Service desk, previously known as helpdesk, software has been around for as long as businesses have used computers, with large organisations realising early on that they required some method of recording IT failures and tracking end user requests for assistance.
However, while application developers continue to add new functions, process models and delivery mechanisms into their wares – such as Web 2.0 collaboration tools, customisable agent interfaces or dashboards, IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) compliance, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud computing – their fundamental feature set has remained the same.
With features and functionality for incident management – including incident, problem, change, inventory/ configuration repository and self-service – now fairly commoditised, the differences between suitable applications tend to revolve around price; licensing (for example, by seat or service desk user, by service desk ticket, per month and so on); associated reporting tools used to analyse incident trends and helpdesk performance; and ease of installation and integration with other IT service management tools, particularly IT asset management, service request management and configuration management databases.
It is also a crowded market, with hundreds of software companies providing tools of varying functionality and sophistication. Traditional enterprise-class helpdesk software from the likes of Axios Systems, Epicor and Numara Software competes with larger systems management suites from giants such as BMC Software (Remedy), CA, EMC, HP and IBM, as well as those aimed at smaller organisations, such as Spiceworks and Zendesk.
Portals and knowledge bases rule
Self-service web-based portals that allow users to log in and register their own trouble tickets and search online knowledge bases or community forums, rather than ringing through to a helpdesk operative, have rapidly been assimilated into the array of contact methods service desk software now incorporates.
Integration with email and voicemail for service request recording purposes is still a vital function however, and some products, such as IBM Tivoli’s Service Request Manager, can tap into computer telephony integration products, such as Genesys, to provide a greater degree of automation for callbacks.
While only a small percentage of people like to contact the helpdesk through social networking tools, software developers are preparing for a future when they envisage those numbers will grow.
CA Service Desk Manager uses the Open Space social networking/collaboration package as the basis of a self-help knowledge base that can search internal company databases or external data from Google or CA’s own web site, for example.
Zendesk has also signed an agreement with Twitter to let its customers monitor their tweets over customer service questions and concerns, which can be converted into “twickets” by Zendesk staff as an alternative method of logging problems, using Twitter to communicate with the end user.
SaaS and the cloud
As well as an outsourced service, helpdesk software can be delivered on demand through a SaaS or cloud computing model.
One specialist SaaS service desk provider is Service.now.com, which combines solid functionality with a good user interface and simple deployment with an easy-to-understand subscription licensing model.
Most helpdesk providers have followed suit with SaaS versions of their existing service desk applications, including BMC Remedy and CA. CA Service Desk Manager on Demand is an ITIL pre-configured application providing workflow-driven incident automation, problem, change, request and knowledge management through a monthly subscription fee that includes technical support and upgrades.
Axios Systems provides an on-demand service – assystSaaS – accessed via a web-based portal, which also links into a configuration management system
Systems management tools
In many cases, IT departments do not have to invest in specialist, third-party software tools to provide the more basic elements of the service management requirement – they can simply buy into additional modules for broader systems management tools they may already be using.
IBM’s Tivoli service desk manager is one part of a much broader suite of applications and, as such, it integrates into asset management and SLA management. It also features an enterprise adapter and integration composer, which enables customers to build APIs into other asset inventory and system management tools from SAP and Oracle. These allow it to send information about time and money spent on service tickets to specific financial accounting and cost management systems, and deliver agent performance statistics into HR applications.
Microsoft SharePoint 2010 also provides a helpdesk application template for handling service requests, offering role-based dashboards which display information relevant to service representatives and managers, including service history. There are even completely free, ad-supported products such as Spiceworks, which are aimed at managed service providers handling multiple customer accounts, but can be harnessed for enterprise deployments as well.
Clearly, while helpdesk managers may debate how best to stay in contact with the end users to whom they provide services, they are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a suitable service desk platform.