Are the free ITSM tools any good?

First published 18th March 2018

Over the last 6 months we have been exploring the world of ITSM tools. As we have been developing the new service offering, it has been important to test out the tools with the view of a low cost route to market. After looking at a few tools we narrowed it down to two. This review is purely the reflections of our day to day usage but we hope you find them of some benefit.

This is not meant to be a comparison or rating exercise. To be clear we liked both products and their are other product out there. The key issue here was that we went for the free version and tried to see if using a cloud based, non SLA’d service we could get a useable product to give us basic incident management with a good user experience. The approach was based around simulating an organisation with limited technical understanding getting a basic incident management capable support desk operational.

We start off with Spiceworks. This is the second tool we deployed and has been embedded in a client website as a direct log portal for any website issues, updates and development requests. It only offers incident management but comes with a portal URL, a nice advisor interface and a tidy Android app.

Portal – Spiceworks has a nice little trick from the off. A single instance (account) allows you to create multiple “organisations” within the tool. Why is this good? Well if for example you are managing multiple websites for your clients, each can have its own portal / address but the incidents feed into a single dashboard at the service desk end. The other strong feature about the portal is the fact that as you create custom fields (e.g. fault codes) you can embed these into the portal making it quite flexible. It also allows non registered users to log an incident without having to register and also gives an alternative email address instead of the portal. All in all, very well thought out!

Configuration – We have already mentioned that once you have an account “or instance”, you can then create individual organisations within the tool. Each organisation can then have its own set of attributes. This makes it really good for multi client service desks who need to individualise the end user experience but manage the outcomes in one place. The “custom attributes” gives you the ability to create fields such as “Closure code” and then using a simple list, give a number of options for selection. This really allows you to structure the date in a useable format. Ticket monitors, alerts and notifications also give you the final part of the configuration to deliver a viable Incident Management tool.

Advisor View –  A browser based interface presents the Service Desk Advisor with a simple non cluttered view of the world and clicking “New Ticket” fires up a pop up screen that once the organisation is selected, resets the remaining fields with options only for that organisation. As Spiceworks does not automatically assign a fix target based on the priority, a nice feature is that these fields are presented at the call logging stage so the advisor using a simple look up table could manually enter them at the point of call logging. The dashboard also breaks the tickets down by Unassigned and Open tickets making the prioritisation of initial call handing very intuitive.

Advisors and users – We have had a real good look through the literature and so far we can not find any restrictions on the number of advisors or techs that can have access to the front end or any limit on the number of customers / contacts who can log calls. If this is correct its a really nice feature.

Categorisation – We have talked about this earlier but I think for me this is one of the big selling points. The fact that you can create multiple organisations then in each one create your own custom fields give a level of flexibility that is really nice and somewhat unexpected in a “free to use” product. Standard field types include number, text, date and list.

User emails – Once again this covers the basics. As a user I get an email on ticket log, update’s and closure. The emails are a bit messy in my opinion but I am sure their is a level of customisation in the forums to tidy these up. The admin dashboard features a set of toggle switches to activate or disable the emails to both the customer and the agents.

SLA Management – Out of the box, each “Organisation” has a pre-populated mandatory field titled “Ticket Categories”. Unfortunately, apart from being a flagged field it appears to serve no purpose. You are unable to assign target time of fixes to it so when the incident is logged you have to undertake a manual task of updating the fixed due by field with a manually calculated date and time. I am sure if you explore the forums their may be a method of doing this, but out of the box the only options appears to be a manual assignment.

Android App – This is a really nice feature as it provides both a visual alert when a new incident is received as well as allowing an agent to both log new tickets or manage existing ones in a feature rich way. It was tested on both a phone and tablet and was useable in both cases.

Reporting – This is where Spiceworks has an opportunity to improve slightly. Out of the box you get a nice dashboard that shows today, last 7 days and last 30 days. Within this is also shows average response and close times and it can be filtered by organisation. It does not drill this down to a Priority / SLA level so it really is high level analysis. It also provided pre-canned extracts for all ticket data as both a .csv and .json format. On analysing the .csv files (which most users would be use to) the only two time stamps of use are logged and closed so whilst you can calculate a fix time you are unable to do the same for response. On two attempts of running the same report a number of the custom fields did not pull back any information although it was present in the ticket. Alternatively, the.json file is data rich but you would need to be comfortable with the file structure and do some data manipulation in order to create a meaningful reporting deck.

Knowledge Base – After 10 minutes of exploring this functionality, I must admit for the first time in the product I started to get frustrated. The front end seems intuitive enough, the ability to create a knowledge article visible to yourself, the team and what appears to be the whole Spiceworks Community. That’s straight forward, but logging a test article and trying to delete it or move it between groups appears impossible. I may be missing something obvious in the interface as I would expect this to be core product. If I find out how to do this I will update this article…

Summary – if you are looking for a cloud based Incident Management system that provides a level of flexibility, a straight forward portal and unlimited user and agent contacts this certainly works straight out of the box. The Android App and email interaction put a nice usability wrap around it but be aware of the shortfalls in reporting unless you are happy to spend some time digging into forums. The lack of automated SLA times is also an inconvenience but can be accommodated with an operational workaround at the point of ticket assignment. Knowledge Management also appears to need further exploration.

Fresh Service

We follow up with Freshservice. We have been using this in the free format for a few years for our own business and have also explored the full module set for a client about 12 months ago. For the purpose of this comparison, we will only be exploring the Incident Management module which once again comes with a portal URL, a nice advisor interface and a tidy Android app.

Portal – Unlike Spiceworks which allows a different URL per organisation, with Freshservice, the URL is based at the “instance level” and therefore you could end up with multiple clients using the same portal. Not a problem, you just need to consider branding and organisation identification if this is the case. On a really strong plus side, the portal not only allows users to log tickets, but allows them to review their open and closed tickets (and see the updates) as well as browse Knowledge Articles allocated to their organisational structure. A small weakness is that the portal has limited customisation so at the point of logging you only get the users name, a summary and description field. I suspect this will result in some additional call handling as you go back to the user at first contact to ascertain information such as organisation name, application etc.

Configuration / Categorisation – The primary configuration in the free version comes in the form of “Tags”. These are free form tags that can be applied to each Incident record. In our structure we use three leading tags (CI-, Cat-, Clo-) for CI or “Service Name”, Cat “Categorisation of Issue” and Clo “Closure Code”. By keeping the text string to 16 characters (e.g. “Cat – Apprunslow”), when we run the report extract, using formulas in Excel we are able to creating meaning data for reporting. Whilst Freshservice does have a CI field, we found this does not form part of the extract in the free version, hence the reason for creating a CI tag.

Advisor View –  Once again,  a browser based interface gives a simple ticket summary and a nice touch is that it categorises them not only as Open and Unassigned, but also includes grouping for On Hold and Due Today. Clicking into a group shows the tickets for that classification along with other filters to review smaller subsets of the data. A button to create a new ticket exists in the main view and from here, the advisor is able to access a wide set of fields to complete the incident logging process.

Advisors and users – Freshservice offer 5 plans of which the first one “Sprout” is free. This limits you to Incident Management (with the Self Service Portal and Knowledge Management) for 100 end users and 3 agents. The next offering is “Blossom” which does take you to unlimited end users but is charged per agent. At the time of writing (March 18) this is £20 per agent per month so if you are running 3 agents and tip into 101 users you are then faced with a monthly bill of £60.

User emails – The features here are very similar to Spiceworks, with a set of configurable scenarios to trigger emails to both users and agents. In balance, the structure of the Freshservice emails does appear more user intuitive.

SLA Management – Whilst with the free version, you only get the ability to create a single SLA policy, it does interface with the ticket logging and drive the SLA breach and escalation process. You get 4 priorities which allow a response and resolve target applied in days or hours against a configurable calendar. A nice touch.

Android App – Similar functionality here with the App providing a visual alert when a new incident is received as well as allowing an agent to both log new tickets or manage existing ones in a feature rich way. It was tested on both a phone and tablet and was useable in both cases.

Reporting – A simple “Export” button in the “all ticket” view allows you to pick parameters such as closed, resolved or created date and then using a custom date range extract the database information across enough fields to drive meaningful reporting. As we had pointed out, this does not extract CI information so using the Tags functionality is highly recommended.

Knowledge Base – This is where Freshservice plays a nice trump card as its knowledge management module not only allows a logical hierarchy (Category > Folder > Article) to be created but allows you to assign articles to “public” or “private” with public appearing in the end user portal view.

Summary – If you know that you are going to stay under 3 advisors and 100 users, Freshservice provides a feature rich incident management product with a very strong knowledge management add on. The risk comes from the uplift cost once you breach the 100 users or 3 advisors.

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