Last September, a cloud-based customer-service session manager built on the Salesforce platform called Assistly made a big splash at the Dreamforce '11 convention. Within weeks, Assistly found itself acquired by Salesforce, with the intention of making it the engine behind its Desk.com domain.

Now Assistly has become Desk.com, and in an interview with ReadWriteWeb, its former CEO-turned-Salesforce-VP, Alex Bard, shows off the results of their integration: a jaw-dropping communications nexus that resembles SharePoint for the call center the way an iPad resembles a Palm Pilot.

"The help desk needs to be social. What that means is being able to capture all these customer interactions that are happening in the social scene - through Facebook, through Twitter," Bard says, "and bring them into the same place where you're capturing the interactions through traditional channels, such as cell phone, email and Web."

The hub of the new Desk.com is a multichannel message center, shown above, where phone, SMS, social and email messages are all treated as a single category. It follows multiple cases - threads on a related topic pertaining to a specific customer or customer group. This is what unified communications is supposed to look like.

Bard's example company is a travel services provider. Desk.com's new Business Insights dashboard (pictured up top) features live analytical charts indicating how long it's typically taking to respond to customers - whatever method they're using to communicate, including Twitter - and how long an interval is typically required from first contact to resolution, among other factors.

"First contact resolution, case reopen rate, average handle times - all these things, we've brought together on one dashboard," explains Bard, "to help them at a glance to understand, 'These are the things I should be tracking, and these are the things I should understand historically inside my company.'"

Clicking on the Case Volume Overview chart pulls up this detailed breakdown, which can help a case manager determine the nature of service spikes such as the one simulated here. Because cases are tagged with categorical context, the drill-down shown below can display the relevant topics associated with cases - in this example, the launch of the company's summer catalog.

In this example drill-down (click the screenshot for a larger view), a huge percentage of customers' questions concern travel in Greece, which in Bard's example is the site of an earthquake. To handle the 151 customer inquiries about Greece in due course, Desk.com lets users create a macro for customer responses, and then distribute that macro to team members who may be delivering the response.

The list above shows Bard's example macro for responding to Greek earthquake inquiries. This isn't a programmed macro like something you'd find in Excel, but rather a set of automatic triggered conditions. In this case, the Greece macro 1) adds a label to incoming messages, flagging both the summer catalog and poor travel conditions for future reporting; 2) sets the case priority; 3) sets the case status to Resolved once the customer is adequately contacted; 4) provides a response template that includes most or all of an email response to the customer, using the customer's name and tailored, if necessary, to other customer characteristics.

The screenshot above (click to enlarge) shows one of the 151 incoming customer messages. That message tripped the two relevant tags - "bad weather" and "summer catalog launch" - and Greece as the relevant location (see the list at left), which in turn enabled the macro. Once this macro is published to all agents handling Greece, the templated text with customer name already added appears in the reply screen. Clicking on Update, Send & Resolve (lower right) processes the personalized customer response, while resetting the case priority lower. "So what normally might have taken a few minutes now literally takes 10 seconds and just a few clicks."

"We perceive companies on one of two sides of this pendulum. On one side, a lot of small businesses don't even know the data that they need to be tracking," explains Bard. "They don't understand what the most important indicators are for their support environment. So by looking at this tool, at the very least we're giving them the education to see, 'What are the things that are important to me?'... On the other end of the scale, you've got companies that are sophisticated, and know the data that they want to see, but traditional reporting systems make it really hard to get to it. You have to go through multiple clicks for multiple reports, and correlate that data. So the first thing you're seeing from Business Insights [in Desk.com] is gathering all the data from all the companies we've talked to, and showing it in a way that's very digestible, very understandable, at a quick glance. The first thing that starts with education."

But then, how does a company go beyond just automated responses? Doesn't it run the risk of appearing automated to the customer? Bard says that Desk.com's macros are "iterative," which he explains to mean something that requires some human interaction. "Through that process, they can continue improving their overall operations. In a social enterprise, this isn't about a standalone department. This is part of the overall social enterprise story, and we're trying to complete that whole social enterprise vision."