If someone told you they were starting a clothing line where everything was one size fits all, you’d probably pass on investing. With so many different body types and fit preferences, the reality is that one size fits all simply doesn’t work.
Though it’s hard to imagine with clothing, the truth is lots of software operates on a one-size-fits-all model. To help make sure you find the proper fit for your customer support team, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to understanding and shopping for customer service software.
What is customer service software?
Customer service software is a set of tools used to collect, organize, respond to, and report on customer support requests.
A customer support system may be used to manage one or many communication channels, including email, live chat, messaging, and self-service, and it may also integrate with external communications tools like social media or group chat systems.
Companies typically use customer service software to enable faster, more efficient customer support delivered by multiple customer service agents all working within the same tool.
What are the benefits of using customer service software?
You can certainly deliver great customer support without using specialist software, and many online businesses start out with nothing more than a free email account. Soon though, growing companies tend to run into some limitations and rough edges.
Using a specialized customer service system helps you to create a better customer experience that improves customer loyalty. Here are the key ways it enables those experiences:
Give more responsive, more consistent support. Dedicated support software features like automated workflows, tagging, knowledge base integration, saved replies, and more help your team spend more time helping customers and less time fighting their tools.
Gather customer insights. Identify, collect, and organize all the helpful feedback, feature requests, bug reports, and use cases so they can be used to improve customer satisfaction.
Work better together. Customer service software enables you to reduce duplicated work, keep track of customer queries, coordinate a response across multiple teams, and deliver up-to-date answers.
Analyze and report. Use the built-in reporting features of customer support software to understand changes in support volume, team productivity, type and size of customer, and much more.
Scale up your service. Maintain high-quality service as you grow by using tools that can coordinate multiple teams of agents to support an enormous customer base, using organizational features, automations, and third-party integrations.
When you have more than a couple of people working together to support customers, using specialized customer service software is the right choice.
The different types of customer service software
Building out a customer service program is similar to building a chair. You could — in theory — build either one with just two or three tools, but the overall quality and efficiency of your efforts would be greatly impacted.
Whether you’re building a chair or a support team, there’s a continuum of tools ranging from broad to specialized, and the tools you end up investing in will be a reflection of the stage you’re at in the craft and the resources available to you.
To determine which tools are right for you, consider the following nine types of customer support software.
Help desk software
Help desk software is typically one of the first tools teams invest in. It helps centralize all your service-related customer interactions, and, depending on the tool, it can handle support requests from multiple channels like email, live chat, social media, and phone.
At its core, help desk software lets you manage and streamline customer conversations to create a better customer experience and agent experience.
Shared inbox software
Shared inbox software is an email tool that allows multiple people to access and respond to messages sent to a specific email address. There are generally also other organization and automation features included to help effectively manage customer conversations.
Now, you may be thinking — isn’t that the same thing as a help desk? Kind of. Shared inbox software is like a lite version of help desk software, since it tends to focus mainly on email interactions and not on the additional channels that a help desk may.
Phone support software
These days phone support may seem like a relic of the past, so it may surprise you to know that over 50% of customers use the phone to contact customer service.
Furthermore, it’s not limited to one demographic: People of every age, gender, and background opt for phone support. So no matter what industry you’re in, you probably have customers who would be happy to give you a call.
Phone support and contact center software is a more modern approach to handling those phone-based interactions.
Knowledge base software
Knowledge base software is a tool that allows you to create, store, organize, manage, and share self-service content with an audience. Things like FAQ pages, video tutorials, and how-to articles are all common types of content housed in a knowledge base.
Generally speaking, there are two main types of knowledge bases: internal and external. With an internal knowledge base, content is private and may require the user to login to access the information, whereas an external knowledge base is public and accessible to anyone.
It may be helpful to think of an internal knowledge base as geared toward your employees, while an external knowledge base is geared toward your customers.
Some tools focus more on one use case than another, but there are also some capable of doing both well.
Live chat support software
Sometimes customers want to talk to a live person. Maybe they’re not finding what they need in your help documentation or they want to talk through an issue in real time and email simply won’t cut it.
In those instances, live chat is a great option since it offers the immediacy of phone support while being less resource-intensive. It also has a much higher average customer satisfaction rating when compared to phone — 82% satisfied for live chat vs. 44% for phone.
In order to offer live chat support, you first need access to live chat software. Similar to some other tools on this list, live chat software can be a stand-alone product, but it can also be included as part of a help desk's larger suite of tools.
Messaging tools are a broad category referring to software that allow you to do some sort of proactive support. That could come in the form of chatbot software, proactive messaging software, or some combination of the two.
In any case, the core goal of a messaging tool is to reduce friction in some way or another for the customer. Data confirm people generally prefer tasks that require less effort.
Customer relationship management (CRM) software is a tool that lets businesses manage and track customer interactions. It’s most commonly associated with sales, but there are some customer success applications for it, too.
The primary way it can help with customer success is through personalization. With the data you’ve collected, you might be able to better anticipate needs and curate a specific experience for each customer based on where they’re at in their customer journey.
Research shows personalization pays off: One study found that 80% of consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand that offers a personalized experience.
Social monitoring software
Once upon a time, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms were simply digital homes to post pictures of food you’d eaten and to argue with strangers about politics. Though those are still primary uses for social media, it’s now also become a semi-prominent place for customers to seek support.
The common suggestion is to “meet your customers where they already are.” Though that sounds like good advice, every team has limitations on time and resources and can only realistically take on so many channels.
Each new channel either requires taking time and energy away from an already established channel or adding new resources to manage it. Our own Mat Patterson explored this topic in depth in a helpful post for those considering social media support.
Social monitoring software can be great for teams with high social support volumes, so be sure you’re tracking those numbers prior to making an investment.
Service desk software
Sometimes referred to a a ticketing system, service desk software is more IT focused and used to manage internal requests for technical assistance — think tools like JIRA. It’s not software that your customer service team would use directly, but it can be important for managing certain customer issues.
For example, many teams use a ticketing system to manage bugs reported by customers. So even though your customer service team isn’t managing conversations directly in the tool, it’s very common for them to have some interaction with it.
The most common customer service software features
The feature set of software platforms built for customer service covers a wide range, but can be generally categorized into six major focus areas.
Collecting features help you answer the question: “How do we get customer communication into this system so we can handle them?” They provide the first point of interaction between the customer and the customer service software.
Common examples include a support@-type email address, “contact us” forms that funnel messages into a support inbox, phone numbers, messaging systems, and APIs.
Customer service software tools may include built in interfaces for some channels and integrate with external providers for others.
Organizing features are for taking all that incoming communication and creating useful structure so customer service teams can manage high volumes, understand what needs to be done, and respond in a timely manner.
Organizational features in customer service software cover both tools for manually arranging things and tools for taking action automatically.
Common examples include:
Tags to label conversations for later handling and reporting.
Workflows for taking actions automatically or manually, such as adding tags, assigning to the right person, or setting priorities.
Multiple mailboxes to separate different sets of customers or communications from each other.
Custom fields to capture useful information in a structured way about the request or the customer.
Collaboration features allow multiple people to effectively work together on the incoming support volume, from frontline support folk to subject experts and business operations folk.
Common collaboration features in customer service software include:
Teams so that each group in your organization can see the conversations most relevant to them.
Ability to assign conversations so that a conversation that requires a particular person’s skill can be clearly allocated to them.
Internal notes to allow staff to pass information between staff members while keeping it associated with the customer conversation.
Private notes to give a team member a heads up about relevant information in a conversation without making them responsible for replying to the customer.
These features encompass all the ways a reply can be sent to the customer in question. Responding features can include:
Text editors for composing and sending responses to individual emails, live chats, and messages.
Social messaging tools to respond publicly to incoming requests.
Knowledge base systems for creating and publishing help documents to share with your customers.
Many customer service software tools offer direct integration with other systems — and APIs for programmatic integration into even more places. Integrations allow a company to connect their customer service data with tools like:
Slack or other communication systems for keeping your team up to date.
CRM software for additional customer history and context.
Shopify and other services you use to serve customers.
Social tools for other forms of customer contact.
Internal systems that inform customer service decisions.
Analyzing and reporting
Features for reporting and analysis in customer service software allow companies to better understand things like who their customers are, what they are trying to get done, where their customers run into trouble, and what they need.
Common customer service software reporting features cover things like:
time to first response
customer satisfaction levels
time to resolution
incoming request volume over time
common request categories
Some of the above features are common across nearly every customer support platform; others are less common or are implemented quite differently. There is no single "best" customer service software, but there are ways to find the best fit for your needs.
The 13 best customer service software platforms
To help you get a jumpstart on finding the support tool that's just right for your team, we've put together this list of the 13 best customer service software platforms.
HubSpot Service Hub
Salesforce Service Cloud
Since there are many different channels for customer service — and many different approaches a team can take — we decided to include a variety of tools. They range from all-in-one solutions down to some more niche offerings such as in-app support.
1. Help Scout
Best all-in-one customer support software.
Growing teams don’t often have huge budgets or tons of time to invest in setting up and learning a new tool, so they need something sophisticated enough to cover all the bases, simple enough to get up and running quickly, and flexible enough to grow with them over time. Help Scout checks all of these boxes.
Help Scout is focused on providing a great experience for both your customers and your support team:
Manage email and live chat from one centralized tool. Customers can contact you from wherever they’re most comfortable, and your team can work in a single support queue that contains all of your customer requests.
Build a customizable help center with Docs to empower customers to get the answers they need on their own while reducing the number of support requests your team has to answer.
Saved replies let support reps create a database of canned responses so they can quickly reply to frequently asked questions, saving your team time and getting customers answers faster.
Agent-focused features like collision detection reduce hassles for your team by showing if someone’s already working on a ticket. It also stops customers from getting duplicate replies for a better customer experience, too.
With customer profiles, you’re able to see past interactions and customer data from connected apps to create a curated customer experience.
Help Scout comes loaded with pre-built reports so you can see how your team is performing from day one. See metrics showing what times of day are busiest, common reasons for support requests, average response times, and which channels are most popular with your customers.
With a few plan options to choose from, a la carte add-ons, and even the ability to build a custom plan if need be, Help Scout is a great option for any team.
Price: Starting at $20/user per month.
Best customer support software for standalone knowledge bases.
Over the last few years, there’s been an increased focus on self-service options. It’s very cost-effective, and self-service tools are the preferred support choice for many — up to 67% of users, in fact.
Knowledge bases empower customers to find answers on their own, which means a faster resolution time for them and fewer tickets for your team.
HelpDocs is a strong contender for those looking to invest in a standalone knowledge base. Their straightforward pricing, robust feature set, and easy-to-use interface all make setting up your first knowledge base a breeze.
Price: Starting at $49 per month.
Best customer support software for standalone live chat.
If your team needs to communicate with customers in real time, live chat is a great option. It provides the immediacy of phone support but at a lower cost, making it ideal for small businesses.
Things like team management, robust analytics, smart automations, and a host of other features mean Olark can meet the needs of almost any team.
Olark has straightforward pricing, no term commitments on most plans, and the ability to add certain features a la carte. That means you can get the features you want and skip the ones you don’t need, making it ideal for smaller teams.
Price: Starting at $29/seat per month.
Best customer support software for call center support.
Though phone support is sometimes associated with bigger teams, it can still be an integral part of a small business's support efforts, especially for those offering more complex solutions. Statistics show that customers prefer to troubleshoot complex issues in person or on the phone with a live representative.
Aircall offers a number of different plans suited to teams of all sizes. All their plans include phone support essentials like IVR, the ability to set custom business hours, and call queuing. Having those essentials means your team can get phone support up and running quickly.
Price: Starting at $30/user per month.
Best customer support software for larger teams.
Zendesk is a ticketing system used to manage customer conversations. With any Zendesk plan, you’re able to manage email, Twitter, and Facebook conversations. On their higher-cost plans, you’re also able to manage phone and chat conversations.
Though Zendesk is generally associated with larger teams because of the relative complexity of the product, resources needed for initial set up, and overall cost, they do have a few lower-cost plans.
Those lower-cost plans do lack some features like chat, phone support, and custom reporting but should cover the basics for those wanting to do primarily email support.
Price: Starting at $19/agent per month.
Best customer support software for enterprise teams.
Though very similar to Zendesk, Freshdesk does have a few items that separate them. First, they have two support offerings: one for just a help desk solution and one that covers omnichannel support.
There are plan tiers within both, but the help desk solution is a lower cost on average when compared to the omnichannel product, and it's probably what most small businesses would consider.
As with Zendesk’s lower-cost plan, it does only cover email, Twitter, and Facebook messages, so if you’re looking for other channels, you’d need to look at the omnichannel options.
Freshdesk also has a few features such as an AI responder and field service management services that are offered as a la carte add ons, which adds some flexibility to their offering. We will note, the AI functionality is only available on the higher-cost omnichannel support plans.
Price: Free plan available. Paid plans starting at $15/agent per month.
Best customer support software for automating phone communications.
Sending out mass communication over the phone can be time consuming and costly, but it's sometimes necessary. A dedicated tool can help combat both those issues. Text-Em-All is one of the best in the business for automated phone communication.
Text-Em-All offers transparent pricing — and even offers the ability to calculate costs using a handy cost calculator on their site. Along with straightforward pricing, they also offer a user-friendly interface and top-notch support to make sure all your needs and concerns are addressed.
Price: Starting at $7.50 per month.
Best customer support software for providing support in a mobile app.
In-app support is any support tool a user can access without leaving the environment they’re currently in. Most commonly, in-app support comes in the form of a chat application, though there are some other iterations.
Helpshift is a leader in in-app support, specifically focusing on providing in-app support for mobile devices.
Helpshift has flexible, use-based pricing to ensure your team only pays for what you need. Couple that with simple setup and strong support from their team, and we think Helpshift is a great option for anyone looking for in-app support for their mobile properties.
Price: Starting at $150 per month.
Best customer service software for large businesses that already use HubSpot.
You might be familiar with HubSpot as a marketing tool or resource. Their Service Hub brings all your customer service data and channels together in one place to assist your support team through automation and self-service.
However, there is a difference between flexible pricing and confusing pricing. With so many different plans and pricing options to choose from, HubSpot’s pricing setup can become overwhelming for some customers looking to scale.
Price: Free plan available. Paid plans starting at $45/month.
Best customer service software for teams providing support via Slack.
Salesforce is best known as a sales CRM tool, but they also offer Service Cloud, a customer support platform. It can be a good option for teams that are looking to provide support over Slack — Service Cloud integrates natively with Slack.
Additionally, you can use Salesforce Service Cloud to send automated responses to frequently asked questions via SMS, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp.
Price: Starting at $25/user per month.
Best customer service solution for automating live chat.
LiveAgent combines communication from email, calls, and social media into a unified dashboard, offering simple setup and integration with the rest of their platform and tools to help team productivity.
What sets LiveAgent apart from all the other tools we’ve mentioned is its gamification approach to customer support. Teams can earn points and rewards for completing tasks, making customer support fun for your team.
Price: Starting at $15/agent per month.
Best support software for IT teams.
ServiceNow is a support ticket management platform that helps you manage internal requests.
ServiceNow offers advanced features like AI-assisted ticket routing to help boost productivity. Self-service options and virtual assistants help employees get answers quickly, and reports mean you’re able to track performance and find areas of improvement.
Price: Contact for pricing.
13. Zoho Desk
Best customer service software for sales-focused teams.
Zoho is probably best known for their CRM tool, but they also make help desk software. Zoho Desk has a number of features like a shared inbox, phone integration, and chat. However, some of those features — like chat — are limited to the highest-cost plan.
Zoho Desk also boasts a strong selection of integrations to connect with the rest of your tech stack. For larger teams, there are team management features you can take advantage of, like time tracking. They even offer AI options for self-service, though that feature is also limited to the highest-cost plan.
Price: Free plan available. Paid plans starting at $14/agent per month.
How to choose the right customer service software
So which customer service software is the best for your business needs? To answer that question, you should first start with another question.
“What is the experience I want my customers to have when they need my help?”
By answering that question, you give yourself some tools for selecting the right product or, more often, the right combination of products.
We have a full article on how to pick the right help desk tool — despite the title, it’s a handy guide for how to approach most customer service software decisions.
Here’s the short version:
Understand the job you are trying to do. Are you building a high-touch, hand-holding service experience for a select group or a mass-volume, fast-turnover retail service? Different software solutions suit different environments.
Assess your resources. If you’re a team of one or two, you can’t cover every support channel all day. And if you have a limited budget, there’s no point in looking at the more expensive systems.
Refine the list of possible options. Knowing what you have to work with and what you want to get done, narrow in on the most likely categories of customer service software you will use. Perhaps you want a shared inbox, a knowledge base, and live chat?
Understand the “must have” features. Does this system absolutely have to integrate with an existing tool? Or is having a messaging system essential? That will help you narrow down your options.
Create a shortlist. Using those must-have features, reviews, recommendations, and other sources of insight, pick your top few options.
Evaluate your favorites. Now you can deep dive into your top few options, perhaps trying out their customer service and talking to existing customers.
Trial time! Using customer service software is the best way to know if it will work for you. All the feature checklists and marketing copy in the world won’t replace the experience of using the software in your setup to deliver service.
Remember that serving customers is the goal
Figuring out what customer service tool best serves you — and your team — can be a tricky task. You need to find a tool that meets your immediate needs and is flexible enough to cover future needs, all while staying within budget.
Though making a choice may seem a bit daunting, ending up with the wrong tool, dissatisfied customers, and frustrated team members is far worse. So take your time, be thoughtful, consider your options, and make the most informed decision you can.
No matter which software you choose, it’s the service you deliver to your customers that matters. Don’t let the search for the “perfect customer service software” stop you from defining and delivering the service experience that will keep those customers coming back.