Illustration by Bronwyn Gruet

The 9 Best Customer Service Software for Small Businesses

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. Take customer service software for example: Up until the last few years, there weren’t many options geared toward smaller teams.

To help make sure you find the proper fit, 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.

It may be used to manage one or many communication channels, including email, 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 service 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 specialized customer service software helps you to create better customer service experiences. Here are the key ways it enables those experiences:

  • Give more responsive, more consistent support. Dedicated software features like workflows, tagging, knowledge base integration, saved replies, and more give your team more time to spend helping customers and less 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 your service instead of being lost in the inbox forever.
  • Work better together. Customer service software enables you to reduce duplicated work, keep track of customer questions, coordinate a response across multiple teams, and deliver up-to-date answers.
  • Analyze and report. Use the built-in reporting features of customer service 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 integrations with other tools.

When you have more than a couple of people working together to support customers, using a shared inbox or customer service software tool is the right choice.

What are the 5 core types of customer service software?

The categories of "customer service software" and "customer support software" cover a lot of ground and can include everything from a free Gmail account to an enormous enterprise call center system. However, customer service software can typically be categories into one of six core types:

  1. Shared inbox and help desk software – A shared inbox can be as simple as several people logging in to a single email account, but typically these terms refer to specialist software with additional features used to collect, manage, act, and report upon customer communications by multiple team members at once.
  2. Service desk software – Closely related to help desks, service desk software is typically used in IT Service Management functions. It may cover ticket handling and help desk type functionality, but it also extends into strategic areas, including change requests, service configuration, and license management.
  3. Messaging and chat systemsLive chat has been a customer service staple for years, while messaging has risen to prominence more recently. Both tools offer a more conversational approach to communication with customers, with chat being real-time and messaging allowing an asynchronous approach.
  4. Phone support tools – Service over the telephone has a history longer than the commercial web, and despite many newer options, phone support remains popular. Internet based telephony has enabled many simple, fast phone support services, as well as new forms of the large call center systems.
  5. Knowledge base software – A knowledge base is a powerful tool to enable one-to-many sharing of information, as opposed to the one-on-one focus of other customer service channels. Many customers prefer to self-serve, and knowledge base software helps capture, write, and publish the information needed to enable a good self-service experience.

Many systems will handle more than one of the categories above — or offer feature sets that blend between categories.

Companies looking for customer service software should choose based on the set of features they need and the service they want to deliver, rather than starting with a specific category.

What are 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.

1. Collecting

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.

2. Organizing

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:

  • Folders and views to easily look at subsets of the conversations.
  • 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.

3. Collaborating

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.
  • Mentions: a way to give a team member a heads up about relevant information in a conversation without making them responsible for replying to the customer.

4. Responding

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, 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.

5. Integrating

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.

6. 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 9 best customer service software for small businesses

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 nine best customer service tools for small businesses.

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 customer service software for all-in-one customer support.

help scout's shared inbox

Smaller 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 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.
  • Build a 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 agents 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 a few standard 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 almost any team.

Price: Starting from $20/user per month for the Standard Plan.

2. HelpDocs

Best customer service 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 from $49 per month.

3. Olark

Best customer service software for standalone live chat.

If your team needs to communicate with customers in real time, 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 from $19/month per agent.

4. Aircall

Best customer service software for live phone support.

call dashboard in aircall

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 from $30/agent per month.

5. Zendesk

Best customer service software for larger teams.

Zendesk offers software 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 from $19/month per agent.

6. Freshdesk

Best customer service 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: Starting from $0 per month.

7. Text-Em-All (formerly Call-Em-All)

Best customer service 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 from $0 (however, there is a need to purchase credits).

8. Sparkcentral

Best customer service software for managing multiple social accounts.

One challenge of providing top-notch support is simply having a presence in all the places your customers want to contact you from. It seems new channels pop up every year, adding to the difficulty of managing all those messages in an efficient way.

Sparkcentral offers a solution to help bring together conversations from all the different channels your customers might contact you from. Whether they send a message from WhatsApp, Twitter, WeChat, or a plethora of other channels, Sparkcentral has it covered.

You can set up different automations to direct messages to the right agent or team. You can also set up autoresponders and bots to handle certain incoming messages based on parameters you set — all of which adds up to a more efficient support system for your team.

Price: No public pricing available. Contact their team to get specific pricing information.

9. Helpshift

Best customer service 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: No public pricing available. Contact their team to get specific pricing information.

How to choose the right customer service software

So which customer service software is the best for your business? 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 tools 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.

Help Scout's Mathew Patterson also contributed to this post.

Jesse Short
Jesse Short

After spending a few years working as a support agent, Jesse made the switch to writing full-time. He works as a Content Writer at Help Scout, hoping to help improve the agent and customer experience.

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