HelpScout Help Desk Review: Happier on Freshdesk

This review is very positive about Freshdesk. But if you are planning to use Freshdesk in conjunction with a forum (bbPress in our case, fully integrated with WordPress), you should be very aware of a huge limitation in Freshdesk: it doesn't respect the Reply-To address. Helpscout is no better.

Update 1 December 2013: Freshdesk has fixed the Reply-To Address and we've been able to fix our incoming forms to use reply-to, making our work a lot easier. As far as I know Helpscout continues to ignore reply-to.

As many of you know, we've moved from selling just services to also selling product (FV Flowplayer, the most feature rich and intuitive HTML 5 video player for WordPress). For services, every clients gets his or her own TeamworkPM project with messages, task lists, milestones. But that kind of overkill doesn't make sense for purchased product where many people won't need support and many people will just need one or two requests answered.

Part of preparing support was improving our very active forums. But in addition to the forums for free support, with a paid product we needed an efficient help desk solution. We didn't want our customers to feel that they were in a help desk: the personal feel is very important to us. Support should be as easy as email.

When WPMU mailed us their glowing review of Help Scout we thought this is just what we needed.

When we first got our hands on Help Scout we thought it was great. Multiple shared mailboxes with internal notes.

The WPMU trial was long enough to really give Help Scout a good try: 3 months. And you don't know if something really works until you use it in anger. So we loaded up all of the following from Foliovision together with the full attached teams:

  • support
  • sales/inquiries
  • HR

There were about ten people with access to Help Scout of which four were near daily users and another six had questions to answer two to three times/month.

The interface in Help Scout is gorgeous and very logically laid out. First impressions were great.

helpscout dashboard single company
helpscout dashboard single company

Set up for individual users is also easy.

helpscout interface profile notifications
helpscout interface profile notifications

Writing responses looks good too.

helpscout adding note and reassigning blurred
helpscout adding note and reassigning

The first problem we ran into was that Help Scout will not let you edit the incoming text. I.e. if someone writes to Foliovision and/or fills in a form with some internal tracking information, we can't edit that out. We wrote Jared and heard back that not being able to edit the replied to thread is a feature, not a bug. We disagree.

If we wanted to edit the incoming information we should set up all our contact forms to use the Help Scout API. We've got lots of different contact forms so that's lots of makework projects for us.

Having lived with 37signals style support for eight years, I'm happy to say that its time is over. The latest round of 37signals support from 37signals themselves resulted in their loss of a $250/month almost eternal contract (related to the absolute feature freeze on Basecamp Classic which is still 37signal's best product). But I digress.

Even worse than these two limitations (which are difficult as the first one meant that we had to give up a pile of painstakingly engineered in-house tracking information and the second meant that we had to reprogram all our forms) were the bugs.

  • Very regularly the inline WYSIWYG editor would freeze and stop allowing any pasting.
  • Often (about one of out of five or eight tickets) our replies would just get lost on save. Sometimes in an invisible way, sometimes you'd see it fail. Nothing worse than lost replies (usually when we tried to make an internal note and change status at the same time). Fortunately I have a keyboard logger which meant that rescuing these notes was only a matter of about five minutes, albeit each time. Our coordinator Anna does not and so she was not at all happy with the lost info.

So about halfway through our trial, I wanted to make a long term commitment to Help Scout and help Jared clean up the bugs/limitations. We did have an issue which was pricing. As I mentioned above we had four real users and six occasional users. If we took anyone out, our workflow would become byzantine which was exactly why we were considering investing in Help Scout. Our annual budget for a help desk whether self-implemented (osTicket or RequestTracker) or rented is about $1000. We would have been happy to pay this up front. I explained our situation in detail (four active users and six present users who are there just for occasional workflow issues).

Once again Nick Francis at Help Scout came up with the 37signals attitude. "At $15/month/user our application is more attractively priced than the competition. There is no flexibility on pricing."

I don't know about you, but if I were selling a buggy SAAS application with an extremely limited feature set, I'd be interested in picking up $1000/year from a team who can actually help me improve the software.

We continued to think about either reducing the number of users or moving a department or two out of Help Scout to bring us down to three or four users. Together with the bugs and the poor customer support, we decided to trial some other applications.

  • APO.io does not have spam filters of any kind and does not allow multiple departments (both limitations are just nuts). Otherwise APO.io is the best looking of them all and the fastest (nice clean HTML and CSS with no frameworks). Same limitations with reply-to.
  • LaDesk.com from Quality Unit has both a SAAS version and a self-hosted bought version. We were very interested in the purchased version as it would have an annual cost (outside of the hosting which we maintain in any case with multiple dedicated servers) of $300/year for ten seats averaged over three years. Full editing features, lots of flexibility, great Twitter and Facebook integration.

    Unfortunately it's ugly as heck (1997 wants it's brown on brown interface back) and what's worse it uses some awful PHP framework which make every page reload (and there are lots of them) take 20 seconds with a spinning wheel. I was about twice as slow working in LaDesk.com as my email client (Apple Mail) which would make it a very expensive solution in time lost. Perhaps the self-hosted version hosted closer to our office (rather than Texas) might be a bit faster.

    We want to design attractive and sensible software. Working in help desk which looks and performs like this (despite the first class feature set) would make us worse designers and programmers.

    We also ran into an issue with "reply-to" which Help Scout does support. Basically LaDesk.com recognises the "from" address instead of the more useful "reply-to" which means that lots and lots of forms would have to be hand-tweaked for LaDesk.com. Quality Unit support was not great on this issue. At this point, we headed for prettier pastures.
  • SupportBee.com has a much better pricing model (priced by number of tickets) for us than Help Scout. The per ticket pricing model does have a downside for us (it means we can't put our NewRelic and other server notifications into our help desk as our ticket count would go through the roof). We'd also have to think carefully about whether to put HR in as the ticket count is pretty high there as well.

    On the very big upside, we could put almost the whole team in (about fifteen people) so whatever is there could be answered properly.

    Other limitations included no BCC function (very useful for those of us using Highrise or CapsuleCRM drop boxes in our CRMs). The CapsuleCRM integration was awful (left a note in CapsuleCRM with a link back to SupportBee, talk about extra clicks and lock-in) but Prateek did fix it under prompting although a bit late for us. We would try SupportBee again especially if they added BCC. The HTML email support is very good.
  • ZenDesk.com didn't get a look in on account of their absurd pricing model and very top heavy system. We wanted to be transparent via email and not build the Tower of Pisa with visitors feeling like they are in a help desk at all. The ZenDesk free offer is like heroine as there is no affordable option if you do grow ($50/month/user is ridiculous). Unlike SupportBee which has been built for proper HTML email support from the beginning, ZenDesk's HTML support has traditionally been awful. So ZenDesk is currently more money for a worse user experience.

I'm not going to include UserVoice.com, UserEcho.com or UseResponse.com or any of these other excuses to annoy users with complex and unwieldy feature suggestion systems instead of real hands on email help. Kayako is similarly excluded as it's not possible to make Kayako seem just like ordinary email.

Finally we came across Freshdesk. What attracted us to Freshdesk were the glowing user reviews on GetApp.com. Users really love Freshdesk.

Great service and social world integration. Had a great experiance using Freshdesk. Got frustrated with other service. McRam Williams (21st of January)

Fantastic Tool, Incredible Support, Unbeatable Price. Their name says it all - a breath of fresh air when it comes to support systems. A bright, energetic company that is providing a tool at a price which is perfect for SME's. Their innovative approach and rapid development means that new features seem to be appearing every day and the best thing of all is that they actually listen and respond to featured requests. It's like having our own personal development team providing an enterprise level ticketing system at a fraction of the price of other systems currently on the market. Review by Scott (2nd of April, 2012)

Next generation helpdesk. I evaluated several helpdesk SaaS tools. Freshdesk has all the features I need: high performance Ticket handling, a clean Dashboard, Ticket escalation, flexible notification system and social integrations. And, most important: Agents are ready to go thanks to a very small learning curve. Review by David (16th of October, 2012)

We almost didn't try Freshdesk on account of the premium prices (as high as $50/month/user) but it turns out that the lower level plans which do have reasonable pricing are enough for smaller companies. On either Sprout or Blossom, we have everything we really need at around $15/month/user. On top of that on Sprout you get the first three users for free forever and only pay for the additional users - that's a fantastic way for new companies to get up and running and even expand as you keep the three free users (unlike competitors where you must pay for all four users when you move from free to paid).

freshdesk incoming tickets dashboard
freshdesk incoming tickets dashboard

Here's a sample incoming support email with even the image attachments inline so you can get straight to work:

freshdesk html email parsing inline attachments
freshdesk html email parsing inline attachments

The preferences and customisation potential is elaborate but extremely tightly organised and visually attractive. Most defaults are good so you don't need to change very much here to get started.

freshdesk complex but well organised preferences
freshdesk complex but well organised preferences

The Freshdesk Dispatchr is the hidden gem which allows you to apply easy emails (like filters) across all of your incoming mail and agents. Get just the notifications you need, make sure the tickets are going straight to the right person. S/he can then decide to reassign or make an internal query before responding. Best of all, dispatchr is very flexible so you don't have to reprogram your existing forms to get first class automated sorting.

freshdesk dispatchr
freshdesk dispatchr

The HTML editor works, the dispatcher system is extremely flexible, the pages load quickly. Freshdesk works and does what you want. A quick tip: the HTML editor is much better behaved (pasting and text expansion work properly) in Chromium than Safari 5.1). Apparently Freshdesk even has data export.

To come back to Help Scout, there is no data export. When I contacted Nick and Jared about data export, they told me to write a custom exporter on their API. Of course that is duplicate effort, as I'm sure many people have written this code before. When I suggested they might have some code I could use as a basis for that export, they told me to fly a kite. That kind of support is not what Help Scout advertises. I would stay very far away from Help Scout.

The best part of Help Scout are the great marketing emails and customer support handbooks they send you about high quality customer support. Help Scout do not practice the support principles they preach. If they did it would make their pretty but currently also ran product competitive. Still I remain grateful to have been exposed to their thoughts on customer support and help desks. I highly recommend you check out Help Scout's rich resources section on customer service.

In general it's time for an open source or commercial Help Desk which works on top of IMAP and doesn't try to replace it. Google managed to make mail sing with Gmail. Surely someone else could make IMAP sing as a rock solid and fast help desk system.

In the meantime, your best bet for a transparent email support system is Freshdesk.

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23 Responses to HelpScout Help Desk Review: Happier on Freshdesk

  1. Leho Kraav (@lkraav)

    While Freshdesk is very much a pure UI/UX clone of Zendesk, I must say I’m not complaining either. Their free plan and app Just Works(tm).

  2. Venky

    Freshdesk Rocks!!!!

  3. Prateek Dayal

    Hi Alec,

    Thanks for mentioning SupportBee. It was great interacting with you over the support emails.

    We will be adding the bcc feature in the near future.

    Thanks,
    Prateek

  4. Prateek Dayal

    Hi Alec,

    We have rolled out bcc support in SupportBee – https://blog.supportbee.com/2013/10/11/bcc-option-forward-email-setup/

    Thanks!

  5. Hi Prateek,

    That’s great news. We continue to use Freshdesk and are very happy with it, but SupportBee is certainly a great alternative for a large team without too many tickets.

  6. Jason Hull

    This was really useful! Thanks for the writeup. We are currently using WHMCS for support and I hate it. We need something that makes it easier for my team and integrates nicely with a CRM. I’ll checkout Freshbooks, and Supportbee.

  7. Jim Harmer

    I’m really surprised to see you found freshdesk as the best answer. I have been disappointed with Freshdesk after working with them for over a year.

    The problems with Freshdesk are (1) The UI makes it take two clicks to do EVERYTHING! You can’t just send a reply, you have to hit the dropdown and click send and set as resolved to make the message even send. (2) Inserting common answers takes three clicks and never pastes in the write spot.

    Further, the spam problem with Freshdesk is CRAZY! They have a mark as spam button but it doesn’t even prevent the sender from sending more spam.

    I’m ready for someone new.

  8. Hi Jim,

    I should begin my mentioning my first concern about your post. It’s highly negative but it’s impossible to determine who you are. In fact, I considered not publishing it due to the mismatch. You left a response using fishkins.com domain and bob as your email address. Are you Jim Harmer or Bob Fishkins or someone else altogether? Perhaps a competitor…

    Your issue with two clicks to reply is a bit disingenuous: it’s actually a quick dropdown which allows you to reply and set an appropriate status. Not as simple as straight reply but better than a row of five buttons in my opinion. Freshdesk is for grownups which means tickets can have more than a single status (for easier sorting in the future: it’s great to be able to pull all the tickets attending customer answer in the future).

    I have a suggestion to help with common answers: use text expansion. All the help desk users can share answers via the Freshdesk system and then add the ones they need all the time to a text expander like Typinator (OS X).

    A final suggestion to improve your work with Freshdesk would be to use Chromium (we never recommend Chrome as it’s spyware) as the text editor works much better with Chromium 30 than Safari 5.0.5. I do think Freshdesk should not be as fussy about the browser it requires but as long as it works well with at least a few of the major browsers, I’m fine with it.

    I don’t know what platform you are thinking of moving to Jim/Bob but you might want to find a viable alternative before dumping Freshdesk. We couldn’t find one south of $30/user/month. SupportBee remains on our radar for its per ticket rather than per user pricing. It would be great to be able to bring our full team on but for the moment, it’s a relatively small group of us providing email software support. Development clients get support in project management (TeamworkPM).

    So in short, six months later we remain very satisfied with Freshdesk. We particularly like the internal notes feature which lets us discuss support issues privately in context and saves a lot of copying and pasting to project management but still leaves a searchable record.

  9. Jason Hull

    I settled on help scout. Support Bee was close but their workflows/macros were extremely limited.

    Help Scout, is seamless, no ticket numbers, auto replies and other ugliness that makes our clients feel like they are a ticket. They feel we are personally handling each issue. The manual and auto workflows are amazing and have become core to our business.

    If you don’t want to talk with people and want to force them to help their self first, use zendesk/freshdesk. If you want to provide direct amazing service use Help Scout.

  10. Hi Jason,

    I’m afraid you are quite wrong about Freshdesk (lumping it together with Zendesk): Freshdesk very, very easy to make it an invisible email help application. That’s the whole point, you can customise it to suit your own workflow.

    Nearly every negative….I wonder. Hopefully this post played a roll in waking Nick Francis and Jared McDaniel up from their fatuous stupour and to take customer feedback seriously.

    HelpScout owner Nick Francis is the kind of guy to register a .net domain in 2011, start building a business and file a UDRP against the guy who registered the .com in 2009. Of course he had his backside handed to him by ICANN.

    But now he’s back for more, trying to sue the Andy Eder the German owner of HelpScout.com in Virginian court.

  11. Omar

    Hi Alec,

    Thanks for your blog. I’m seriously considering moving to Freshdesk (currently on netsuite – pure hell and its about $120 a month per user). I’m tossing up between freshdesk and desk.com which from my research is very similar (i think freshdesk works out a bit cheaper).

    Im a bit concerned how you attack everyone who points out any negative points about Freshdesk though. Or shares their positive experiences about other products.

    It leaves the impression you are receiving some kind of kick back for supporting Freshdesk which makes all your positive points about the company invalid….

    Thanks,

    Omar

  12. Hi Omar,

    Give the different solutions a try. I’m not favouring Freshdesk. Any bias would be against HelpScout which really and truly sucks and wasted months of my life.

  13. As a long time customer of Freshdesk, the first & oldest in fact. I would agree with you Alec on your assessment of Freshdesk. I’ve also evaluated Help Scout, along with countless others, (sort of a bizarre pastime of mine).

    My experience with Help Scout was pleasant and I luckily didn’t encounter the issues you’ve recapped. Help Scout definitely has a different approach, one that obviously didn’t meet your firms requirements.

    Regardless, the price and functionality of upstarts like Freshdesk, Help Scout & Groove have collectively put the incumbents like Zendesk, Desk & UserVoice on notice. Having followed this industry for years, I’m just thankful that small businesses like ours, finally have well designed, feature rich and affordable options from which to run our help desks.

  14. Hi Luke,

    There were so many things wrong with HelpScout (no reply to addresses, no editing down of reply to texts, replies mysteriously going missing, poor performance of the WYSIWYG editor) that our entire staff hated HelpScout and had even come to loathe the idea of shared help software before we finally found FreshDesk.

    A coincidence that the broken software was created by unhelpful and dishonest prats, perhaps not. If you like working software and helpful suppliers, I’d sincerely recommend staying as far away as possible from HelpScout.

    My recommendations in the space remain Freshdesk and SupportBee. Curiously enough, the Indians are now solidly outbatting the Western world in delivering easy to use and reliable SAAS help desks. Freshdesk got around to fixing the reply to issues much more quickly than SupportBee fixed my wishlist.

    Microsoft will now be joining Adobe among tech giants with Indian leadership. Of Google’s thirteen senior executives, five are Indian.

    I too celebrate the end of the very expensive walled garden of Zendesk, Desk and UserVoice. We’re going to have to do better Luke, if we want to stay in business and flourish.

  15. BTW, Luke your pricing is very competitive for the sophistication of the product you are offering. If Flourishapp’s inventory really works and has some sophisticated stock count and ordering tools attached, you’ve got a winner on your hands.

  16. Silas Denyer

    To update the article, Help Scout does now respect properly-formed reply-to addresses: I use this every day to process webforms.

  17. You know how some people are Apple fanboys and behave like Google owns their first born? Yeah, we all know them. Somehow, no one ever asks them if they get kickbacks from Apple or Google. Alec, to me, is a fan of a good product. Not to make it sound like there are no other good products in the market. Zendesk came first and they have a great product. But Alec here chose Freshdesk and is defending his choice. In fact, he’s asking you to try other software alongside Freshdesk. I am sure you’re well on your way to doing that but if you haven’t, try other software, come back here and post a comment on your findings. Sound okay?

  18. Steven Martins

    Thanks for the detailed review. I’m considering moving from hosted Kayako to a simpler help desk and have both Help Scout and FreshDesk on my radar, in addition to Groove. I really like Groove (it’s more feature packed than Help Scout) but their reply to customer emails don’t look as good as Help Scout (nor do they provide any way to customize it’s look).

    After reading your dealings with Help Scout owners and it’s track record I’m passing on their service. I recently contacted them asking if they were considering adding a feature to change the admin interface colors (not everyone likes boring dark colors) and was basically told that they took a long time to come up with an interface design they liked and weren’t going to change that. Short and dry. Great that they like it, I don’t. Last time I checked, you need customers to run a business right?

    So another heads up for Help Scout. If you are considering it, give Groove a try, at least they are far far more receptive to my suggestions. Also take a look at Groove’s blog posts, they are *very* informative.

  19. Kevin Thomas

    Freshdesk was on my radar, but I skipped the evaluation when I saw that it’s simply impossible to compose a new email. https://support.freshdesk.com/support/discussions/topics/1917

    That’s just a non-starter for us. I’m not sure how most companies get around that limitation. Support is not a one-way (incoming) street.

    SupportBee, HelpSpot (owned software), and DeskPro (owned software) are now on our short list.

    I’m curious if you ever considered either HelpSpot or DeskPro since it would seem to fit in nicely with many of your requirements and budget. If so, I would love your feedback. We’re just starting this process.

  20. Hi Kevin,

    Not sure why outgoing email is so important to you or the other people on that thread.

    We have Freshdesk set up to send no email notifications and removed all the links to an online help desk from the templates. In our case we can just create a new ticket and start a correspondence with a client (your requirement) with nothing to indicate it’s not just email.

    Beyond that we can redirect inquiry emails into our primary Freshdesk address (i.e. help@domain.com) creating new tickets from our clients incoming emails or any staff address for that matter. Redirect is not a feature in all email clients but it’s definitely in Apple Mail.

    Honestly in almost a year of using Freshdesk, we have never run into this issue or any difficulty with starting an email conversation with a client.

    So despite Freshdesk suggesting no new email feature is available, in practice it is.

    Something which does irritate me now with Freshdesk is a new requirement to categorise every inquiry into Question, Support, Sales or some other nonsense which adds an unnecessary point of friction for us (we don’t need that categorisation). Freshdesk if you are watching this thread please remove that “improvement”.

  21. HelpSpot. Owned but I don’t like the pricing at all. The level of support we require at Freshdesk costs $16/month/agent. $768 handles our needs (four agents). The closest HelpSpot package (5 agents) is between three and four years of Freshdesk fees. By paying monthly, we could move to a better solution if one becomes available. HelpSpot is a dead end. I’d rather go back to fighting open source to put a working solution together than buy someone else’s overpriced solution.

    I write this with experience of watching abandonware and wasting Foliovision money on owned Adobe licenses (which weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on). There is a lot of space in the helpdesk space for a fresh and inexpensive owned solution (even if there are inexpensive yearly update contracts).

    We considered entering the help desk space, but did not have sufficient available resources to take it on for now.

    PS. DeskPro’s pricing is even worse ($30/agent month hosted, $10/agent/month self-hosted). Thanks but at those rates I’d prefer to hand off the IT headaches to Freshdesk. DeskPro would make big inroads into the market if they offered hosted at $10/agent/month.

    Frankly, the SupportBee model is the pricing model I like best (as many people as you like, governed by ticket numbers). At some point, we may look at SupportBee again but for now are able to manage with a small team of us on email support. Our larger clients are managed with TeamworkPM.

  22. Great review, thanks! For those of you curious about how Freshdesk compares to Zendesk, we took an un-biased look at both (no affiliation with either): http://www.synata.com/blog/2014/4/16/battle-of-the-helpdesk-platforms-freshdesk-vs-zendesk

  23. Hi Anica,

    I read your review. It didn’t really take much of a position on the two services. The links to the spat between blogger Ben Kepes, Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane and Freshdesk CEO Girish Mathrubootham was very informative.

    I hadn’t seen that or the Zendesk vs Freshdesk comparisons, including just a pricing comparison.

    I knew Zendesk was a bit of a bad deal for clients but it’s really targeted exclusively at the corporate/enterprise (and racist) user. No one paying with their own money could possibly prefer Zendesk. I remember there was a big pricing hike a couple of years back. Nothing more loathsome than a company out to gouge its customers.

    PS. A bit ironic that you at Syntata integrate with Zendesk but not Freshdesk. Try taking a position in the future with your weblog posts: it will make them more useful and more promotable.

    In passing, I note your pricing is pretty steep as well. I’d think that cross-platform search would be more a flat fee kind of service, depending on how many products one integrates rather than a per user based service. Of course next to Zendesk, you guys are the tooth fairy.

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