Customer Service Software Showdown

Spoiler Alert: We chose Zendesk. Wait, I mean: TL;DR: We chose Zendesk.

Once upon a time, United Pixelworkers was a tiny operation, shipping but a few shirts each month. At this miniature scale it was possible—if unadvisable even then—for Union Boss Fanelli to respond personally to all incoming customer service email and Tweets™. We are happy to report that beginning December of 2011 we made a conscious effort to get better, faster, strong. That’s right, we are now the proud operators of spiffy new Help Desk Software, in particular, the inimitable Zendesk.

Why Zendesk?

Patience. Before we get there, let’s talk about why we (and you) might need a Customer Support Solution™. Do you,

  • Frequently need to answer variations of the same question?
  • Have more than one person answering customer service inquiries?
  • Care at all about using the right tool for the job?

It’s true you could (and we did) get by without paying a penny or taking a minute to evaluate your options and revamp your process. A shared email account, a maze of folders, and just-in-time text expansion will do the trick. Good luck with that.

Want happy customers? Invest in your process. Quicker, smarter, more reliable responses mean more sales for you. And you’re helping another company meet its payroll as well. Win, win, win.

For real this time, why Zendesk?

Briefly: we looked at Assistly/Desk, Charm, and Zendesk. All good, all favorites. It came down to having an iPhone app with push notifications and a gut feeling about which interface felt right.

Here’s what we liked and didn’t like about each:


Neat pricing model. The first user is free, additional users cost $1/hour or $49/month. That would have worked well for us since we have about 1.5 customer servicers (Jay and I).

Integration with Shopify. Now that we’re using Shopify, customer order and contact details at our fingertips would be huge. It’s a feature we really hope Zendesk adopts. (Edit: Apparently the integration provides only a feedback tab and not order and customer details at this time, which is unfortunate. It certainly would save us [and, we imagine, others] a lot of time.)

Easy email integration. Assistly/Desk makes it trivial to set up an email support channel using IMAP. That’s not insignificant. (Charm uses IMAP as well.)

No iPhone app. I hate that it comes down to this for me as it looks like Assistly/Desk has a stellar mobile site, but I demand push notifications. I’m a little obsessive about it. Push notifications mean unique sounds and an easily identifiable alert appearance. If email is good enough for you (and it might be), this won’t matter as much. For me, I need to know at a glance or even without a glance whether my phone is buzzing because a customer needs our attention, a sale has been made, or someone is talking to us on Twitter.

Noisy interface. Assistly/Desk was the first tool we tried, and I loved it. For every reason listed above, it was a step in the right direction. Yet all the dashed lines made me claustrophobic. It’s a stupid, silly reason, but if I’m spending an hour a day responding to customer service requests, I want to love the environment.

Modes. Assistly/Desk has separate modes for administration, analytics, and support. It drove me crazy.

Acquisition by Salesforce. Okay, now we’re getting really petty. Everything about Assistly/Desk is great and I fully expect the service to continue to improve. That said, the sale to a bigger company made me pause. There’s nothing wrong with the move and I fully support anyone who wants to make that decision, but given the choice between throwing our completely insignificant weight behind the front runner or one of the smaller companies, we went with the ones that more closely matched our own temperament.


Charm is a brand new venture from Thomas Fuchs and Amy Hoy, and they were kind enough to let us in to kick the tires before it was ready for prime time.

I loved so much about Charm—the attitude, the unique approach, the modern code stack, the personal touch. It hasn’t been completely exposed to prospective customers, but there’s a ton of research and exploration behind the scenes into what makes customer service flow smoothly.

Charm has a fair price, a strong interface, an easy-to-set-up email channel, and a clear passion for making customer service better. I can’t say anything bad about the product even in this (private) beta stage. For us, though, an iPhone app just so happens to be the one feature we can’t live without. I have no doubt both Charm and Assistly/Desk will release native apps with all the expected functionality soon—which will make the decision for others in the future all the more difficult.

So, Zendesk.

Finally. Yes, Zendesk is what we use to power all the loving support you receive from United Pixelworkers. It’s not the simplest to get set up if you want to use your own email address. You’ll need to be comfortable adding SPF records to your domain. Establishing an email-only workflow is unintuitive as well. In fact, there are all kinds of quirks that occasionally make me throw my hands up in despair.

Yet what hooked me is still what makes me happy to use Zendesk every day: a great personality, extreme customizability (we’re stilling toying with our triggers, views, and macros to get that Just Right feel), and, you know, an iPhone app.

There’s also never been a better time to buy. $20 now gets you one year with three agents and the money goes straight to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. I don’t know how Zendesk can afford to do that, but we’re not going to complain.

Which one is right for me?

I don’t know. We probably use less than 10% of the features and they’re likely different than the 10% you’ll need. Assistly/Desk, Charm, and Zendesk are all thoroughly modern and come with free trials, multi-channel support, a dozen features you’ve never heard of, and, most importantly, smart people who care a lot about making customer service better.

Go try ’em all, see which one works best for your needs. You can’t go wrong. Unless you keep using Gmail and sticky notes in which case you’ve gone very, very wrong.

Now what?

If you want to learn more about customer service, follow me on Twitter. Ha. Just kidding. If you want to learn more about customer service, turn Twitter off for a day, read this article from Joel Spolsky, and go get your hands dirty.

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