A month in IT Service (our new offering)

March had been quite an interesting month and with so much going on it felt right to pop it all down on a page and get peoples thoughts on it. We are going to start with some website issues we have been involved with and then move onto the development of our new service line and tool evaluation.

So what’s been going on in the world of websites and why is that relevant to this blog? Well lets give you a bit of a back story to bring you up to speed. As part of my personal development I have always wanted to understand website design so having done rudimentary coding in PASCAL in the 1980’s as part of my A Level Computer Studies, I have always felt confident “giving it a go”. Now don’t get me wrong as a man in business myself I acknowledge the need for skilled people doing skilled jobs and if I ever needed a highly technical website I would send it out to the big boys to do but at present my website is a simple market place and I have also developed one for a local motorcycle club I am a member of. So where is this going I hear you ask? Well a couple of things have happened this month that spin into ITSM and are typical of what can be found in small businesses.

Firstly the club website showed a drop in traffic. We use Google Analytics to monitor visits and this week a single day showed no traffic from midnight to 12:00. So a review of the normal pattern of visits showed this to be exceptional so the support brain kicked in and a ticket was logged with the hosting company. In all fairness the service was very good and within 3 hours I had a reply saying that they could not see any server or network issues on my hosting instance and advised I contact Google to see if they had any issues with analytics collecting on that day. A few points from this. Firstly, I can’t validate my hosting companies reply as I have no monitoring tools on the site (something I am now exploring) but a check with some users indicated that they had been able to get on the website so that validated what they were saying. Secondly they had no reason not to disclose an issue. The hosting package has a declared uptime (which would have been broken with a 12 hours outage) but with no detrimental service credits to be applied they were not at risk of any significant penalty. The point of reflection was that the supplier in getting back to me (timeliness and detail) gave me confidence and reassurance but also the fact that I was able to initiate this quickly because I had the service contact details to hand proved that in the event of a more significant issue I could mobilise quickly and the supplier would respond.

My second journey into the world of website ITSM came from another local motorcycle club who were having different issues with their website. They had commissioned a rewrite but unfortunately did not have the contact information or authority to deal with the outgoing domains hosting company. This left them in a state of limbo as the established website could not be updated or taken down but held out of date information and was the primary website being ranked by Google. In this case a track back via Whois allowed us to identify the hosting company and the nominated domain holder and through an open engagement we are aiming to move things forward a bit.

So back to the first club website (the one I maintain) and off in a new direction. You see their is limit to self taught skill. It involves books and the internet and generally takes time when you want to do something different or have an issue. That’s OK when nothing is critical about the site. We don’t sell anything, its a place where people go to see where the next competition is, pick up the results and read an event report. Add in a couple of pages about venues and rebuild projects and that’s about it. Its built using bootstrap, is mobile friendly and uses Google analytics for some visit stats. The problem was we had a big event coming up where we were hosting a National round and I wanted to put some video on the site. Simple I thought, I have some video, I can use Google to find the code, easy! Nope, not easy. Why not? Well for a start I found 4 different versions of the recommended code and different views on whether the video should be MP4 or MPEG-4. The result was video’s that would work on desktops but not Android, so I tried something else and they would work on desktop and Android but not play on IOS. A nightmare! So was their a workaround? I know, upload to YouTube and use the embedded YouTube code but then during testing (another story), one club member said it would not run on his iPad. Was this a single user issue or a bug with one of the IOS versions I wondered. So what did I do?  Well after 3 evenings of frustration I reached out to my network of developers and within a few hours I have the code snippet, the right video format and a link to a conversation tool and after a bit of testing the issue was fixed.

Why is this relevant? Well the final part of this blog moves into a service offering we have been are developing. Each of these website issues (and in fact all of the tickets for our own business) have been logged on an ITSM tool. Within that we have a basic service overview, information relating to support contracts (e.g. the hosting companies email address / support number and a copy of the contract). When we had the problem with the analytics saying the site may have been down it was easy to get straight onto them as the information was available and a single point of contact managed the issue. Now in our case, none of these issues were critical, or impacted trade, profit or customer service but by managing them through an incident lifecycle we were able to control them, get good visibility of where we were and hopefully prevent them happening again.

Just imagine that in your own small business? A single support desk where you can log your issues and they take ownership of the problem, manage the supplier, keep you updated with the progress and report on how offen these things happen.

As part of this process we have been assessing two ITSM tools which based on the needs of the organisation, keep the costs down and outside of incident management (as outlined above) allow us to develop other offerings such as controlling system changes and releases and collating your repeating issues into problem statements and then driving out service improvements to remove them.

In order to refine this we are actively trying to identify two small businesses to assist us. We are specifically looking for the following:

1) A small business of between 10 – 50 IT dependent users. Ideally these will be spread over up to 3 sites (but they may be remote based users) and a range of 2 – 5 applications

2) An independent software developer who is selling their product via online market places such as Google Play who would benefit from a single point of contact for their users

So what is the deal? Well from us you get the following:

  • Set up of the Service Desk and all associated information to map your services into a support model
  • 3 months of Mon – Fri (09:00 – 17:00) Service Desk Incident Management
  • Calls logged via email or dedicated portal
  • Incidents managed to a target 4 hour response
  • Weekly service reporting

As this is an opportunity for us to develop our service we are working to the following pricing model

  • 3 month commitment from both parties. No lock in after that point.
  • Clear banded pricing model starting at 0 – 50 incidents per week
  • Significantly discounted against our expected price to market as a thank you for assisting in us developing our offering

If you have enjoyed reading this article and would like to discuss it in more detail or you would like to know more about our service offering, we would welcome your thoughts on this.

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.