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This is a sneak-peek of all the things that are in store for you in this guide. By the end of this guide, you should have answers to these questions:

What is an online helpdesk and why do I need one?

What kind of online helpdesk is best for my business? ITSM or customer support? Hosted or on-premise?

How do I put together a feature list? What if I have no idea what I need?

If you already know the answers to these questions, bravo! Feel free to stop reading right now. Or read it through anyway and lets know what you think. Tell us what you like, what you hate, what ticks you of, the whole works. We promise to not send you hate mail.

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The need for online Helpdesks

Once upon a time, not so long ago, customer support was all about troubleshooting manuals and call-centers. And then the Internet happened. Things were never the same ever again. With the advent of the Internet, there was a shift in power. Customers began to realise that there was a world of choice out there and that their choices mattered. Their choices could make behemoths out of brands….or tear them down from their pedestals.

And businesses began to realize that, if they wanted to stay in the game, they had to up the ante. They had to stop treating customer service like an unwanted puppy and become more customer centric. Customer satisfaction had to matter more than… revenue, the product and pretty much anything else. And to win customer love, they had to start going about it in an organized fashion.

Enter Support Software

If, at this point, you’re confused about the point of all this and are wondering why you can’t just use what you’re already using - how does it matter if the problem is solved at the end of the day - I have only one thing to say. Patience, young padawan. To come, the answers are.

The problem with using diferent tools to support diferent channels (email, social media and live chat etc), is that they make for disparate interactions with the customer. Customers want consistent service experiences across channels. They expect to be able to start an interaction in one channel and complete it in another.

A reasonable expectation that is almost impossible to accommodate when you have diferent tools for diferent channels. Without one tool to rule them all, you get only bits and pieces of the whole picture. Bits that do not help you provide contextual customer support and pieces that do not help you step back, take a look at the whole picture and drill down into issues. Forget ever getting to be master of the pile; you’ll be forever stuck, reacting to your users’ complaints and not proactively reaching out to your customers and solving their issue even before they realize they have one.

Pros and Cons - Internal vs External Helpdesks

The first thing you need to do when you start looking for a helpdesk is to know what you are going to use it for. We know, we know, not a big deal. But you wouldn’t believe the number of problems that have cropped up because someone didn’t have the right requirements. So, take a moment to properly understand whose problems you’re trying to solve.

Are they your customers? Or are they your employees? Do you want to use this software to keep track of conversations with your customers and manage their complaints? Or do you want to use this helpdesk to deal with employee requests and manage IT operations internally?

The answer to this question will lead you down one of two roads in a wood. One deals with external customer support and engagement and the other with ITSM and its nuances.

At first glance, it looks like the service desk and the helpdesk are interchangeable if you care about just one feature. But your future self will thank you dearly if you take the time to pause and think about the kind of software best suited to your needs. Soon, your requirements will grow, you’ll miss out on important functionalities, and you won’t get any of the updates you actually care about. Instead of making life easier for your team, you’ll just complicate processes by using a software to do something that it’s not meant for.

So, depending on what you choose, read on. If you think the external customer support avenue will suit you best, the next section awaits. If ITSM (IT Service Management) is more your game, I’m afraid this guide will not be of much use.

Hosted vs On-Premise Helpdesk

To proceed to the next level (and to get another cookie), you have to make up your mind and choose between a hosted helpdesk and an on-premise helpdesk. If you know the diference, feel free to skip this section to the one down below. If you are not sure about the diferences, read on. The term “on premise” essentially means you buy a helpdesk software and install it on your own server, all by yourself. Owning an on-premise helpdesk is kinda like owning a car - you pay a one time fee for it and you’re done. The car is yours to do with as you please. However, you are responsible for maintaining it and making sure it works okay.

A SaaS helpdesk or an online helpdesk, on the other hand, is like a car rental service where you pay a monthly premium. Your renter is the one who makes sure that it’s running okay. They do everything from checking your tires to filling up your gas tank. All you do is pay ‘em for the use of it. We put together a list of pros and cons for your perusal.

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The picture in the previous section does a great job of illustrating the pros of using an on-premise software and a SaaS tool. An on-premise helpdesk is a great idea if you’re really concerned about the security of your data - you can store everything on your own servers and customize the software anyway you like for maximum security. The world is your oyster.

However, there are some downsides. When you host your own helpdesk, you kinda handcuf your team to their desks. They can’t support customers on the go or even from the comfort of their homes unless you do some complicated magic and open up access to certain secure networks. Additionally, your support team will have to rely on internal IT to take care of maintaining the hardware, the networks and the software, right from managing server uptimes to performing bugfixes and updates. This can turn out to be a big investment, not just in terms of the money, but also because of the hours of training your agents (and IT team) will have to put in to get to know the helpdesk.

However, when it’s SaaS software, the helpdesk provider takes care of maintenance and upgrades. You can access the helpdesk anywhere you want and using any device. Most SaaS providers also allow you to try out their software for about 30 days to see how well it suits your needs, instead of just demoing it to you which is a point in their favor.

However, there is that prickly downside of not being able to personally be sure of your data’s security but you can assuage that fear by finding a helpdesk provider that uses a trustable near-impossible-to-hack service.

Feature lists

Now that you have figured out what kind of helpdesk you need, the next thing you should do is take a close look at the little things and figure out what you really care about in your helpdesk. And like a lot of things in life, the best way to do this is to make a list. Before we talk about the feature list, however, let’s dig a little bit into the reason you are here in the first place. What support system did you have in place before to help you manage conversations? And why do you want to switch? Your answer is probably one of these:

I used a support software

Excellent! Find a piece of paper, a pen and a quiet corner. Here’s the drill:

And voila! There you have it. Your feature list, sorted by priority of need. You can, of course, skip the next section now. Or you could read it anyway to make your list up to the mark.

I have never used a support software ever

Requirements: A piece of paper, a pen, some candy for you to chew on as you ruminate.

Process: What follows is a list of features that most businesses find absolutely essential and how it can help you better support your customers.

Channels: Write down all the channels you think your customers frequent. Most helpdesks in the market support: Email, Twitter, Facebook, Phone, Live chat and In-app. For example, if you’re in the e-commerce market, your customers would like to get in touch with you through real-time channels like live chat and phone. And they’re likely to be on social media and talking about you. Prioritize them based on your resources.

Now, write down what features you’d like for each channel. For example, under Twitter, you could write down:

If you’re drawing a blank, take a look at the Sample Feature List we’ve drawn up. It’ll help you get started.

Service Level Agreement

An SLA is basically a promise to the customers that you will resolve their issues (or respond to them) within a certain period of time, depending on the priority of the request. An SLA makes sure that no conversation ever goes ignored by alerting you when you violate it. The ability to create multiple SLAs to help you provide a good user experience on every channel you support will stand you in good stead.

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Knowledge Base

An FAQ section that can help your customers help themselves will never go remiss. Most customers like to search (and find) out the answers themselves so they’d really appreciate a searchable knowledge base. Not to mention, it’ll reduce your low-level support request volume. Getting one is useful for every kind of business, so put this one down even if you aren’t sure. Look out for a helpdesk that allows you to SEO solution articles and suggest solutions even as customers type out their queries.

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Community Forums

An engaged customer base will not just stay madly in love with you but they’ll also be a veritable goldmine of information - everything from feature requests to use cases that even you, the maker, wouldn’t have thought of. A dream community is one that allows you to call out for ideas, make announcements and let your customers talk to each other. The ability to moderate comments will also earn its keep. and make will stand you in good stead

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Email Notifications

Keep your customers in the loop by sending them email notifications every time there’s a status update. Keep an eye out for customizable email notifications that allow you to change the content of the notification. Bonus points if the helpdesk allows you to remove the ticket ID from the subject line, thus rendering your helpdesk invisible.

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Most helpdesks provide for automations that will take care of the boring, menial tasks so that you can do what you do best: provide personalized support. Automate tasks like sending out reminders to customers, categorizing and prioritizing new tickets.

Look out for helpdesks that provide for both time triggered automations (like automatically escalating tickets to the supervisor when they have had more than 5 interactions) and event triggered automations (like automatically closing resolved tickets after 48 hours). This will help you save a little bit of time for every matching ticket, for every agent in your team, every day. Add that up and you save hundreds of hours every month. Now, if that isn’t something that you need….I’ll eat my hat.

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Satisfaction Surveys

Find out what your customers really think about you (and your service) by way of a survey. Most helpdesks allow for a three-point scale survey but if you want to ask specific questions and poll them on their finer feelings, a helpdesk that integrates with an app like SurveyMonkey should work well for you.

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No matter what industry you’re in and what kind of customer base you have, reports will do you good. After all, who doesn’t love a nice reporting suite that helps you dig deep into your numbers and come up with actionable insights? Here are a few metrics you absolutely should be tracking: response times, resolution times, SLA violations, average ticket volume, peak hours for requests etc. But don’t miss the forest for the trees; make sure you have all the filters and options you need to drill down on reports properly as well.

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Multi-product support

If you have more than one product, look for helpdesks that do not force you to buy additional licenses or completely new instances for every product. A helpdesk that allows you to support multiple products through one account is your best bet. This will be especially useful when you have one support team taking care of requests for all products.

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Global Customer Base

If you have a customer base that speaks a myriad of languages (and you probably do), then throw in ‘Multiple Language Support’ as well to make sure that your customers can access the support portal in the language they’re most comfortable with.

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Remote team

If your support team is spread across time zones, your helpdesk should recognize that and calibrate your SLAs accordingly based on their local times. Put down ‘Multiple Timezones’ and ‘Multiple Business Hours’ (your operating hours so that the helpdesk knows to pause the SLA timer when you’re not at work) on your list. Keep an eye out for helpdesks that allow you to customize your business hours - after all, your diferent ofces probably operate at diferent times. Some helpdesks don’t allow you to change the operating hours for each day of the week i.e you might work longer hours during the week but not so on Saturday.

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Portal Customization

The ability to customize the CSS of the support portal or the ability to go grassroots and customize every single page of the portal (it helps if you know Javascript and HTML) will stand you in good stead. Because when you’ve put so much efort into spinning a beautiful website for your customers, it hardly seems fair to leave your support portal out of the party. So, the deeper the customization capabilities, the better.

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Mobile apps

Empower your agents by allowing them to support on the go. Most helpdesks have mobile apps for the most popular OS-s like Android and iOS. However, if you can’t find a helpdesk that supports an OS your agents seem to largely prefer, like Blackberry OS, look for helpdesks that have a mobile-optimized app (a HTML5 app as some of them will refer to ‘em).

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Write down all the apps that you and your team use everyday. Strike out the ones that have nothing to do with your customers (like Photoshop). And voila! Your list is ready. If your helpdesk integrates with all the tools you use already, then it’s easier for you to provide a nice, cohesive user experience that will wow your customers. Imagine (in this fantasy, you run an e-commerce store) the surprise when a customer calls and you greet him not just by name but also with his order information and its location.

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The Uncompromisables

Now that you have the list of all the features that you absolutely cannot live without, you’re all set to embark on your quest to find the helpdesk of your dreams. Just remember that it’s not easy, and you might have to trial quite a few products before you find the Prince. But we assure you that the search is totally worth it. When you find the helpdesk that actually makes you actually anticipate customer queries….well, even ice cream pales next to it (okay, it doesn’t).

But before you pull up Daddy G and start typing out every possible combination of “helpdesk” and “awesome” that you can come up with, there are still a few more pearls of wisdom that we’ve been hoarding away, just for this moment. This, unlike the feature list yonder, is a list of vendor-related questions that you should first ask yourself before you start the search. The Spendor list (we like making up words) is a list of questions that you need to find the answers to before trying out a helpdesk and after your trial. To make things easier to remember, we’ve split the list down into three divisions:

Before the trial

Pay-by-agents versus pay-by-tickets: Some helpdesk providers charge based on the number of tickets created in a month. Plans are usually based on ranges - up to 100 tickets, upto 500 tickets, upto 10000 tickets and so on. If you’re a small business which follows the all hands on deck approach (your entire team’s on support) and you don’t receive a lot of tickets every month, well, pay-by-tickets is your best option.

Most of the pay-per-tickets helpdesks usually allow their users to avail all of their functionalities right from the most basic plan. So, this is a win-win from all angles except...except your I-don’t-receive-a-lot-of-tickets situation might be ephemeral. There might be a whole host of reasons why a business might not receive a lot of support queries. We list a few:

The first two situations we’ve listed are temporary - they’re liable to change the minute the app shifts out of beta or if the business decides to redesign it. The third is a situation that only the business can afect. A lot of businesses prefer paying-by-tickets because they have their whole team on hand to provide support and it just isn’t financially feasible for them to pay through the nose every month for the team.

But the thing is, in most businesses, not everyone’s on support all the time. There are hardcore support personnel who wade into the trenches every day to take down problems. And then there are the temporary agents who login only once a month and take care of the tickets that demanded their presence. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for you to pay for a full seat for the temporary agents especially when they only login a couple of times a month. Some helpdesk vendors provide a workaround for this by charging you a nominal amount (a dollar or so) for each day that a temporary agent logs in. Which works out pretty well for businesses with the whole team on support. So, before you pull up Daddy G and start searching, take a moment to dig deep and find out what will suit you best.

A customer facing portal versus an invisible helpdesk - A customer-facing portal is basically a self-service portal with a knowledge base and community forums. A portal set up to engage with your customers, answer their questions and stimulate discussions. This is in contrast to a helpdesk which is...invisible because it does not have a customer-facing portal. To the customer, your helpdesk is indiscernible; you might as well be using Gmail or another email service to support him.

Most businesses prefer to have a customer-facing portal to demonstrate their commitment to making their customers happy. Not to mention, the added advantages that a knowledge base (reduced volume of tickets) and community forums (better customer engagement) bring to the table. Some businesses choose an invisible helpdesk because they want their support to be as personal as possible. To make it seem like it’s going from one inbox to another, no automation in the middle. Some helpdesks do allow you to integrate features like the knowledge base and community forums to your website though. Depending on your choice, you should look for products that can be “invisible”, products that give you the capability to hide the ticket ID in the subject line.

Before the Invoice

Do your agents need to undergo extensive training to use the helpdesk?

Anything that takes longer than a week for your agents to get accustomed to is not something that should figure high on your list.

How hard is the transition from your current support system to this new helpdesk?

Points to the vendor if they’ll help you transfer your data from your old support system to your new one at no extra cost. Bonus points if it’s so simple you can take care of the transfer yourself.

Does the helpdesk provide for a situation where you might need other employees on the team to pitch in?

Does it make you pay for a full seat or is there a payment option for temporary agents? This might not seem like a big deal right now but you’ll thank me when the holiday season rolls around and you need all hands on deck to deal with the inflow.

Will your helpdesk bankrupt you in the future?

If it looks like the plan that suits you best will also be the plan that bankrupts you, take a deep breath, calm down and see what you can compromise on. A lot of helpdesk providers also ofer free/I-can’t-believe-this-is-the-price plans but they’re not very feature-rich so you’ll have to make some compromises. Most helpdesk providers also provide for startup ofers so you can also try to strike a deal with them.

Do you like using the helpdesk?

I know, I know. This is business. Not pleasure. You’re a grown up now and if you don’t like doing something that is necessary, well...bully you. But the world of customer support has changed (for the good) - there are tons of options out there. So, even if the industry’s top players rub you wrong, there’s still a world of helpdesks out there just waiting for you to sign up for a trial. There is absolutely no reason for you to sign your soul away for a clunky helpdesk that not only makes your life more complicated but costs you a bomb also.

Pearls of Wisdom

Look underneath the underneath: Some vendors will specify that a feature that you desperately need, like email notifications, is available from the most basic plan. But not all of the featurettes that you call essential might be a part of the most basic plan. Some of them might be available only on higher plans. For example, while the vendor might state that email notifications are a part of the basic plan, custom email notifications might be on a higher plan. Make sure you check for each one of your essential features in the plan of your choice before jumping in, headfirst.

Check the care-meter: What is the helpdesk’s customer support like? It’s hard to discern, I know, especially when you’re on trial but there are things you can keep an eye out for. The best place to find the answers to these questions is the community forums. Does the helpdesk practice what it preaches? Are they listening to their customers and introducing features that matter to them? Are they sticking to their roadmap? Twitter and the company blog work too. Search for the helpdesk on Twitter; tune into what other customers are saying. Are the unhappy messages drowning out the happy ones? Never settle for anything less than exceptional.

Look to the future: While the future is a big scary creature whose intentions are hard to divine, you do need to make sure that your helpdesk will continue being a viable choice in the years (if not months) to come. So, sit down with your company’s roadmap to the future and based on the milestone, mark out yearly goals for your support. Create an Excel sheet and calculate costs based on features that you need now and features that you will need in the months (and years) to come. If, for the near future, you write down a number that makes you cringe, you need to reconsider the helpdesk.

Ask for a demo if there’s no trial: There are a lot of customer support providers who do not allow you to trial their software before you make a decision. So, you can only get sneak peeks of the product, through screenshots, videos and customer testimonials. If you like what you see, ask for a demo of the product. Most sales personnel should be okay with you accessing their desktop remotely to get a feel of the product. If they’re not, ask them to go through some everyday actions - like closing a ticket, typing a reply, inserting a canned response etc. This will help you get a good idea of how intuitive it really is.

In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Well, this is it. We’ve told you everything you need to know to choose the right online helpdesk. However, we’ll be the first to admit that this is not an exact science and that we might not have explored all the possibilities. So, if you think we’ve missed out on something important, feel free to shoot us an email. Send us one even if you have nothing to say. We love emails. Especially when they’re about a labour of love.

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