12 Step Guide to Choosing the Best Help Desk Software

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.

features list

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:

1. 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.

2. 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?

3. 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.

4. What can you change about your current customer service?

Whether you’re moving from a shared Gmail inbox 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.

Refine your choices

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.

magnifying glass and laptop

5. Select your essential help desk features

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. There’s a reason your butcher carries just a few high-quality knives instead of the world’s biggest Swiss Army Knife on her belt.

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?

Shortlisting help desks

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.

6. 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 help desk customer stories to see how the customers of different help desks talk about what they enjoy about the software.

Hare are some examples:

When you’re ready to dig in and deeply evaluate your help desk options, move on to the next few steps.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Consider scalability

Will this solution continue to work as your business grows? Ask the help desk 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.

10. 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.

help scout reports

11. 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.

Take time to prepare

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.

12. Make a plan for switching help desks

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. 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.

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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