Help for the Help Desk

Keep track of support requests with one of these packages.

Suppose you’re hired as a software development company’s manager for a support technician team. On your first day at work, you’re hastily introduced to the help desk application that’s been internally developed and updated using Visual Basic for the past five or six years. After a month, you find that support technicians don’t like to use the system because it’s extremely tedious and difficult to use as a resource to find similar problems and resolutions. Because they don’t like it, they’re also prone to shortcuts, which leads to inaccurate or incomplete support incident records. What this means to you is that the customer might not be getting the highest quality support. In addtion, when it’s time for monthly productivity reports for your technicians, it’s going to be next to impossible to derive an accurate account of their time. Clearly, it’s time for a new system. Because help desk software isn’t your company’s business, this is the time to evaluate products.
Product Information

To read more comprehensive reviews of each product, click on the product names:

HelpSTAR 7.0 Professional
Starting at $2,495 Inc.
Ontario, Canada

NetSupport TCO, NetSupport Help Desk, $15 to $25 per seat.
NetSupport Inc.
Alpharetta, Georgia

Starting at $495
Kemma Software
Sewickley, Pennsylvania 724-933-8810

Track-It! 5.0
Starting at $495
Blue Ocean Software Inc.
Tampa, Florida

Once the decision is made to invest in a help desk package, deciding on required features is the next step. Different companies have varying needs. In the case of the software development company whose support consists mainly of external users, features such as hardware inventory, remote control and license management may not be required. However, many help desk solutions target large companies supporting internal users and will benefit from these features. Another important consideration is the platform for the application: What database is required and is it Web-based?

As a support director of a small team of technicians using an internally developed and limited help desk solution for many years and as a former support technician myself, I know my job would have been made easier by many advanced features that come standard with the products in this roundup. I’ll take a look at four help desk products: HelpSTAR 7.0, BridgeTrak, NetSupport TCO/Help desk, and Track-It! 5.0.

HelpSTAR 7.0 Professional
First up is HelpSTAR 7.0 Professional. The product literature promised a full list of help desk features I needed for my small team of technicians. The well-organized and complete HelpSTAR documentation used the term “players” to describe the interrelationships of the help desk. This is an important concept in that, typically, there are internal and departmentalized support reps; external users belonging to another company. HelpSTAR understands this, providing many avenues of both administration and automation based on the types of users added to the system.

HelpSTAR provides a Web interface, allowing the external client to log in, then create and check the ‘status of their requests, saving time for the support technician who doesn’t have to transcribe the information over the phone. These users are granted non-privileged status and can only see their own requests. Many other privileges (such as the ability to assign a request directly to a technician and bypass the queuing system) can be granted on a per-user basis. The Web interface is only one way to make it easier for the user to get their problem into the system. E-mail requests can also be sent and automatically updated into the HelpSTAR 7.0 database, notifying the user of success and auto-generating a reference number for the case.

HelpSTAR has optional wizards to guide users through initial data entry. The non-Web client, which can be installed on each workstation, shares the look and feel of Microsoft Outlook (see Figure 1).

HelpSTAR 7.0
Figure 1. The HelpSTAR interface will be comfortable for anyone familiar with Outlook.

HelpSTAR provides workstation auditing, but utilizes an unorthodox external application, StarWatch, to provide this and other services, such as processing incoming e-mail. StarWatch is a separate program that must be launched on the HelpSTAR workstation and run with HelpSTAR.

From setup to use, HelpSTAR lived up to banner on its Web interface: “Help desk solutions have never been easier.” And “easy” in this case doesn’t preclude powerful. HelpSTAR comes with administrative reports, time tracking, knowledge base and alerting features and others that all work together to keep the technician focused and client updated.

NetSupport TCO
The NetSupport TCO Help Desk works with NetSupport TCO to log service requests from users and provide both real-time and historical reporting solutions. Many of the advanced features delivered in TCO—such as software and hardware inventory, Web metering and software deployment—are aimed at corporate and enterprise clients whose internal computer landscape is extensive and requires a staff of help desk personnel to support. The NetSupport TCO console can automatically gather an inventory of network computers, allowing help desk support technicians to view information about the user’s workstation stored in the NetSupport TCO SQL Server database.

In addition to Net Support TCO, another module, NetSupport Manager, can be loaded to work with Help Desk and TCO. It provides management functions such as remote control and file transfer.

The installation of NetSupport TCO and Help Desk was straightforward. I decided to use MSDE as the database, and the installation program installed this for me as well as created and configured the database. Web site setup wasn’t automated, but the onscreen instructions were sufficient to get it going with little difficulty. NetSupport Help Desk uses PHP with IIS, so this also needed to be installed. I was hesitant to follow the instructions on making my default Web site the Help Desk Web site, but I did it through clenched teeth. NetSupport Help Desk also supports Apache.

I was most impressed with the look and feel of the Help Desk Web application, shown in Figure 2. The hyperlinks throughout the page for each request allow the support technician to communicate with the user via a chat or remotely control their system from one location. Though it lacks some of the advanced features of other help desk packages like a true knowledge base publishing system and auto-escalation, NetSupport’s package does what it’s designed to do: Efficiently manage service requests alongside other powerful auditing and network tools.

NetSupport TCO
Figure 2. NetSupport’s Web interface offers comprehensive management for support incidents. (Click image to view larger version.)

The version of BridgeTrak I reviewed was designed for a Microsoft Access database but other database platforms are supported, including SQL Server, Oracle and Sybase. BridgeTrak’s interface is tabular, very much like a Microsoft Access application. At first it feels overwhelming because of the many fields, dropdowns and tabs. The reviewed version came helpfully pre-populated with sample data, some of which is shown in Figure 3. I had one layout issue with the BridgeTrak: the inability to adjust the size of some of the forms. With multiple \forms open, it was challenging to maneuver back and forth between them. Even if I chose cascade or tile from the Window dropdown, the forms didn’t line up as expected, giving the application a cluttered feel.

Figure 2. NetSupport’s Web interface offers comprehensive management for support incidents. (Click image to view larger version.)

BridgeTrak is packed with flexibility, such as the ability to add fields directly to the application and the ability to track projects. In my experience, a support department is sometimes the catch-all department—it’s responsible for software testing, documentation, installation and training. BridgeTrak’s recurring issues feature is flexible enough to handle many tasks for which support technicians are responsible. BridgeTrak also offers many other standard features, such as e-mail integration and knowledge base management as well as workstation auditing. BridgeTrak would be good for small- or medium-size companies that need to gather a lot of information about specific issues for internal reporting and follow up.

Track-It! 5.0
Track-It! 5.0 by Blue Ocean Software Inc., adds even more features to the mix. Although it doesn’t features like knowledge base publication or project tracking, it does provide sometimes overlooked modules. Track-It! ships in two editions—Standard and Enterprise—and each has several add-on packages. I reviewed the Standard edition, designed primarily for small- to medium-sized businesses. It doesn’t use SQL Server or Oracle databases, unlike the Enterprise edition. Track-It, as the name implies, is primarily an asset-tracking tool designed to manage systems and its users. It also provides a robust help desk application via a Web interface as well as a network sharable client application.

Installation of both Track-It!’s main client and Web applications was very smooth. The Web installation set up and configured the Web site automatically and presented a very appealing home page, shown in Figure 4. I did need to add several ActiveX controls, such as Web Audit, which needed to be installed.

Track-It! 5.0
Figure 4. Track-It!’s Web interface has a clean, modern look. (Click image to view larger version.)

Of the many features I’d use daily as a support director or network manager, two of them aren’t seen in many other packages. These are the ability to track user training and track checked-out equipment through a library management system. I know that, in my small company, training is paramount; even though it’s a requirement for moving ahead, it’s difficult to track. The training module in Track-It! makes it easy to know the exact date and location of the training as well as the instructor and fees, if any.

Track-It! was easy to set up and use. It’s highly customizable, with user-defined fields in just about every table. It’s more for internal asset management than external use, but the help desk features are still powerful, offering many of the standard features such as internal end-user access, department categorizations and auto-escalation of work orders.

Making the Decision
The help desk software market is diverse and constantly growing. Fortunately, many vendors have been developing their products for a number of years and added features to benefit differing help desk and call center environments simultaneously. The ultimate decision in the purchase of a help desk application lies in its ability to automate otherwise redundant and manual processes. End-users and customers appreciate the ability to search for solutions to their issues and submit support requests interactively on the Web or through e-mail. However, there will always be customers willing to wait for extended periods of time for a friendly voice. If the support engineer is made more efficient by utilizing the software, then it’s possible to decrease that time dramatically. The end result, of course, is keeping the customer satisfied.


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