The Pros and Cons of Free Help Desks + 5 Options to Consider
Illustration by Meredith Miotke

Selecting the best help desk for your team depends on a lot of factors, including your growth rate and the number of customers you help daily.

Before we share our list of the best free help desk tools, let's take a look at the pros and cons of free help desk software so you can make the best decision for your company, your team, and your customers.

The benefits of free help desk software

Free help desk software brings big benefits to small teams as they build out their processes and protocols. Without upfront costs, you can upgrade to a system that offers more capabilities than a contact form and a shared email account.

Free software also gives you the option to test a new system over the long term without committing to a financial investment.

You may be impressed by some of the new options help desk software offers, such as the ability to assign tickets to agents, a birds-eye view into your team’s performance, and a better shared user experience. All these internal wins can make it easier for you to build an exceptional customer experience, too.

However, as tempting as it is to assume an upgrade correlates to positive change, the shift doesn’t always ensure big benefits. If you’re leaning toward a free help desk, first play around with its capabilities and test its effectiveness in helping your team thrill your customers.

The right tool will always make it easier for your team members to do their jobs — and easier for your customers to enjoy your products or services.

The disadvantages of a free help desk

You’ve heard the phrase “buyer beware,” but it turns out non-paying users need to be extra aware.

When you’re considering any free tool, first research why it’s free:

  • Who created it, and what do they get out of you using their tool without paying?

  • Can you be sure they’ll be around in a year’s time?

  • Will they constantly bombard you and your team with ads and sales messages, pressuring you to upgrade?

  • What is the experience like on the customer end?

Free help desk software may seem like a no-brainer, but the experience doesn’t always live up to the expectations of users or customers.

At Help Scout, we couldn’t land on a “freemium” model that met our standards. We wanted to give everyone in our community more: the best features, stellar support, and an intuitive product that evolves with technology. That’s why we phased out our free option: The integrity of the experience didn’t live up to our expectations.

Companies that offer a free version of their product often set limitations of one kind or another to keep costs down for non-paying users. This can mean no workflows, a single mailbox, or only a handful of saved replies.

Imagine your team builds out a deeper library of saved replies, but then you’re boxed out of saving them in your help desk (cue the constant copying and pasting from a Google Doc). In facing these limitations, users have to create complicated external workarounds that are impossible to scale.

Not only can consistency and accountability deteriorate, but team members can also get frustrated because their workflows are a mess.

Freemium plans might also limit the support available to you, or you may wait longer for responses from a team supporting free products. If you’re in the middle of a work emergency and your software isn’t functioning, you’re last in line for help.

It’s not uncommon to feel forced into an upgrade and have to pay anyway just to avoid a customer service nightmare. Those reactive purchases only reinforce workflows that may not be the best fit. After all, you chose them because they were free, not because they met your specific needs.

When your team bumps against these limitations time and time again, it can trickle down to your reputation with customers.

Make sure to research the details before you commit to a non-paying tool. If you don’t, you may soon find your free help desk software isn’t cutting it and that switching help desks (not just plans) requires another selection, migration, and training process.

The 5 best free help desk software platforms

If you have inescapable budget constraints or just don't have enough support volume at the moment to justify paying for a dedicated support tool, the five free help desk software platforms below might be a good fit for your team.

1. Google Collaborative Inbox

Best free help desk for teams that already use Google Workspace.

Google Collaborative Inbox

If you’re already using Gmail and want to add some structure to your support efforts, Google Collaborative Inbox could be a good option. The best way to think about Collaborative Inbox is as a shared folder multiple people can access from their own personal email accounts.

Setting up Collaborative Inbox is relatively simple. You set up the email address, create a Google Group — more on that here if you’re not familiar — then add people to that group. That’s it. Now everyone in the group can respond to emails in the group mailbox without sharing login information (which is huge for security).

Beyond that, you’re able to assign conversations to different group members and set statuses for different conversations (closed, on-hold, etc). You can also set different permission levels for collaborators, though it is somewhat limited in capability.

2. Outlook Shared Mailbox

Best for free help desk for teams that already use Microsoft Outlook.

screenshot of outlook's shared mailbox

If your team uses Microsoft Outlook for email, Outlook Shared Mailbox could be an option to explore. It is essentially identical to Google Collaborative Inbox: You create a group and can then invite other members to the group.

Outlook Shared Mailbox gives people the ability to work from the same email queue and assign emails to different group members. If you already use Outlook, then there’s no additional cost to set up a shared mailbox.

3. Freshdesk

Best free help desk for teams starting to grow their support function.

Product Screenshot: Freshdesk

Many may be surprised to see Freshdesk on this list, as they’re usually more closely associated with larger, call center-type teams. However, along with their paid plans, they also offer a free plan.

Their free plan is a basic help desk which lets you convert emails and social media messages into tickets and respond to them from Freshdesk. Along with ticketing capabilities, you’re able to create a basic knowledge base and see what times of day are busiest for your team.

They also offer some simple automations to route tickets to different agents based on criteria you set. With Freshdesk’s free plan, you have all the basics needed to start a customer support program at your company.

4. Zoho Desk

Best for teams already using other Zoho tools.

Zoho Desk Screenshot

Most people are familiar with Zoho for their CRM tool, but they also have a support-focused tool called Zoho Desk. In the free version, you’re able to respond to email requests from customers.

You get access to a shared inbox, as well as the ability to create a knowledge base to offer self-service options to customers. You can also create macros (pre-written responses) to respond to routine questions quickly.

Rounding out the list, Zoho Desk offers pre-defined SLAs, some customer management capabilities, and access to their mobile app. All in all, it’s pretty similar to Freshdesk’s offering, but if you’re already using Zoho CRM, it could be the better option.

5. Solarwinds

Best free help desk for IT support teams.

screenshot of solarwinds' free help desk

If you need a tool to help you better manage IT-related requests, then Solarwinds could be the right option for you. With Solarwinds you’re able to create an online form where people can submit service-related requests.

You’re also able to create a self-service portal and automate some ticket routing to reduce manual work for your staff. Finally, you get Active Directory and LDAP authentication tools.

You are limited to just one technician login, but there aren’t any contracts to sign or time limits you have to meet before upgrading to a paid account.

How to choose the option that's right for you

If you're still struggling to decide which tool is right for you, you can narrow things down by considering these options.

Start with a simple inbox

Not every team needs to ramp up with a feature-rich help desk. If you’re a team of one, consider a simple Gmail account to solve customers’ problems. People can email, and you can respond to each customer in turn.

Be aware, though, that as your support team or company grows, a shared Gmail or Outlook mailbox can become more complicated. You’ll eventually need an upgrade!

You’ll know your company has outgrown an inbox when things keep slipping through the cracks. Maybe customers start to follow up on requests they’ve never heard back about, multiple team members respond to the same message, or you don’t know who replied to an email.

Experiment with free help desk software

If you’re managing a small, nimble team, try to find free help desk software that works best for your team’s processes. By experimenting with free software, you can get your team comfortable with the tool’s capabilities.

Eventually, you may need to pay for expanded features — especially if you’re struggling with technical issues and support isn’t available to non-paying customers.

When you choose a freemium tool, be sure to think ahead: Are you locking your team into a tool with a paid version that isn’t as good of a fit for your company as another help desk may be?

You want to offer lasting customer service, so imagine that you’re selecting your first choice for the long haul. If it doesn’t live up to your expectations, you’ll have to shift to a new tool and build out new processes.

Choose a basic, low-cost plan

Many tools offer affordable plans that can scale with the size of your business. We recommend you start with a low-cost tool like Help Scout that empowers you with full customer support and all the features of a paid product.

Your team can build processes that scale within customer service software without requiring that you bump over to another product and start from scratch. As your team grows, you can move up to a plan with even more features, which enables collaboration on a bigger scale.

Setting a solid foundation for exceptional support

The best thing about customer support is that it’s all about helping others. If you can meet the needs of team members and your customers every day with a free tool, that’s the tool for you!

But if you want your company to continue to grow, set the foundation with a solution that will help you meet the needs of customers now while scaling with you into the future.

Like what you see? Share with a friend.
Screenshot: Beacon
Screenshot: Docs