The 2009 CRM Service Awards: Rising Stars -- Helpstream: Ministering to the Masses

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In this economy, there are two things that should be on every executive’s mind: survival and customer service. Luckily, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Helpstream describes itself as a “community-centric customer service solution” that enhances self-service capabilities by providing a platform for customers to help each other. Moreover, unlike traditional knowledge bases where the company is responsible for producing and policing the content, Helpstream enables data to emerge organically from the community. The best part? It’s all on-demand.

“We’re bringing the company’s ability to resolve issues closer, so there’s no lag time,” says Michael Chichon, Helpstream’s director of product marketing. “There’s an obvious impact on agent productivity when customers help other customers. You essentially grow your service staff incrementally.”

Zachary McGeary, an analyst at Forrester Research, says that some customer service organizations are using social-interaction strategies to capitalize “on both the intimacy and cost-effectiveness of these interactions.” This trend, he says, relies on “[increasing] cost pressures, diminishing value of survey data, and experience-based differentiation.”

But does the pursuit of efficiency come at the expense of customer satisfaction? “If your customer service starts to deteriorate, it’s only going to exacerbate the problems you already have,” says Bill Odell, vice president of marketing at Helpstream, which promises not only an expected level of customer satisfaction with fewer resources, but opportunities for improvement.

In December 2008, Helpstream moved its solution onto Amazon Web Services, Amazon.com’s cloud-computing platform. John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research at the Service and Support Professionals Association, says the shift should put to rest any doubt about Helpstream’s ability to scale as an on-demand provider, especially as the company expands its customer base toward enterprise-level customers. “It was smart to remove that objection,” he says.

While RightNow Technologies is credited with helping establish a beachhead for on-demand customer service, Helpstream offers an interesting alternative, according to Jeff Kaplan, managing director of consultancy ThinkStrategies. “They’ve basically combined the ideas of the open-source world with the [software-as-a-service] delivery and packaging approach, and are beginning to make inroads into that helpdesk environment,” he says.

Ragsdale says that part of the attraction is a Web 2.0 architecture built from the ground up, sparing the common upgrade and migration issues. He says others are nearing that functionality, “but [Helpstream] still has a leg up just because it was designed that way to begin with.”

The technology’s solid, Kaplan says; the challenge is the business component. “There’s going to be shakeout [in this economy],” he says. “It’s inevitable.” As a young company, Helpstream needs more customers to establish credibility, especially for investors. The company does ride some big coattails, having joined Oracle’s CRM On Demand Inner Circle Partner Initiative last September, and having added a feature to its Fall 2008 release that enables Salesforce.com and Google users to log into Helpstream using their existing accounts. Having executives with extensive experience in both technology and customer service helps, too. Ragsdale says that he has “huge respect” for Anthony Nemelka, the company’s chief executive officer. “He really understands what people use the technology for,” he says, noting Nemelka’s tenure at PeopleSoft. “He brought with him that basic understanding of core business processes, which is so important.”

Customer service companies today still struggle with community-based content creation and maintenance, Ragsdale says. That’s where Helpstream finds its sweet spot. “They’re really paving the way [for] companies [that] are going to solve this problem in the future,” he says. “They’re doing some very important work.”  —Jessica Tsai

• CEO: Anthony Nemelka
• Founded: November 2007
• Headquarters: Mountain View, Calif.
• Revenue: Not disclosed
• Employees: Fewer than 100
• Customer count: More than 130, including Brocade, Toshiba, LeapFrog, BigTent, Eloqua, Marketo, and Infusionsoft

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