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The Best Help Desk Software for 2020

Keeping customers happy and satisfied is even more difficult now that we're living with COVID-19. The right help desk platform is a big part of the solution and we test ten top players to help you choose.

Updated October 22, 2020

Our 10 Top Picks

Keeping customers and users happy is critical to most organizations' idea of success. You could be running a support desk for a product your company is selling or you could be an IT professional operating a help desk for a large in-house user base. The situation is generally the same (users of a service that occasionally has problems) as are the goals (solve issues rapidly and keep people happy). With these help desk platforms, your IT department can get a better handle on user problems and shorten the time from complaint to resolution.

What Is Help Desk Software?

Help desk software is the heartbeat of a well-run help desk and is a vital consideration for business owners. In fact, it's one of a company's top priorities whether that company is a small to midsize business (SMB) or a large organization. Fortunately, you are not short of options from which to choose as there is a wide range of help desk software available. Some solutions are better suited for SMBs while others are better suited for larger organizations; still others are best for internal IT operations rather than organizations dealing with customer requests. Also, not all help desk software is created equal.

For example, help desk software such as Cayzu, Freshdesk, HappyFox, Vivantio Pro, and Zendesk Support include social tie-ins that let tickets be raised from social media websites such as Twitter. This could be an important feature to a company that deals with a large customer base but one not nearly as important (or even relevant) for one using the system simply as an internal IT service platform.

Other help desk software, such as Jira Service Desk, provides additional security measures and identity management (primarily single sign-on or SSO) features, which may be key differentiators to some companies. SSO offers users the ability to create one set of log-in credentials for multiple applications. Keep an eye out for these types of security features.

In this roundup, we tested the 10 top help desk software offerings, including Agiloft Service Desk, Cayzu, Freshdesk, Freshservice, HappyFox, Jira Service Desk, ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus 9.3, Vivantio Pro, Zendesk Support, and Zoho Desk. All of these help desk solutions are available as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions. This means you don't have to install any of the help desk software onto a local machine. As SaaS solutions, all of the help desk software tested can be run on someone else's servers—a fact that could appeal to many owners of SMBs.

What is ITIL?

During testing, we discovered that some help desk software stood out from the others in one important way: adherence to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). ITIL is an established service framework used mainly by IT management companies. It is a set of best practices that include many checklists, procedures, processes, and tasks. Having ITIL effectively govern how your company does things can be both constraining yet beneficial depending upon your particular industry. ITIL should be followed whenever possible, even if it does seem to be a bit overbearing for smaller enterprises.

The help desk software tested falls into one of two camps: those that follow ITIL's guidelines and those that don't follow them. The more advanced services tested follow ITIL, including Freshservice, Jira Service Desk, and ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus 9.3. They would make more sense to larger businesses working in the service management industry, perhaps overseeing data centers or large corporations in which service-level agreements (SLAs) and penalties are more than simple buzzwords. If your business follows ITIL, then you should opt for a help desk software offering that adheres to ITIL's framework.

But not all businesses that need help desk software follow ITIL or even need to. For example, if you are a software developer looking for something to handle incoming support requests from customers, then strong change management (something ITIL governs) probably isn't something you need in a support desk. Conversely, Freshdesk, one of the help desk software offerings tested that doesn't pay attention to ITIL, is not likely to be useful to a company that's in charge of maintaining a large data center. Some businesses that don't adhere to ITIL may focus more on customer service where tickets generated from social media are offered. These businesses would benefit from help desk solutions such as Cayzu, HappyFox, and Zendesk Support. So, first determine whether or not ITIL is something your business needs to follow, and then shop accordingly.

Chatbots Are the Future

Most analysts have been predicting one trend as being a primary driver in the help desk space, and that's artificial intelligence (AI). While that term means several things depending on which industry you're discussing, in the customer service and help desk arena, it's come to mean mainly chatbots.

Chatbots are increasingly sophisticated software services that generally take over, or at least front, the live chat capability of your support website. Customers who initiate a live chat believe they're discussing their problems with a real person, but are actually chatting with a chatbot-style "AI" that uses careful questions and natural language query processing to find out what the problem is. If possible, the chatbot resolves the issue itself, through a canned answer to a common problem, a display of alternate information resources, or some other AI-accessible methodology.

If it can't solve the problem, the chatbot simply hands off the customer to an actual person who is now armed with specific knowledge about the customer and the problem. It can even route the customer to the right customer service person based on that person's expertise versus the customer's issue. Sometimes the customers knows about the handoff, sometimes a live person simply takes over for the chatbot and the customer is meant never to know the difference.

The latest trend with chatbots is their evolution towards actual chatting. For example, at last year's Cisco Contact Center Summit, Inference Solutions announced Inference Studio 6.3 as being capable of extending the self-service capabilities of Cisco Unified Communications Manager (UCM), Cisco Unified Contact Center Enterprise, and Cisco Unified Contact Center Express (UCCE/X). That means when using Inference Studio 6.3 or a similar tool, even SMBs will be able to to build customized intelligent voice agents (IVAs) that can not only automate various repetitive conversations handled by live agents, but do so via voice, not texting in a chat box.

You might think this would annoy customers, but research is showing the opposite. In its 2019 report, Smart Talk: How organizations and consumers are embracing voice and chat assistants, Capgemini Research Institute (CRI) found that "customers increasingly prefer to use voice assistants." Going beyond consumers, the same report cited that "76 percent [of organizations] have realized quantifiable benefits from their voice and chat initiatives" and "58 percent [of organizations] say that these benefits met or exceeded their expectations."

Important Features and Capabilities

While a well-managed chatbot can fundamentally change how your help desk operates as well as scales, even today it's not a mandatory feature. If you're shopping for the absolute baseline of help desk apps, then you're really looking for only three capabilities:

  1. The ability to create and route a trouble ticket,

  2. The ability to modify and close the ticket while maintaining a record of the closure, and

  3. The ability to receive tickets via more than one channel.

There might be some argument on that last one, but in this day and age, it simply isn't enough, even for a small help desk operation that serves only internal users, to be able to take in trouble tickets using just one communications channel. At a minimum, you're looking for phone and email, and you're best off with the ability to create a self-service portal. Many organizations also opt to give their users or customers the option to send tickets via social media.

The self-service portal is a particularly attractive feature because it can add value to both basic help desk scenarios: the internal IT help desk and the external, customer-facing product support help desk. That's because in either scenario, a self-service portal offers many additional capabilities that can help departments other than product support or IT.

In the case of the IT help desk, a self-service portal lets IT direct users to a central location where they can not only log a ticket, they can also help themselves with a knowledgebase that contains step-by-step instructions for solving common problems, like "How do I reset my password?" or "How do I access the VPN?" But a self-service portal could also be used as a central point for common IT-related tasks, like registering a new phone with the company's mobile device management (MDM) system or a download library of IT-approved apps.

It's the same for the customer-facing support site. In that scenario, a self-service portal can provide both the ticket registration and the knowledgebase, but it can also offer features like product registration, manual download of software updates, and back-end hooks to the customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation systems that will automatically market related products and upsell opportunities to appropriate customers.

This ability to integrate with other apps is another important feature that, while not mandatory for a successful help desk, is still a capability most buyers should be looking for. Because they operate at the nexus of operations and user or customer interaction, help desks collect highly valuable data. How your users feel about your IT operation may not seem important to every operation, but dig a little deeper and you'll find the help desk also knows how those people are using their software to do business, where it's breaking down, and how that's impacting the organization. On the customer side, it's the same thing. The help desk knows what customers are buying most. Often it also knows why and also what buyers like most about what they buy and what they like least. Further, a help desk can slide and dice that data based on audience segment, geography, and a host of other factors depending on how your trouble ticket forms are built.

Understanding Your Customers' Experience

Most companies implement help desks as customer satisfaction platforms and therefore focus heavily on providing their customer service reps with the most effective tools to accomplish that mission. However, that's often not a well-researched journey. Companies simply try out a slew of new tools and features hoping "one will stick" when it comes to achieving the happy customer goal.

A better way is to follow your help desk workflow chain, identify points of measurable success, and then spend some effort analyzing your customer experience. The basic star-based rating system from the end customer is often the only real effort many companies make on this front, and while it's certainly an important metric, it's subject to a lot of whims, not the least of which are customers impatient to get back to their now-working products.

Another good metric to look at is the technician's impression of the customer's satisfaction. You're better off doing this in a text box-based comment or short summary, however, than in some kind of star rating system. Not only will you get deeper information that way, you'll also have an easier time integrating the data into your other systems, especially your CRM system.

Another rich source of accurate customer dissatisfaction (or "dissat") data, is the often-implemented but then-ignored call recording. Appointing a staffer to at least review those calls that received exceptionally low customer ratings is a good idea since at the very least it'll let you identify commonly encountered problems and probably the best way to fix them.

You should also work to increase interactivity between your service desk and the customer. Yes, in high-volume service scenarios, there can be some danger here in service reps spending too much time with a single customer. But if your service desk supervisor can manage around this, the benefits can be great. Establishing more conversation between a service desk rep and a customer can actually take the place of an end-of-session customer satisfaction survey with the rep making easy notations in response to customer queries asked as part of the the service conversation. It takes some training for the service rep, but the side benefit is a customer who feels more engaged with the product and the company.

One way to arm a service rep for a more robust customer conversations is to allow customer data to flow into as well as out of the help desk system. We've mentioned that your sales and marketing departments can benefit from data generated within the help desk. And that can also extend to front-end operations and back-end business intelligence (BI) efforts in the form of product management and engineering or even accounting. But relatively few companies make this data highway a two-way street. It's often very useful to have the sales CRM, for example, inform the help desk technician of the customer's purchase history. What other products have they purchased over how long a time, and how happy do they seem with those purchases as well as what were some basic particulars of those deals? All that can make a service rep's conversation more productive when it comes to gathering experience data while simultaneously making the customer feel more valued.

The trick is first identifying which systems outside the help desk system can aid the customer service rep conversation, then establishing that data exchange, and finally (but critically) finding a way to deliver that data to the customer service rep in a usable format. The rep needs to be able to access and understand this data quickly and easily as part of a deeper conversation, often a technical one, so finding the key data points and make them absolutely dead simple to digest is important. In terms of selecting a help desk system, this means looking for one that will allow you to rather heavily customize the service rep's front end, in-call experience.

Data Integration

To make sure your potential help desk can integrate smoothly with other software or cloud services, look for a list of pre-built integration modules (you'll generally find these listed on the help desk maker's website) or support for Representational State Transfer (REST) APIs. REST has become a standard for integrating different cloud software services, which means you'll be able to hire developers to build custom integrations if the link you want isn't already supported by the help desk manufacturer.

There are many other features buyers should consider before settling on a help desk solution, but most are offshoots of the four basic capabilities above. You need to look at how tickets are created, routed, and closed and make sure those capabilities work the way your business needs them to. You're looking at how the system communicates with your users or customers on one side and your IT or help desk staff on the other. Here, you need to think not only about which channels the system supports but how it supports them; that can be particularly important for larger operations that might need to tie a help desk ticket routing system into an email, social media, and Voice-over-IP (VoIP)-based call center. Finally, you're looking for how the system collects and stores the data that runs through it and how easily you can leverage that data in other areas of the business.

All of our contenders support these capabilities with varying degrees of success. While our four Editors' Choice award winners represent the best overall values, all of our contenders offer different levels of ability in different feature areas. So it pays to read all of the reviews in case your business matches up particularly well with a more specialized contender that didn't make the Editors' Choice cut.

Where To Buy

Our Pick
Asset Management
Tickets From Social Media
Remote Control
Knowledge Base
Self-Service Portal
Smartphone Apps
Support Widget
Live Chat
Chatbot Support
Custom Reporting
Editors' Choice
4.5 Review
Editors' Choice
4.5 Review
Zoho Desk
$20.00 Per User Per Month at Zoho Desk
Editors' Choice
4.5 Review
Vivantio Pro
Editors' Choice
4.5 Review
Agiloft Service Desk
4.0 Review
4.0 Review
ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus
4.0 Review
Zendesk Support
4.0 Review
3.5 Review
Jira Service Desk
3.5 Review

Help Desk Reviews

Further Reading

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