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Picking a new support system – 5 candidates reviewed

Ye Olde Support System has been archived for posterity

I sometimes find myself sitting on the fence between ‘customer’ and ‘technical support’. It was not that long ago I was an IT manager for a reasonable size high school here in Melbourne, Australia. One thing that was always on my mind was the quality and timeliness of support available from software and hardware vendors. It was no good getting fast support that didn’t resolve my issue and nor was it useful having accurate support that took 5 working days to get back to me. Good quality support is important!

Typically support ticketing at PaperCut has been managed by various different systems depending on the mode of contact (email, live web chat, or phone). We’ve grown rapidly over the past few years and now have tens-of-thousands of customers and hundreds of support emails a day. Our primary support system was a home grown set of Python scripts married with our mail system (exim). It’s served us well but we collectively decided it was time to look around…

Our Analysis
Our first wish list item was a centralized system with both Live-Chat and email ticketing. Too often we had customers jump on our easily accessible (and therefor timely!) Live Chat system and say “About that ticket I wrote in last week. I have an update.” This meant we had to jump into another system, search around for their email address, checking various queues. What if it went to sales instead of technical support, thats another system again!

Other objective we had was to “learn from others”. Given that the wheel has been made, remade and improved on, why not ask around and find out what’s in use. We have a large user base, many with their own help desks (e.g. Universities) and also many resellers who have support systems in place. We started asking around!

We soon came away with a fairly large list of candidates ranging from Bugzilla through to OTRS, my old favourite RT and some of the new comers such as ZenDesk and Kayako. From this list we had to whittle down the candidates to the point where would sign up for trials and spend the time to test them out. We dropped those systems that were bug trackers, CRMs, Project Management tools and we certainly dropped those that haven’t been updated since 2007! A live web chat feature was also important so this again this allowed us to rule out a few.

We were left with the following candidates, ZenDesk, Zoho Support, Smarter Tracker, Kayako and Cerb5. In no particular order:

ZenDesk – The licensing for ZenDesk was a small barrier for entry in that is was inflexible and was a tiered approach. We like simple pricing. We also couldn’t demo the Live Chat functionality which was disappointing. After spending quite a bit of time in the demo version we were reasonably happy that we would be able to get things working with the help of the ZenDesk team.

Zoho Support – While Zoho Support did not come with inbuilt Live Chat it did have integration into Zoho CRM, a product we already use. The Zoho Support module appeared to be quite new and was still very much in-development. We did notice that there was no automated SLA functionality. Overall not a bad impression but it certainly didn’t wow us.

Smarter Tracker – Smarter Tools’ ticket tracking system appeared quite mature, had good inbuilt reporting and documentation was quite thorough. While there was no Native SLA process we could possibly build something with “Events”. Overall very good.

Kayako – Has in-built Live Chat (that requires a Windows only download) module, Native (and powerful) SLA processes. Ability for customers to login and manage their organization’s tickets (i.e. John Citizen from AcmeCo can see Jane Smith’s tickets!). We can turn Live Chat’s into tickets quite easily and the Live Chat function has a remote desktop function called OnSite (uses VNC essentially). The initial setup was quite an undertaking but in the end we were pretty happy with results.

Cerberus Helpdesk 5 – My impression was that Cerb5 seems to have some really excellent features and some features that just need a bit more polish. There was much talk about a Live Chat function but it never bubbled to the top of the list for development. Our impression was that development was not as quick as some of the other options.

And the winner is…
After more testing we found ourselves coming back to Kayako more and more. In the end, the Live Chat and OnSite combination was excellent. Customization of the installation via the templates was equally good. Quite possibly what sold us was the Live Chat -> Offline Message -> Ticket Process where if we’re busy on the phones, a customer can leave a message that we can get back to with quickly.

So with all that said, we’ve implemented the new system. As with all IT projects there are bound to be some hidden issues but we’ll work hard to ensure PaperCut’s print management software support moves along as usually – just with a bit more polish on the inside!

Image “Old Ericsson Phone” by Alexandre Dulaunoy / CC BY-SA


  • Personally, with your talent at building web applications that are simply AMAZING, you should build your own help desk ticketing system and sell it, cause I’m sure it would end up being better than all 5 products you mentioned, and surely better than the Numara Footprints ticketing system I am stuck using now…

  • Dan

    One thing to point out is that your auto reply from support@ doesn’t quite make sense. Think there’s a word or two missed out!

  • Matt

    Thanks Dan. There’s a HTML and plain-text version of the auto-response text, and the HTML version was missing the word “of” in “Your request has been assigned to one **of** the team”.

    Should be all fixed now. Thanks for letting us know.

  • Chris

    @Nathan Thanks for the compliments. I must also agree to some extend and this is one reason why we persisted with our in-house system for so many years!

    Our new system, Kayako, is pretty good but it still could be a lot better. It has some crazy gaps. For example, you can’t even indent text in a reply! It also only bottom posts any quoted response with no option to change this. I think my mail client has has this option since 1995 🙂 On the positive side however it’s under active development and has a growing user base so these gaps should be closed pretty quickly.

    When the paperless office finally arrives and there is no need for PaperCut, we’ll be sure to focus our attention on a support system as the new business model. 🙂

  • Chris

    @Dan @Matt I think we should leave the spelling mistake in there. Isn’t bad spelling and grammar a hallmark of true tech geeks? If we fix all our spelling mistakes we might end up looking like a tech company run by Art/History majors 🙂

  • Hi Jason/Chris,

    I’m Jeff Standen, the lead developer of Cerb5. First off, thanks for including us in your support system evaluation. 🙂

    I’m glad that you’ve found a solution that meets your needs.

    You’re right that built-in live chat functionality hasn’t been a priority for us. When we first started in 2002 there weren’t as many enterprise chat options out there as there are today. Our strength is in providing a flexible toolkit for organizations to remix and reuse the information they gather through conversations with their contacts: tasks, opportunities, feedback, etc.

    People who enjoy using Cerb5 have asked us to expand it into all kinds of things over the years: project management, live help, billing, asset management, inventory control, hotel in-room service (not a joke!), etc. Our toolkit mentality is such that we’d prefer to allow integration with other passionate projects through plugins (e.g. Freshbooks for billing, Campfire/SnapEngage for chat, JIRA for projects). When it comes time for us to offer something like project management built around the information already tracked by Cerb5, it will be another alternative for people to consider, and they could disable our plugin and use something else. We offer third-party plugins all the same first-class tools and services we use in building the core application. This helps ensure that our stack is used only when the tools we provide are truly better; not simply because we prohibit alternative functionality.

    Personally, we use Freshbooks for billing, Campfire for all-day team chats, and IRC for customer-facing chats. Freenode provides a web-based chat client that works quite well for people who are unfamiliar with IRC.

    We’ve used one-on-one live help apps like LivePerson in the past, and we’ve found that group chats offer benefits more in line with our ethos. Even if we aren’t around, we have involved community members that patrol the chat room and help answer questions. We can publish our daily IRC transcripts so Google can index them and direct people to answers by capturing that knowledge. Additionally, we’ve seen time and time again that chat participants are more gracious and succinct when part of a crowd. When discussing private information, it’s simple to pull them off into a private conversation or a new chat room.

    I agree that it’s tedious having to switch between multiple systems to collate everything you know about the current contact. However, I would rather increase the number of conversations we’re having by reducing the hurdles in front of our customers, instead of focusing on making our jobs easier. That’s why we take the time to act as concierges and convert feature requests from channels like email, forums, chats, Twitter, and Facebook, into items in our project management portal for people, rather than curtly directing them to go do it themselves. The feedback is what’s important, not the method of delivery — and we happily drop what we’re doing to carry feedback to its destination on a golden palanquin. Ultimately, we’re bringing all that information into our CRM process; whether we’re importing it directly or pulling data through external APIs.

    You mentioned in your review that our pace of development was not as quick as the other options. I assume that opinion was based on how long we’ve held off on implementing our own live help feature, rather than as an objective measure of the frequency and substantiality of our updates compared to the other vendors.

    Our release history is on Freshmeat (5 major releases with nearly 1,000 improvements in the past year):

    Our real-time commit log is on GitHub (nearly 8,000 commits over the past 5 years; over 30 per week on average):

    I hope you’ll continue to keep us in mind if staying on top of the pile of work becomes a bigger snag than looking up customer records in the same window during live help conversations. 🙂

    -Jeff Standen, Chief of R&D, Cerb5

  • I was planning to write a similar article on my blog about Kayako vs Cerberus and was looking around to see what others were reporting.

    Having used both Cerberus many years ago (version 2) and then switching Kayako due to the customer support centre and now, I find us doing a complete reversal on this to Cerb5.

    At the time, we did not have the people to develop a web-based support centre so the “pretty” Kayako interface was just a winner at the expense of some functionality in dealing with customers. In hindsight, it may have been more logical to stick to a desk for the primary function, i.e dealing with contact from customers.

    Over the years, we’ve let Kayako know of several bugs and some have existed for 5 odd years with no fix, no eta and now even trying Kayako 4, the same issue exists (for anyone that cares, this surrounds templating, and brand groups).

    We’ve been testing Kayako 4 for months but still, after months of release, their API is incomplete and the interface is just far too bloated. Even the layout of the ticket list page isn’t logical with table widths hard-set in the code, making the page even bigger than you’d really need. (Note: the ticket ID column ). To add to this, the compose ticket page is even worse and on a smaller screen (MacBook Air), you HAVE to use full screen to just able to stop it wrapping. (Note: the priority box won’t fit on the page unless open full )

    When you have problems and you will have problems, support is lacking. Raising tickets for priority support as instructed on their forums, can leave little to be desired and when they can’t replicate an issue and ask for auth details to the install and then change settings without letting you know (such as reverting all your templates), it isn’t professional at all.

    Additionally, their latest policy of not offering multiple domain licences for existing installs is a backwards step for something that is meant to offer multiple “groups”. Their answer was to buy another licence, run another independent desk which on a like for like basis would be a $17,899 purchase and then two annual renewal charges, two logins and more stress for staff – how is that logical, apart for them, of course.

    I’ve followed Cerberus development over the years and 5.4+ is just amazing. No fluff, and will enable my staff to work faster, better and more logically – and more importantly for us, a working API and can handle as many brands as you want without paying for a brand new licence.

    Another plus point for us is that they are open to for complex dev work and get this out the door very quickly.

    The end result is we’ll be moving our brands back over to Cerb5 once again when our integration is complete.

    Don’t let the prettyfication fool you.

  • Chris

    @Jeff Standen Thanks very much for taking the time to post on our blog. It’s really refreshing to see this level of proactiveness and I’m sure others researching the topic will take your openess into consideration. As @Matt pointed out, Kyako has a few frustrations! We all said we’d give it a go for 12 months and would not hesitate to change (be it to another system or even back to our home grown one that we loved so dearly for so many years!). For us, as a software development company, the attitude of the development team is just as important as the actual product. Your response is a big tick for Cerb5!

  • One thing I would really like to say is that often before obtaining more computer memory, have a look at the machine in to which it is installed. In case the machine is definitely running Windows XP, for instance, the particular memory ceiling is 3.25GB. The installation of a lot more than this would basically constitute some sort of waste. Make sure one’s motherboard can handle the actual upgrade quantity, as well. Good blog post.

  • Nikhil

    Applications mentioned as great. I find software which i am using for small business is missing. It is a cloud-based software, 50 + integrated apps, manages all my contacts, helps me to track time spent on the projects which is affordable is Apptivo. I am using this for past five years with good customer satisfaction.