Communication is at the center of most businesses.
Whether it’s communicating with customers to help resolve service-related issues or fielding IT requests from employees, most businesses eventually need some way to manage those conversations.
One of the best ways to do that is with help desk software.
What is help desk software?
Help desk software is a tool used to organize, manage, and respond to service-related requests. Some help desks are used for external requests from customers, whereas others are used for internal service requests from team members.
Using help desk software is a great way to improve your customer experience — 75% of customers desire a consistent experience, regardless of how they engage a company (through social media, in person, by phone, etc.) — because it consolidates all of your customer support interactions into one omnichannel tool.
What are the different categories of help desk software?
Just as there are 1,000 ways to peel a cucumber, there are also multiple ways you can categorize help desk software. For example, you could break it down by software type, in which case there are three major categories:
Cloud-based: A cloud-based help desk, otherwise known as a web help desk, is proprietary software hosted online through a vendor’s site or an application. In order to access the tool, you log in to the site or application and generally pay a monthly or yearly fee.
Self-hosted: A self-hosted help desk is installed directly onto your own servers. It could be something you build yourself or purchase from another company. Similar to cloud-based, it is also proprietary software.
Open source: Open source help desk software lets developers access the source code of a program directly, giving them the ability to customize the software in whatever way they see fit. This software is generally non-proprietary, meaning there’s no single owner of the program.
Though the above may come into play when making a purchasing decision, if you’re buying an external solution, 99% of the time it’ll be cloud-based (all of the options listed below are cloud-based).
There may be some instances where you’re purchasing a solution that’s installed directly on your own servers, but it’s not incredibly common or practical for most teams because of the cost associated with the installation and upkeep of the software.
Another — and possibly more useful — way to think about help desk software categorization is in relation to who you’re using the software to serve. In that case, there are two categories: internal and customer-facing.
Internal: An internal help desk solution is generally used to manage IT-related issues. Employees can log tickets directly with your IT team, making it easier to manage and organize those requests.
Customer-facing: Customer-facing help desk software is generally used by customer support teams to manage incoming customer conversations. These tools range in functionality, but most include things like a shared inbox and some form of collaboration, productivity, and reporting tools.
What help desk software features are important to look for?
Depending on your specific use case, some features will be more important than others. That said, whether you’re using a help desk for internal or external conversations, there are a few key features to look for.
Any new software takes time to learn. However, some tools have much shorter learning curves than others. The quicker you’re able to train agents, the quicker they’re able to get back to doing what they do best: supporting others.
Attend demos for all the tools you’re considering, and when you’ve whittled it down to your final few, do a live trial if possible.
If you can, have people from multiple disciplines participate in the trial phase. Managers, agents, and operations folks will use the tool in different ways, but it’s important that any tool you choose works well for all those different use cases.
You should also see what the experience is like from the submitter side. Submit a request and do a few back-and-forth interactions to really get a grasp on what it’s like to use the tool from both sides of the conversation.
Reporting and metrics
Though not every part of what makes a great customer experience can be quantified, there are plenty of things that can be. With access to reporting and metrics tools, you’re better able to understand which areas you excel in and where you still have room for improvement.
Look for tools that can help you determine, at a minimum, what days and times of day are busiest, common reasons people reach out, average response times, and CSAT ratings.
Some tools even offer pre-built dashboards to make metrics reporting quick and easy. It’s also good to have options to make custom dashboards to keep your most meaningful metrics easy to view.
Collaboration and productivity tools
Two of the biggest benefits of using a help desk tool are the capabilities to collaborate with others and to streamline work. Access to those tools helps reduce the burden on agents, giving them more time to focus on the people they’re supporting.
For example, with Help Scout, you can add more context to a conversation with private notes, reduce duplicate work with collision detection, and give lightning-fast responses to common questions using saved replies.
You should also keep an eye out for features that help you automate manual tasks like assigning and sorting incoming requests.
As your team continues to grow and change, so will your needs. Since switching help desks is a big undertaking, finding a solution that can grow with you is important.
It’s best to look for a tool that will work well for at least the next 18-24 months. Anything less than that and you might be setting yourself up for a future headache. Anything beyond that timeframe gets pretty hard to reliably predict.
Pay attention to each tool’s pricing structure and make note of whether you’d have to switch to a different plan to meet future needs. Some tools charge per user, and some charge by volume. Tools that charge per user are generally much easier to forecast future costs for.
Quality customer support
No matter how user-friendly a tool is, chances are you’ll have questions about it at some point. Though you may assume people making help desk software would be very helpful, that’s not always the case.
Once you have a list of serious contenders, take a look at each of their knowledge bases to see how comprehensive their content is and how easy it is to navigate. You should also send a few requests to their support team to see how quickly they respond and how helpful they are in your interactions overall.
The 11 best help desk software for 2022
In order to begin your search, it helps to know at least some of your options. Below is a list of 11 of the best help desk software solutions on the market right now.
Jira Service Desk
1. Help Scout
Best help desk software for teams who prioritize customer satisfaction.
Help Scout is a complete customer support platform that includes every tool you need to deliver an outstanding customer experience. When you sign up for Help Scout, you get access to a number of tools.
Finally, saved replies make responding to routine customer queries a breeze.
With Docs you’re able to create, manage, and organize self-service content.
The WYSIWYG editor makes content creation a breeze. You’re also able to upload videos, images, and other types of content directly to articles or embed videos to create even more robust self-service content.
Performance data helps you see which articles are performing best, which ones could be doing better, and what content you should create next.
The live chat function has online and offline options to help customers find the answers they need when and where they need them.
With Messages, you’re able to segment audiences based on specific customer attributes, schedule messages, and even see performance data to help further refine your efforts.
Help Scout comes loaded with pre-built dashboards so you’re able to see how your team’s performing right away. You can also create custom reports that focus on the metrics of your choosing.
If you want to do even more with your data, our API lets you export to the business intelligence tool of your choosing.
Customer profiles are automatically created for customers you’ve interacted with through Beacon. They show basic information like their company, their role, and any previous interactions you’ve had.
You can edit and update customer profiles any time, ensuring all information is up to date and relevant. You can even automate the updating process by adding a few lines of code to any Beacon implementation.
Finally, Help Scout offers mobile iOS and Android apps for teams who need notifications on the go or to resolve issues while they're away from their desktop machines.
Though Help Scout's features are impressive, we think our best asset is our world-class support team that is ready to help out 24/6. We also have an extensive knowledge base for those who prefer self-directed learning.
Price: Starting at $20/user per month.
Best help desk system for ITSM.
SysAid is a help desk ticketing system that manages internal IT requests. They offer a number of SLA management features like ticket and workflow automation to reduce SLAs. You can also build a self-service portal for knowledge management so employees can handle basic requests like password resets on their own.
You’re able to get things going quickly with a host of templates and default forms, or you can create your own custom ones to best serve the needs of your organization and your team. Since most IT tools are used in conjunction with one another, you also get access to a number of third-party integrations.
SysAid has powerful asset management features that make it easy to manage all of the assets in your network and see hardware and software for each of your end users.
Price: Contact SysAid directly for pricing.
Best basic help desk for small businesses.
The best way to think about Hiver is as an extension to your Gmail account. With it you’re able to do things like leave internal notes on conversations and even assign conversations to specific agents.
Hiver also gives you access to some reporting to better understand team performance and gain insights into the common reasons customers reach out.
It is worth noting that Hiver doesn’t include any additional tools beyond a shared inbox like most of the others on this list, which may limit its ability to scale with your team. Also, some basic features like reporting are only included on their higher-cost plans.
Price: Starting at $12/user per month.
Best support software for call center support.
Freshdesk is a multi-use help desk that’s good for larger teams, especially those in a call center setting.
When you sign up, you get access to tools like a shared inbox, a knowledge base tool, and chat capabilities for managing support requests. You also get an allowance of incoming minutes to handle customer phone calls (the amount of minutes varies based on the specific plan you choose).
You also get access to some third-party integrations to keep your support tech stack connected. Though powerful, Freshdesk’s pricing/plans do get a little confusing as there are a number of optional add-ons. Also, the features we mention above are only available on their higher-tier omnichannel plans.
Price: Free plan available. Paid plans starting at $15/agent per month.
Best ticket management system for escalation and incident management.
Jira Service Desk is generally associated with engineering teams, but it does come into play for a lot of support teams as it’s a common place for them to report and track bugs.
Users are able to create custom workflows and forms to make sure projects run smoothly, and they can assign statuses to certain tasks to keep everyone involved informed. Reports can give support reps insights into what’s being worked on and the overall workload, giving further context to bug-tracking and requests.
Price: Free plan available. Paid plans starting at $7.50/user per month.
IT teams looking for more of an ITSM solution might also want to consider Jira Service Management.
Best help desk software for enterprise teams.
Almost anyone working in customer support has heard of Zendesk. They make a multi-channel support solution that includes features like a shared inbox, a knowledge base, and live chat tools.
Along with those, they also offer some more advanced AI-based solutions for chatbots and autoresponders (though those are only included on their higher-cost plans).
You also get access to a host of productivity and automation features, as well as over 1,000+ integrations to connect with other tools in your support ecosystem. To be honest, there’s not a lot Zendesk doesn’t do or many communication channels it doesn't cover.
However, the flip side is that it’s a very complex and complicated product that requires a lot of time, energy, and resources to get up and running.
This adds substantial additional costs on top of the monthly rate, and since most teams don’t need access to all the features Zendesk offers, it’s very possible they could find a solution with what they need for less money.
Price: Starting at $19/agent per month.
7. Zoho Desk
Best help desk software for sales-focused teams.
You may be familiar with Zoho as a CRM tool, but they also make a support solution for customer interactions.
Zoho Desk includes a lot of the usual suspects like a shared inbox and a knowledge base tool. They also have more advanced offerings like AI-assisted response and advanced automations for things like conversation sorting and tagging.
If you’re currently using other Zoho products, Zoho Desk integrates seamlessly with them. However, their more advanced features, and even some basic ones like live chat, are only offered on their highest-cost enterprise plan, which could be over-budget for some teams.
Price: Free plan available. Paid plans starting at $14/agent per month.
Best shared inbox software for group email collaboration.
When communicating with customers, most teams opt to use a group email address (e.g.,
firstname.lastname@example.org) to accept support tickets. However, some teams prefer to communicate from personal email addresses but still want the functionality of help desk software. Front lets you do just that.
With Front you can connect email, SMS, and social media accounts to a shared inbox. It also includes productivity features like internal notes, as well as some automation features to reduce manual work. They also offer some analytics and integrations, though those are only offered on their higher-cost plans.
We should also note that Front doesn’t include a knowledge base for FAQs or live chat tool for real-time support like a number of the other options on our list.
Price: Starting at $19/person per month.
Best help desk support system for low-volume support teams.
Gorgias is a help desk solution mainly focused on ecommerce. Gorgias offers access to a shared inbox tool, knowledge base tool, and live chat tool. The main differentiator from other options on the list are its Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce integrations (although the Magento integration is only offered on the higher-tier plan).
Through those integrations you’re able to see order details, edit orders, and even do refunds directly from your help desk, which can save a lot of time and hassle for your team. However, one major drawback is that all of their plans have ticket limits, meaning your costs could vary month over month depending on volume.
To give an idea, their base plan includes 350 monthly tickets, which equals out to around 12 tickets a day — a number most teams would far exceed. From there, you’re charged an additional $25 per 100 tickets.
Price: Starting at $60 per month.
Best help desk management tool for project management functionality.
Kustomer combined help desk and project management software to create a unique type of solution. Kustomer offers multi-channel support for email, chat, phone, and social accounts. On the project management front, you can create, assign, and set due dates for tasks.
You’re also able to see a complete picture of each customer and update multiple systems at once, saving time and energy. Though Kustomer offers some impressive features, it is quite expensive, and the pricing is somewhat confusing as there are a number of tools that are add-ons.
Price: Starting at $89/user per month.
Best free help desk for IT support firms managing multiple clients.
Spiceworks is another help desk solution focused on internal IT requests. With it you can easily organize and manage conversations as well as set up a self-service portal to empower people to get answers and solutions on their own.
You’re also able to automate a number of manual tasks to free up time for your IT professionals. If you’re an organization providing IT services to a number of clients, you’re able to create individual sites and user portals for each. Best of all, Spiceworks is completely free.
The best free help desks
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 three free help desk software platforms below might be a good fit for your team.
Best free help desk for teams that already use G Suite.
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.
Best for free help desk for teams that already use Microsoft Outlook.
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.
Best free help desk for IT support teams.
If you need a tool to help you better manage IT-related requests, then Solarwinds Service Desk could be the right option for you. With Solarwinds Service Desk 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 help desk that's right for your company
Choosing the right help desk software for your company can be daunting. Every provider has its own page of checkmarks demonstrating how their product is at least three ticks better than anyone else’s.
The help desk you choose can't deliver great customer service for you, but it is a critical early step in setting up customer support at your company. The right help desk will help your team consistently create the quality of customer service you want to provide.
Making an informed choice starts well before you begin comparing feature lists.
To find the best help desk software for you, start by answering questions about your customer, your team, and your company.
Define “great customer service” for your company
When you’re deep into help desk comparison shopping, it’s easy to forget why you’re picking a help desk at all. You don't need to find the “best help desk software” because there is no best choice for everyone. The right help desk for you is the one that allows your team to serve your customers most effectively and consistently.
To figure that out, you need to understand the type and quality of customer support and service you want to offer. Here are some questions to help you understand.
What type of support do your customers expect? Your particular customer base will come to you with their own requirements. Do they prefer email? Are they comfortable using self-service tools? Do they expect an answer within an hour, or a day? Look for clues as to what your customers expect from you and how satisfied they are currently.
What experience do you want to offer your customers? Imagine the ideal customer support interaction from your customer’s perspective. Do they need to use a website to get help, or can they fire off a quick email? Can they choose to contact support via multiple channels? Can they answer their own questions easily using self service tools?
What experience do you want to offer your support team? Peanuts creator Charles Schulz loved his favorite pen so much that he bought the entire stock when it was discontinued. While your support team may never have the same love for help desk software, they will use it constantly and rely on it heavily.
As the first line of customer retention, you want to make sure they have the right service desk tool. Help desk software that is clear, usable and attractive will save them time and effort that they can spend on your customers.
Determine what needs to change about your current support
Whether you’re moving from a shared Gmail mailbox or you’re switching from one help desk tool to another, this change is an opportunity to rethink your customer support approach.
For example, many small companies use their support inbox for all types of company contacts, which means their one- or two-person support team handles everything from sales contacts to domain renewal notifications and advertising offers.
Years later, the sales team is still receiving forwards from a much larger and busier support inbox! Choosing a new help desk is the perfect time to think about streaming those into a separate mailbox or automating their distribution with workflows.
Look at your existing customer service activities and consider the following:
Is this still the best way to solve this issue?
Is this approach essential to our customer experience, or could we get the same result another way?
What is our team capable of now that we weren’t capable of the last time we thought about our tools?
Once you sketch out a clear picture of the customer service you want to offer, you have a goal to measure help desk features against. Whatever help desk software you choose, it needs to help you deliver the type of service you have outlined.
Select your essential help desk features
Now it’s time to go one step further and create your list of essential features and “nice to have” features. Ask your customer service team to write down all the customer service tasks they can think of, and sort them into two buckets.
Help desk software that has all of your essential features beats a service desk tool that implements more “nice to haves” but misses a key requirement:
Essential help desk features: If the help desk does not do X, then we cannot create the customer service experience we want to provide.
Non-essential help desk features: If the help desk does X, we could potentially make use of it to improve the customer experience.
Work to keep that first list as short as possible. Features that sound good on a list but are poorly implemented or rarely used inhibit good service by frustrating your support team.
By focusing on your core requirements, you can reduce the amount of work it takes to choose the best fit and give yourself more time for testing your shortlisted help desks.
Ask your team these questions to evaluate each feature and categorize it as essential or non-essential:
Does this feature need to be built in to the help desk, or could we connect a separate tool that does the job better?
Are there legal requirements we need to meet (e.g., data storage and privacy controls)?
What value does this feature add to our customers? To our team?
Are there technical requirements to meet (e.g., data format and accessibility)?
What other products or services do we need to connect this to? Is it possible?
Now you can exclude from consideration any products that don’t cover all of your required features (either directly or by tight integration). The next step is to create an evaluation team to test your shortlisted help desks.
Create a help desk software evaluation team
If you’re just starting out, or at a very small company, the evaluation team may be just you. If you have a larger team, we recommend the following mix:
One junior level customer service person
A couple of help desk power users
A manager or senior leader
Combining their different needs and backgrounds will give you a more effective way to tell if the help desk really will be a good fit for your whole organization. We also recommend you get the whole evaluation team looking at the same tool at the same time, rather than each person reviewing a different option.
Effectively trialing a help desk is tough, because you’re never going to be able to use the tool in exactly the same way you will when you’re handling real customers at your full volume. For a quick overview, make use of case studies to see how the customers of different help desks talk about what they enjoy about the software.
When you're ready to dig in and deeply evaluate your help desk options, move on to the next few steps.
Test the customer experience of each help desk solution
How will your customers interact with the help desk you choose? Use some of your typical customer questions as examples, and complete a support conversation from the customer perspective.
What will the customer see? How easy is the process for them? (Help Scout, for example, has no customer-facing portal or ticket numbers, so your customer only receives personal emails.)
Consider the experience you want to create for your customers, and test that against each tool.
Trial the help desk user experience
Your customer service team will be using this tool all day, every day. How easy is it for them to navigate around, how fast does it load, and how quickly can they find answers?
The help desk software you choose should, as much as possible, be frictionless for your team, allowing them to use all their energy helping customers and not fighting their tools.
Will this solution continue to work as your business grows? Ask the sales and success teams of the solutions you are considering for an estimate of their bigger customers’ support volume.
You don’t want to pay the higher fees and complexity of software you don't need, but you also don’t want to have to pick a new help desk 12 months from now.
Review reporting options
Testing reporting is tricky when you don’t have real data to report. Demonstration accounts can give you a sense of what is possible. If you’ve thought carefully about which customer service metrics you use and why, talk to the help desk provider about how they can help you get those results with their tool.
Prioritize reliability and support
Who supports the support team? When your help desk system has an outage, when a feature is confusing, or when a process needs reworking, how will you get help? Not only do you need to know which support channels are available, but also how quickly you’ll be helped and how competent are the team helping you.
Every software product experiences issues, but some companies do much better than others in handling those situations. Submit sample requests to each help desk support team, and see how timely, useful and friendly the responses are.
When you can’t help your own customers because of a help desk issue, a responsive, informed support team is hugely valuable. You can also review the Twitter feeds and status pages of your top choices to see how responsive and communicative they are when issues arise.
As well as your own trial experience, you can make use of external reviews and opinions to inform your choice. Customer service communities such as Support Driven are full of people who use help desk tools every day, and they are happy to share their experiences.
Make a plan for switching help desks
When you’ve made your choice of help desk and are ready to make a move, you can save your future self a bunch of trouble by making a plan.
Here are a few questions to consider:
Do you have contact forms that need to be updated?
Will your knowledge base be moving to a new tool too?
Do you need to recreate (or rethink) workflows and automated filters in the new tool?
How will you train your team on the new tool?
Are there integrations to move or reconnect?
We have a guide to switching help desks to help you prepare in more detail.
Choosing your perfect help desk
Moving to a new help desk is a huge investment in your customer service team, your customers, and — ultimately — your company. A long feature list is nice to have, but you should make your choice with a broader framework in mind.
Remember, the cost of picking a tool that works for your team (and your customers) is high, so take the time to make an informed decision.