Zendesk (disclosure – in the distant past I did a small amount of consulting to the company) is a company I’ve been following almost since its inception 6 or so years ago. In that time they’ve done an amazing job of scaling their operation – when I first met the team they were half a dozen people split between Hong Kong and Denmark. They’re now a company with 30000 customers and with offices spanning the globe. All eyes have been turned to the company in the past year or two as rumors of an impending IPO have been rife. The sudden departure of COO Zack Urlocker from the company earlier this year came as something of a shock and may potentially have delayed the Zendesk listing.

Anyway, undeterred by internal issues, the company has continued to grow – it now boasts of organizations such as Disney using its product and is chuffed overly the largely meaningless (if impressive nonetheless) statistic that the Zendesk platform (provides service to more than 200 million people worldwide”. Not content with traditional helpdesk functionality, the company is today launcing a self-service help center which includes a knowledge base and externally facing customer portals.

This is an interesting move since Salesforce, a sometime best buddy, and now frenemy (since they acquired Zendesk-competitor Assistly) has gone down this path also. Salesforce has in recent month rolled out its own community building product, built off the back of Chatter. And, since they own the desk.com product (as Assistly has been rebranded to), there are some integration benefits that Salesforce/help.com customer can obtain.

Anyway – the idea of the new Zendesk tool is to help organizations deliver great service, but at a lower total cost. By creating destinations where customers/consumers can solve their own problems, or engage with other customers who can help them to do so, Zendesk customers are able to off-load some of the burden of support. It’s a great double benefit – less spend on customer services representatives, and a better service experience for consumers. In justifying the need for this sort of self-service portal, Zendesk points to some survey results that it recently obtained that suggested that four times as many customers seek answers for themselves through self-service options than submit a request to a company for support. At the same time, two out of three consumers say they prefer finding their own answers over interacting with customer service representatives, a separate survey found.

It should be noted that Zendesk already had a degree of customer self service so I reached out to Zendesk exec Adrian McDermott to get some more detail on what is actually new in this release and the motivations behind the change. According to McDermott, this is a major rewrite of the existing product with some key objectives:

Firstly we wanted to make it super simple to customize your Help Center.   We built HC to allow for the varying levels of sophistication within our user base and to allow us to engage and support designers working on the self-service presence for our customers.  So, you can use color and logo changers and make a quick change.  You can choose a theme from the theme catalog, we are shipping with 5 themes that control layout and feature selection but we plan to work with other creative agencies and customers to create many more.  You could also open up the template code and add your own HTML and remix Zendesk features – if you do that the Zendesk control pieces of the page are represented in Mustache /Tumblr style place holders {{Zendesk::SearchBox}}  that allows for forward compatibility after you alter the code and a clean separation between chrome and functionality.

Second, we revamped the internationalization management and capabilities.  Rather than having differing sections/forums for each language you can manage the language versions of every article in context.  We have significantly upgraded the content management system within the Help Center to do this.  We also added support for right to left languages in this version (and its’ themes) and will ship with Hebrew and Arabic support.

Thirdly we revamped the community features.  Basically we shifted to a more modern Quora like question and answer interaction for company help user and user help user interactions.   We believe that this reflects better the usage nature of most companies self service presences and allows for voted/official answers etc – much more exciting work to do here.

It’s an interesting release as it is a great example of a modern approach towards enterprise software – rather than trying to be a monolithic product that is rigid in nature, Zendesk is trying to create a flexible and extensible platform – customers should be able to create help destinations which are completely customized to their own requirements. The WordPress analogy is a good one, in the same way as it is becoming increasingly impossible to know when a blog is built upon WordPress, so to should an organization’s help location become an integral part of their web presence and not in any way attributable to the vendor that delivers the platform it’s built upon.

I’d not go so far as to say that there’s anything revolutionary in this release, but it’s interesting for a couple of reasons: it shows the growing maturity of Zendesk as a platform and it paints a picture of what enterprise software companies need to do in this cloudy world – everyone wants to be a platform, but to do so you need to give up control and offer a big dose of flexibility.

charity water help desk screenshot

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.


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