With compromised productivity a constant threat to business success, the question for SMBs isn't how can we afford a help desk, but how can we afford not to invest in IT support?
When I hear the phrase "IT help desk," I experience mixed emotions. I've been the harried employee repeatedly calling the company's IT department to get my remote laptop connection working as the afternoon wasted away. Then again, I've also gotten through to IT and had my problem resolved quickly.
As far as I'm concerned, having been on both sides of this fence, businesses (both small and large) can ill afford to skimp on IT support--efficiency and expediency should be paramount.
SMBs often resort to managing IT requests with email and spreadsheets, thinking they can't begin to afford a help-desk system. But I wonder how SMBs can afford not to invest in one. In a competitive market, every minute of lost employee productivity costs your business dollars and even has the potential to threaten the viability of your business.
The help-desk field is a crowded one, so you'll need to do your research. That means reading product reviews online, using social media to check in with colleagues and other business owners, and contacting vendors to get a handle on what they have to offer. And don't forget to take advantage of application marketplaces, such as AppDirect. These resources are invaluable for exploring IT help-desk applications, discovering what users say about them, and which vendor pricing models suit your business best.
To jump-start your review process, Business-Software.com recently released a report listing 10 noteworthy players in the help-desk space. According to the report, these are the key features of IT help-desk software:
-- 24x7 self-service that allows users to open trouble tickets, report problems online, and refer to FAQs and other documentation whenever the need arises.
-- Support for multi-channel communications, including live chat and email.
-- End-to-end activity tracking and status monitoring.
-- Reporting and analytics to help IT staff identify important trends. For example, perhaps a high number of users are having trouble operating specific business applications. How reliable is the company's hardware? And what's your IT team's average response time? Those metrics and more can be tracked with reporting/analytic tools.
-- Dynamic resource allocation, which assigns IT staff members to specific jobs based on their workload, skills, and experience.
-- Real-time alerts that "flag" potential support breakdowns and notify management instantly when unusual or highly complex problems crop up.
And here are the 10 players featured in the report:
1) TechExcel ServiceWise: Offers incident tracking and resolution, workflow-enabled email management, complete incident workflow, built-in reports and analysis, integrated asset management, an employee web portal, a fully customizable user interface, and knowledge base management. Focus: midsize to large companies
2) FrontRange Solutions: The foundation of the company's HEAT product suite, HEAT Service and Support delivers an array of functions, including incident tracking, inquiry tracking, and case management. Focus: SMBs
3) Epicor ITSM: Recognized for being easy to use, easy to customize, and built on the Microsoft .NET platform. Focus: midmarket companies and divisions of the Global 1000
4) Vivantio: 100% web-based and can be delivered on-site or as SaaS. Small players get an intuitive interface, a dashboard, incident management, SLA management, email integration, and web self-service. Midsize companies get all of that, plus problem management, client management, powerful reporting, customizable web self-service, call templates, email templates, custom fields, and auto escalation of incidents and problems. Focus: small, midsize, and enterprise companies
5) Soffront: The company's help-desk software is part of a comprehensive customer service package, which includes self-service (Soffront Knowledge Management), online ticket submission (Soffront Tickets), email response (Soffront Email Response), and e-Call Center (Soffront Contact Center). Focus: midmarket
6) Numara Software: The company's Track-It! is an all-in-one help-desk and asset management system known for delivering best-in-class features for incident, problem, and change management at a very low cost of ownership. Focus: SMBs
7) BMC Software: BMC's IT help-desk products include BMC Remedy Service Desk and BMC Service Desk Express. Key features of the former include best practice incident and problem management, a tightly integrated knowledge base, self-service, and prioritization of incidents based on business impact. The latter is the foundation of BMC IT Service Support for the Midsized Business. Focus: Global 1000, midsize organizations (Service Desk Express)
8) CA Unicenter Service Desk: Features include customer self-service, process automation, and enabling technologies that maximize the product's capabilities. Unicenter supports Microsoft Windows, Linux, and UNIX servers. Focus: Larger enterprises
9) ManageEngine (the Enterprise IT Management Software division of Zoho): ServiceDesk Plus is web-based help-desk software that offers request, asset, purchase, and contract management; a self-service portal; and a knowledge base.
Focus: businesses of all sizes
10) Elsinore Technologies: The company's suite of IssueNet products includes IssueNet Intercept, for defect tracking, bug tracking, and issue management; IssueNet Assist, for both internal help desk and external customer support; and IssueNet Oversight, for IT change management, IT governance, regulatory compliance, and auditing. Focus: SMBs and enterprises
And that's just a sampling of what's out there. There are many more help-desk packages available. Check out cloudbook.net and smb-gr.com (click on "IT Support Services Software," under Editors' Picks) for more options.
Elisabeth Cullivan, product marketing manager for Track-It!, concedes that many of the help-desk applications in the market offer similar features and functionality. "For us, it comes down to our heritage and history," she said. "We've built a great name for ourselves."
Just a few weeks ago, Numara released version 10 of Track-It!, which features a redesigned self-service web portal and the ability to "mark" knowledge-base documents as public or private. Also, the Technician Web feature allows work orders and IT assets to be organized and managed anytime, anywhere.
And a new product, called PC Migrate, joins the Track-It! family, allowing IT staffers to migrate application settings, wallpaper, bookmarks, drive mappings and other configuration files and data to users' new or updated PCs.
Now it's time to do your research and narrow your options to three help-desk packages that would be a good fit for your company. Then drill deeper and pick just one. Once you've deployed the system and realized the benefits of a streamlined IT help desk--chief among them, happier, more productive employees--you'll be glad you made the investment.
Michele P. Warren, a freelance writer and editor, has 15 years of experience covering technology and the channel. She spent 9 years at CRN and was formerly the managing editor of VARBusiness, Long Island Press, and Long Island Business News.
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