integration looked lame by comparison.

Then I found that Zendesk has a Windows Phone app (plus apps for other platforms). I was thrilled. Now I could be almost anywhere in the world and be able to address customer concerns. Unexpected  bonus.

Then I realized that Zendesk allowed customers to log back into the support center and view all of their tickets. This was provided right out of the box. Neither UserVoice nor had anything like this (that I could find). Seemed like a great feature for customer support.

But the last discovery I made sealed the deal for me. You can respond to tickets using Markdown. Given that developers will be our core clientele, the ability to easily mark up responses such that example code snippets show up clearly is awesome.


The knowledge base functionality of Zendesk is shoe horned into their forum system. I also wasn't terribly impressed with the forum system. It's sufficient and we'll be able to customize the experience but it's a far cry from what UserVoice provides.

My hope is that Zendesk realizes how far behind their knowledge base offering is and is working on improvements. That or maybe UserVoice is working on Twitter integration plus Markdown support in tickets and a Windows Phone app. Right now, it looks like the winner is Zendesk.

In closing...

I also looked at Kayako, FreshDesk and a bunch of other smaller help desk software solutions that were crossed off quickly because they didn't meet one or more of the original requirements.

So what do you think? Do you use a particular help desk software that you like? Did I miss something in one of the big three that I should go back and reevaluate?

Those of you starting up or thinking about starting up, did you find these notes useful? I'd love to hear what you think.

In the meantime, you keep coding. I'm busy picking out business infrastructure, like support software.

FireGiant provides dedicated support for the WiX toolset. Ever wish you could get your WiX questions answered immediately with the technical detail that you find in the blog posts here? You can with FireGiant!

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