[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.
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 knowledge base 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Most commonly used to track software defects, Mantis Bug Tracker is also a good open source help desk software. It’s fairly configurable and 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.”
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
- Installation can be a bit confusing for non-Linux/UNIX administrators
- System can’t be customized
- Difficult to install on Ubuntu server
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.
Looking for Customer Service software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Customer Service software solutions.