[Updated 8/24/2017 This post has been updated to include 8 products from the original 7, and to reflect feature changes and newer reviews.]
The help desk needs help.
Misplacing tickets, violating SLAs, frustrating customers, and sometimes losing them—all signs point to a need for a better system. The only problem is, the budget isn’t there to shell out $100 to $200 per month on software.
To help get you started, and save you some cash, here are some great free and open source help desk software solutions on the market right now, in no particular order.
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Freshdesk is fourth on Capterra’s rankings of top 20 customer service software providers. Their free option is for up to three agents, with limited functionality.
- Easily prioritize certain customers based on SLA policies
- Easily turn emails and tickets into knowledgebase articles
- Use 33 different languages
- Access via mobile apps
Freshdesk’s solution for temporary increased demand is solid. Add extra agents for a day to work through a backlog for $2 to $4, without changing your plan. You can even purchase these day passes in advance and use them as needed.
They offer unlimited 24/7 email support and 24/5 phone support at the free level. One Capterra reviewer found the customer service “incredible.”
Freshdesk’s most compelling feature might be its ability to gamify customer service. The system offers points and rewards for excellent service, to help boost service desk employee engagement and morale.
Unfortunately, gamification isn’t available at the free level for Freshdesk.
In addition, some Capterra reviewers complained about Freshdesk’s non-intuitive interface. One noted that the process for adding new contacts or companies from tickets is “a bit odd at times.” Another said it was, “sometimes a bit confusing to setup and configure.”
Then again, one reviewer raved: “All the admin features you need are in a one tab. It is so easy to configure the solution and to customize it (forms, emails, and so on). The solution can be online in only a couple of minutes.”
Ultimately it makes sense to only have gamification available to larger shops. Gamification relies on competition among agents to really work. However, the other features will still be helpful to one-to-three person shops. For one-person shops, choosing a free option which is still free when you grow might be a good idea.
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Flipping the usual narrative, Spiceworks’ free version is self-hosted, managed, and backed up. Usually self-hosting is a premium service that comes with support and backups for the product. Spiceworks is one-and-done, download, and you’re ready to roll.
- Free regardless of the number of agents
- LDAP/Active directory synchronization
- Mobile integration
- Multi-site support
- Fast and easy Windows installation
- Server monitoring services
The big drawback to Spiceworks is that it’s self-hosted. One Capterra reviewer wrote, “the hardest part is maybe configuring the server version versus cloud.”
Meaning you’ve got to install, configure, host, and update it yourself. It can be difficult to install on Linux, Unix, or VMWare. Sure, it’s free. But hosting and talent aren’t.
There’s talk amongst Capterra reviewers that Spiceworks isn’t developing this product anymore. Whereas in 2016 updates came out monthly, so far in 2017 the only update was back in May. If you are fine with self-hosting a product that’s not getting updates regularly from the core developers, this can be a good solution, but I’d be wary.
Other Free/Freemium Tools
Sysaid, ManageEngine, and Zoho all offer free services as well, and might be worth checking out.
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C-Desk is a completely free helpdesk system that includes cross-team service request management, manual asset management, a knowledge base, a photo gallery, a notice board, and a log book.
- C-Desk, unlike most free options, is free no matter how many users or technicians use it.
Capterra reviewers love C-Desk and say that while setup and configuration can be a bit tricky, the installation and user experience are easy. It’s flexible and users like features such as the FTP server for sharing documents with users. “The best part is that the customer service of this company is excellent,” one wrote. “They respond to our requests within one hour.”
Capterra users didn’t have much to complain about. The feature list for help desk software might not be fully filled out, but there’s still plenty that C-Desk does.
As IT Manager Rupesh Medhekar wrote, “C-Desk is a very user friendly application with bundles of features.”
In addition to all of the above functionality, C-Desk also offers task management, project management, surveys and polls, and chat features. Like most help desk software, C-Desk routes each request to the best tech for the job. One Capterra reviewer called C-Desk’s forms functionality more advanced than Google forms.
ngDesk Dashboard (Source)
ngDesk is free ticket management software with no paid plans. You get everything the software offers, for unlimited agents, totally free.
ngDesk has everything you’d expect, including canned responses, agent-to-agent private chat, and on-call schedules for agents. Custom automatic escalation policies let you decide beforehand who you want tickets to escalate to and the time intervals between escalations to ensure that unacknowledged tickets continue to escalate until someone on your team responds.
The ngDesk dashboard displays workload, SLA reports, your busiest days, and your biggest customers’ statuses in real-time.
Agents can work on the go via mobile apps, and get notified of new tickets and ticket updates by phone, email, or SMS.
ngDesk also lets you set SLAs and monitors that run through all the tickets in your help desk and check them against your SLAs at pre-set intervals, and notify you about at-risk SLAs before they’re breached or overdue.
The biggest drawback is just the unknowns. The website doesn’t specify what customers can expect regarding customer service. And without a Capterra profile or any online reviews it’s difficult to tell how easy customers find ngDesk to set up and use.
Other Free/Freemium Tools
Sysaid, and Zoho offer free services as well, and might be worth checking out.
Open Source Options
While free versions of help desk software are usually limited in users and functionality, open source software is fully functional for all users. It’s also extremely customizable. However, installation and configuration of the software is on your team. To balance everyone’s needs, most open source help desk software companies also offer a preconfigured version and/or installation and support for a price.
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With osTicket you can associate your SLAs with help topics, departments, or ticket filters and set up overdue alerts and notifications when you miss due dates. The customer portal contains all help requests and answers for access later.
- Add your logo, images, and videos to tickets
- Space in ticket for notes on all actions
- Unlimited SLA agreements
- Community support is strong, but sometimes larger issues take longer to resolve
osTicket has most of the features of a full-fledged help desk software tool, including a ticket filter tool to route incoming tickets from email, web forms, and phone calls to the right agents. Its auto-responder helps you set up workflows by ticket type. Automatic canned responses are possible, and the system offers dashboard reports.
2. OTRS Free
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OTRS Free offers email notifications when tickets are created and changed. Tickets can be sorted by status, such as new, open, watched, escalated, pending, in-process, or by priority, escalation time, SLA, service, or type. The system reports on number of tickets and processing time.
- Available in 34 languages
- Ticket lock prevents two agents from working on a ticket at the same time
- Out-of-Office feature and visualization of agents that are away
- Search auto-suggest
- Admin manual is 300+ pages long
The biggest benefit is the ability to automate more and more requests, which reduces errors and optimizes the efficiency of your agents. OTRS Free calls this their process management module. Once you standardize processes like ordering or billing, decision dialogues guide the service agent and the customer through the process. Free configurable workflows make many tickets mostly automatic.
3. Mantis Bug Tracker
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Bug Tracker dashboard
Most commonly used to track software defects, Mantis Bug Tracker is also a good open source help desk software. It’s fairly configurableand offers the ability for agents to decide which email notifications they want, for example, by setting filters to define the minimum severity of issues to receive notifications about. Various levels of access can be given to different users, and changes to tickets are recorded in audit trails.
- Set user access by project and role
- Track issues that have been resolved via RSS feeds
- Revision control of text fields and notes
- Graph relationships between issues
- Configuration is “quite daunting” for non-developers, requiring manual editing of PHP files
The best part of Mantis Bug Tracker is the plug-in system. Over 50 plug-ins on the MantisBT-plugins organization on GitHub make it possible to do things like tweet a notification when an issue is resolved or send SMS messages or update statuses in external project management systems. TechRepublic also calls it “simple to use and simple to install.”
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Bugzilla isn’t fancy. You can’t rate tickets according to importance or color code them. But that lack of features also means a clean, simple, easy-to-use interface. It does have some advanced features, such as advanced search which can remember your searches, and editable user profiles. Email preferences and bug permissions are comprehensive.
- Advanced search
- Remembers your queries
If your needs are basic and ease of use is important, Bugzilla is a great choice.
If it’s time for a better system but a budget isn’t appearing, check out some of these options for improving your customer service workflow. And if you do decide it’s time to invest, check out Capterra’s help desk software directory to compare the options.
Have you used any of the suggested products? What did you think? Are there other great free or open source help desk options out there? Add them in the comments.
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About the Author
Cathy Reisenwitz helps B2B software companies with their sales and marketing at Capterra. Her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications. She has been quoted by the New York Times Magazine and has been a columnist at Bitcoin Magazine. Her media appearances include Fox News and Al Jazeera America. If you're a B2B software company looking for more exposure, email Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org . To read more of her thoughts, follow her on Twitter.
Delivering exceptional customer service is essential to the health of any small business and help desk software helps you to manage customer inquiries and issues more effectively and efficiently, saving your small business both time and money. We looked at the industry leaders and up-and-comers and found Freshdesk, HappyFox, and Zendesk. These services covered the range for small businesses in terms of features and price. Read on for our comparison and review of these three best help desk software options, as well as our top recommendations.
Best Help Desk Software for Small Businesses in 2017: Freshdesk
We recommend Freshdesk as the best help desk software for small businesses in 2017 because of its combination of ease of use, available features, and competitive price — including the option of a free account.
Help Desk Software Comparison Table: Freshdesk vs HappyFox vs Zendesk
|Best For||Small businesses that want the best combination of features and price||Small businesses that want to automate some of their customer support process||Enterprise-level businesses with the budget to match|
|Ease of Setup and Use|
|Easy||Easy||Intermediate to difficult|
|Mobile App||Android and iOS||Android and iOS||Android and iOS|
|24/ 7 email support and 24/ 5 phone support, available to all price packages||24/ 7 email support and online chat and phone support from 8am-5pm PST Monday to Friday, available to all price packages||Online knowledge base for lowest-priced packages and scaled email, phone, and online chat support for Team package and higher|
Best Help Desk Software for Small Businesses: Freshdesk
Freshdesk is our recommendation for the best help desk software for small businesses because it finds the sweet spot between features and cost for most small business needs.
Freshdesk is at its best with its ticket management process, which can automatically route tickets to specific support representatives based on logic you define. It can also automate some basic tasks, such as replying to a ticket with an answer if it detects a frequently asked question. These tickets can be initiated through multiple communication channels between you and your customers, including email, phone, online chat, feedback widgets, and social media.
Actions on the tickets can be further automated and triggered by other variables, such as time elapsed (say, for example, you want a ticket to be escalated if its unresolved for a certain amount of time), stage in your workflow, or other events that can be scaled to accommodate multiple languages and time zones. This can help your business set, manage, and meet your customer’s expectations and adhere to any service level agreements (SLA) you may have.
You can also use Freshdesk’s knowledge base to compile and answer your most frequently asked questions (FAQ) with different sections available for private (internal) or public visibility. This knowledge base can then be skinned with your business’ branding and include the FAQs and community forums.
Finally, Freshdesk offers the same level of customer support to all users regardless of their pricing package. You can contact them 24/7 by email or 24/5 by phone. This exceeds HappyFox, which provides 24/7 email support and phone support from 8am-5pm PST Monday to Friday for all plans, and Zendesk, which only provides limited email and phone support to their mid-priced plans and higher.
All of this, plus a monthly cost that falls between HappyFox and Zendesk, make Freshdesk our recommendation for the best help desk software for small businesses. In fact, Freshdesk was the only solution we reviewed to offer a scaled down free plan for unlimited users.
Although it lacks some of the higher-end features that some enterprise-level businesses may require, such as IP whitelisting and hooks to third-party email servers (these are only available with the highest priced package whereas HappyFox includes them with their lowest), this helps to keep it competitively priced while still meeting the needs of most small businesses with ease.
Best Help Desk Software for Automation: HappyFox
We recommend HappyFox as the best help desk software for automating your customer support delivery process. All of the software we reviewed offered some level of automation, such as assigning tickets to support reps, organizing them, escalating them, or setting their priority based on logic you define. However, HappyFox offers many integrations with third-party apps that will help you streamline and automate your help desk tasks.
HappyFox also integrates with the telephony app, Twilio. Once the two services are connected, you can use Twilio to receive voice calls from your customers, which the app then transcribes into text that it uses to automatically create and populate a HappyFox ticket with. An audio file of the message is attached to the ticket for your support representatives to confirm that the data entered is correct.
In addition to Twilio, HappyFox also integrates with third-party services like Freshbooks and QuickBooks for accounting; Salesforce and Zoho for CRM; Nicereply and SurveyMonkey for collecting customer feedback; and, Facebook and Twitter for social media — all of which help to automate some basic processes, saving your business time and money. Freshdesk and Zendesk also offer a wide range of third-party app integrations in their respective app stores, but HappyFox offered more options at their lower priced packages.
However, HappyFox is more expensive than Freshdesk and we didn’t feel that there was enough added value to offset the extra cost.
Not Recommended for Small Businesses: Zendesk
Unfortunately, we’re not able to recommend Zendesk over Freshdesk or HappyFox for small businesses because of their limited features at comparable price points. Zendesk is a leader among help desk software providers, but their service is better suited to much larger businesses with the budgets to match.
At first glance, Zendesk appears to be the most affordable option over Freshdesk and HappyFox. However, their two lowest-priced plans at $9 and $25/month per user only offer a limited number of features — many of which Freshdesk and HappyFox include, such as customer support. To receive a comparable set of features with Zendesk, you would have to subscribe to their Professional plan or higher which starts at $59/month per user.
For example, phone and online chat support are only available at an additional cost regardless of the package you choose. Internal knowledge bases and community forums are only available at the Professional plan or higher. Similarly, ticket management features like defining your business hours time tracking, and SLA agreements are only available at the Professional plan or higher. Freshdesk and HappyFox include all of these features in their free and lowest-priced plans.
Zendesk does include some basic help desk management features in their lower-priced plans. Users can perform essential tasks like receiving tickets by email, social media, or web widgets. And once a ticket has been assigned to them, support representatives can share tickets with other representatives, attach up to 1MB of files, and review the ticket’s history. But, again, Freshdesk and HappyFox include the same, or better, features in their free and lowest-priced packages.
For small businesses that are looking to deploy a help desk software solution, Zendesk is a powerful and comprehensive tool. However, to fully take advantage of it, your monthly costs will quickly grow well over what you will pay for a similar or better set of features from Freshdesk or HappyFox.
In-Depth Review: Freshdesk vs HappyFox vs Zendesk
Ease of Setup/Use
One of the primary benefits of help desk software is to automate as much of the ticketing process as possible, saving your business time and money. For this to happen, the automation logic must be comprehensive enough to include your most common use cases while at the same time being intuitive enough that it’s easy to setup and use.
Freshdesk includes more ticketing and automation features in their free and lowest-priced paid package than HappyFox and Zendesk, which help to make it the most intuitive and easy to use option of the three. All of the ticket’s details, such as priority, status, and who it’s assigned to are clearly visible, organized, and editable.
The visually appealing user interface helps you to explore all of Freshdesk’s options, although not everything is clearly labeled. However, Freshdesk helpfully pre-fills some fields with examples to help you use more complex features such as workflows.
Freshdesk also publishes some helpful content on their website, which while not directly related to the product may still be educational or informative for your business.
HappyFox’s initial setup is very easy, consisting of routine account creation and email verification then a series of guided steps that include an introduction to the software’s various configuration and management tools, adding and managing staff members, and updating the visual skin to match your business’ branding. These steps can be as easy or as involved as your technical knowledge allows for; for example, you can update email servers or IP address restrictions, or bypass them entirely.
The extensive automation features that HappyFox includes also enable actions like round robin ticket assignments, limiting assignments to active support representatives, and escalating tickets based on SLA rules or the number of times a customer has been in contact with a representative.
While Freshdesk and Zendesk also offer basic ticket management automation features, HappyFox exceeds them both in the number of features and their flexibility.
Zendesk delivers an impressive array of features and can be a powerful help desk solution when they’re optimally utilized. However, most small businesses will find this to be the software’s primary fault. Being spoiled by choice makes Zendesk too costly and inaccessible without the resources of an enterprise-level IT team behind you.
Navigating through Zendesk’s list of add-ons and customizations to tailor the software to your business’ needs is a significant barrier to entry for most small businesses who are working with limited time, budget, and resources.
Any help desk software should include several basic features that are essential to their operation. These include giving your support team the ability to create tickets, to edit them, and then to close them when their issue is resolved. Help desk software should also allow you to define how tickets are assigned, organized, and prioritized and let you see who is working on what to avoid any potential duplication. How a help desk software manages these tasks may differ, but the execution of them is requirement.
Other common features include the ability to receive tickets by email and the inclusion of a knowledge base that can customize its content depending on who is viewing it — customers or support staff.
Freshdesk, HappyFox, and Zendesk all meet these basic requirements. Beyond the basics, all three also integrate with Facebook and Twitter allowing your customers to use social media as a channel to reach you as well.
Let’s look at some of the ways in which they differ.
Freshdesk may not have the longest list of features on paper when compared to HappyFox or Zendesk, but its strength lies in how well they’re integrated with each other, the friendly user interface they’re wrapped in, and the value your business receives for the cost — especially with their free and lowest-priced plans. And once your business has Freshdesk setup, they offer the best customer support of the three.
Like HappyFox, Freshdesk also offers many third-party integrations to extend and customize how the software meets your business’ needs. Zendesk offers some app integrations too, but only if you’re subscribed to their Team plan or higher. With Freshdesk, email and CRM apps can be integrated even with their free plan.
The ticket creation and management process is where HappyFox’s automation features show their worth, running the initial steps in your ticketing workflow on auto-pilot. Tickets can be manually created, of course, but more conveniently they can be automatically generated as submissions are received through various channels, such as email, phone, online chat, or social media. The software automatically detects the required information from the submission and populates the corresponding fields in the ticket.
Even voicemails can be transcribed into text and the text then used to create a ticket using available third-party integrations. Neither Freshdesk nor Zendesk offer this level of automation.
The assignment, status, and priority can also be automatically set or updated through a variety of built-in tools that are similar to email filtering rules.
Zendesk’s list of available features is very similar to Freshdesk’s and HappyFox’s. However, they scale according to the price plan you’re enrolled in and some that Freshdesk and HappyFox include as standard in their lower-priced packages require you to spend more with Zendesk.
One notable exception is that Zendesk is multilingual with support for 28 languages included as standard in even their lowest-priced package. Freshdesk and HappyFox both offer multi-language support as well, but only with their higher-priced packages.
Like HappyFox, Zendesk also offers more comprehensive reporting options at lower price points than Freshdesk.
Finally, and surprisingly, Zendesk was the only software of the three we reviewed to offer two-factor authentication natively. All three services partner with third-party single sign-ons, such as Google, but Zendesk also adds this additional layer of security.
Freshdesk, HappyFox, and Zendesk all offer varying levels of customer support that correspond with their respective values and our recommendations. Here is how they differ.
Freshdesk: Freshdesk offers the most comprehensive customer support, including an online knowledge base, 24/7 email support, and 24/5 phone support to all of their pricing packages.
HappyFox: HappyFox also includes an online knowledge base, as well as 24/7 email support, and online chat and phone support from 8am-5pm PST Monday to Friday starting with their lowest-priced package.
Zendesk: Zendesk makes their online knowledge base available to all of their pricing packages, but email, phone, and online chat support only begin with their higher-priced packages. Email support is available during business hours with the Team plan and 24/5 with the Professional plan. Phone support is also available 24/5, but only with the Professional plan. Access to online chat support or 24/7 email or phone support is only available with the Enterprise-level plan.
Other Help Desk Software Options
There are many other help desk software options on the market that may be a better fit for your business’ needs. Here are some of the others that we liked and what makes them unique:
|Software Name||What Makes It Unique?|
|Freshdesk||Best overall combination of features and price|
|HappyFox||Extensive automation capabilities|
|Zendesk||Feature-rich, but expensive|
|Vivantio Pro||Adheres to ITIL standards|
|Jira Service Desk||Fully functional trial period|
|Kayako||Best for live chat and phone support features|
|Zoho Support||Integrates with other Zoho business applications|
|SupportBee||Basic functionality that’s easy to use for novices|
|Desk.com||Seamless integration with Salesforce CRM|
|ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus||A help desk software designed for IT management applications.|
|Web+Center||Open-source and can run on PC, Mac, smartphones, tablets, and via any browser|
The Bottom Line
There are many very capable help desk software solutions for small businesses on the market. Businesses that are looking for more automation options may want to consider HappyFox — while more expensive than Freshdesk, it does add value by saving your customer support team time. However, Freshdesk earns our recommendation as the best help desk software for small businesses for its combination of features, price, and availability of customer support.