The Best Help Desk Software for 2021

Online commerce is at an all-time high during the pandemic, so keeping customers happy is more important than ever. We test and compare the top help desk services so you can choose what's best for your business.

Updated August 27, 2021

Our 11 Top Picks

With more people shopping from home than ever, keeping customers happy without direct contact is an important mission for any retailer and many large, in-house IT service desk operations, too. S&P Global research is projecting online sales volume to rise to roughly 825 million in the US in 2022 up from approximately 450 million in 2018. With that kind of growth, effectively managing customer dissatisfaction is one of the most effective ways to grow your business. It'll also be an important part of competing with rivals, too.

The same goes for IT professionals servicing in-house employees and for the same reason, too. Hybrid work is going to stay with us long after the pandemic disappears, but that distributed model means there's less chance of an IT pro being able to visit a user in person to solve problems. For this, a good help desk platform, particularly one that adheres to ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is going to be the crux of how IT departments keep their users happy and productivity steady.

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. At the core, help desk solutions generally revolve around what's called a ticketing system.

The term "ticketing" refers to how customer or user problems reach service reps, namely as trouble tickets. Any complaint, no matter which channel is used to communicate it, gets put into a ticket format that contains all its basic information. That will include a problem summary, the customer ID, the time reported, what channel was used, and which service rep was assigned to work on it. How a system manages these tickets is the primary differentiator between help desk solutions.

Fortunately, you are not short of options in this space. There's a wide range of help desk software available, especially for SMBs. But even though many are focused on SMBs there are also solutions specializing in larger organizations and still others aimed at internal IT operations rather than organizations dealing with customer requests. With all those players, you'll definitely find that not all help desk software will be equal. But what'll differentiate one solution over another will often be dependent on your business' individual needs rather than technology or product quality.

For example, help desk software such as Freshdesk or Zendesk Support includes 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.

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 know 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 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 chatbox.

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.

Help Desk Ticket Management Considerations

We've talked a lot about how customers or internal users might access the features of a help desk system, but your next most important consideration is how all those service techs will feel about it. As mentioned above, any issues that reach the help desk get there as "trouble tickets." This starts as just a summary of the customer's query along with their contact information and then gets routed to the right technician, even if that's just the next one with some free time.

But from there, the ticket gets more robust. All the customer's interactions regarding this particular problem are recorded in the ticket, so if the ticket goes from one tech to another or if it gets escalated that'll be reflected. All the technician's responses and a description of the eventual solution get added to the ticket, too. If you've integrated your help desk with your sales or martech systems, then you might have up-sell, survey, and even purchasing data to add. This makes tickets extremely detailed data repositories for multiple aspects of your business, not just technical support. Customer satisfaction, demographics, inventory data, payment processing, are all potential components of useful data you can get from a trouble ticket depending on how much care you've taken in configuring your ticketing system. And that's before we get to the poor technician.

Technicians are a harried breed. Calls never stop, which means ticketing never stops. How those tickets get routed to your technician, how they access them, and how they route them onwards is a process that can be very different between businesses. There's rarely only one right way. Part of that is because companies look to their help desks for different results.

For some, it's just about fixing the technology. For others, it's about customer satisfaction. For still others, it might be about establishing a personal relationship with customers to help move them into an up-sell opportunity. Depending on what you expect to mine from your help desk software and staff investment, how your tickets will get managed can be critically important.

First, sit down with not just your technicians, but also your sales, marketing, and business intelligence leads. Brainstorm about the kinds of data your technicians take in and how it might benefit other parts of the business. What other kinds of data could your techs reasonably acquire? For example, a few questions on customer demographics or product satisfaction might be fine at the end of the problem resolution phase, but asking an irate customer to complete a five-minute IVR survey before they even get to a tech is probably not a great idea. But exactly what data can you get from a few extra questions and how do you want to capture and disseminate it?

Once you have a plan for that, you can start matching it to the features of your help desk shortlist. An evaluation period is critical here and not just for the help desk platform. Most of these services also offer integrations with third-party tools and the ticket management module is where most of that will happen. Analytics tools, like Tableau; collaboration tools, like Slack; even sales tools, like Zoho CRM. All of these can sink their hooks into a ticket management system and establish a two-way data flow.

If you're looking to enable those kinds of relationships, you need to evaluate such a system end-to-end before buying, not just one component. Only then will you know (a) if you're grabbing the data you need how you need it, and (b) if you've set up a system that won't bog your techs down so much that they can't get their jobs done.

Understanding Your Customers' Experience

Getting back to customer issues, 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.

Just as we described above for ticketing, 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, but 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 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 conversation 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.

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