The consulting firm I work for recently asked me to find a solution to meet our help desk needs. Specific qualifications had to be met for this help desk system to become “the one.” I assumed the task would be simple — after all, I’ve spent the last 10 years covering software of all sorts, including help desk tools. The reality was much different. There are a LOT of help desk systems available. So many, I quickly realized just how challenging the selection would be.

During the process, I also realized how important it is to know exactly what you are looking for and how to find what you need. Thus, I came up with this list of the most critical factors to consider while searching for a help desk system.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Know your budget

You will find help desk solutions ranging from $0 to just about any figure you can image. I came across systems that priced out at nearly $900 per tech. Our firm has seven techs — you can do the math there. Other vendors charge a monthly fee, and although some of them offer a number of amazing features, the cost was out of reach. We knew our budget, so that dictated which tools were out of limit. With your budget in mind, don’t make any assumptions that the more you pay, the better the tool will be. And considering that we wound up choosing an open source solution (free) that had every feature we needed, cost can be misleading.

2: Map out and prioritize the features you need

A help desk system can be a make or break a firm. This tool will help you manage your tickets and track the flow of work. Without such a system, you’ll have a difficult time ensuring all of your customers are taken care of in a timely manner. For our situation, one of the key components was the ability for clients to submit tickets via email. Beneath the email system, we needed to be able to assign tickets to specific techs as well as elevate tickets. Because we knew exactly what we were looking for, we were able to quickly weed out the systems that didn’t cover our bases.

3: Check email compatibility

One of the issues we had in finding an email-submission system was that the system had to be compatible with an Exchange server. Because Exchange doesn’t play well with others, this made the task quite a challenge. So great was this challenge, we had to rethink the process of email ticket submission and enable IMAP for email. A number of systems are compatible with one email server or the other. Very few are compatible with both.

4: Think database

One of my personal requirements was that the system be database driven. Because one of the help desk system’s primary goals was keeping tabs on the flow of business, being able to rely on this system, as well as back up the data, was crucial. Having a system based on a database makes backing up a much easier (and more reliable) task. If you will be reyling on this system for business, think very seriously about finding one that requires a database.

5: Don’t forget security

In many cases, your ticketing system will be passing client data back and forth. This data might contain passwords, addresses, names, and other sensitive information you don’t want outsiders to lay their eyes on. For this reason, make sure the tool you select can be secured in both environment and data transfer. If you are using an email-driven ticketing system, consider SSL or some form of encryption.

6: Personalize your email templates

If you want to use email for ticket submission, you will most likely be replying to those emails with auto-responses. But you won’t want to use generic templates that don’t make your clients feel like they’re being taken care of. Generic responses make people think they’re a number. And since you depend upon client loyalty, you want them to know how important their business is. Make sure you take the time to personalize those templates so that your business and the personality of your business are reflected.

7: Consider the need for a Web interface

Some tools offer both email-based and Web-based ticket submission. Many clients want the ease of email submission. But others prefer the control of a Web-based system. Some clients will not want just anyone being able to submit a request to an email address. With a Web portal, some clients will feel they have more control over how, when, and why their employees submit help requests.

8: Evaluate ticket management features

You might assume that all help desk systems would be able to granularly manage tickets. Assigning, re-assigning, escalating, resending, closing, canceling… you’d think all systems would include these capabilities. That is not an absolute. Some systems offer more in the way of ticket control than others. Know how much control you want over your tickets before you start looking at the offerings. Don’t settle for a system that doesn’t offer the control you need — you won’t be able to “make it work for you” in this case.

9: Be sure you’re branded

Both in email submissions and Web fronts, your help desk must be branded for your company. The last thing you need is for your clients to think you don’t care enough to make your tools “yours.” Sending out auto-responses that say, “This ticket submitted by HELP DESK” is just not professional. Make sure the tool you choose can be branded with your logos, URLS, information, copyright information, and legal information (if necessary). Do not settle for anything less.

10: Make it easy

Your help desk system needs to be useful to your users. If you wind up with a system that is overly complicated, it will hinder your company’s ability to work smoothly. The point of a help desk is “help.” Over the period I spent testing various tools, I came across very easy tools and insanely difficult tools. Fortunately, most tools offer an online demo or a trial period. Take advantage of that to find out if the tool you are considering is user-friendly enough for your employees. Otherwise, you may find your help desk system is more hindrance than help. For the sake of your employees and your clients, choose wisely.

A critical tool

Remember, this tool will serve a much greater purpose than allowing clients to tell you they are having trouble. It will make your workflow reliable and productive, and far fewer tickets will fall through the cracks.

If you have good (or bad) things to say about the help desk systems you’ve used, share your experiences with other TechRepublic members.