When you're offering a service to someone, how you deal with things when they go wrong is going to say everything about how you deal with things in general. The speed and efficacy that you bring to solving any given issue is critical, so it makes plenty of sense to invest in the best possible system you can afford for solving such problems. It also makes sense not to buy something that will only create about as many problems for you as it will solve for someone else.
Incident response is typically automated through a help-desk or trouble-ticket system -- a standardized mechanism for taking a customer incident, assigning it some kind of trackable identity and following up on it. The follow-up is crucially important: No one wants to be left hanging, especially if the problem is making them lose money and want to switch to another vendor. The scope of the solution is also important. If you're a small outfit that isn't growing a great deal, handling a few customers at a time, it makes little sense to spend money for something that won't be grown into, or comes with a far too steep learning and implementation curve. The main question with these sorts of packages is not "which one?" but "to what end?"
One of the lower-end but impressive help-desk and trouble-ticket offerings I've seen that works with Microsoft Exchange and Outlook is Kalmstron.nu's PFHelpDesk. If you already have Outlook and Exchange deployed, leverage them with PFHelpDesk -- which uses Exchange's Public Folders system to organize and manage trouble tickets; as a result, people don't need to learn a new interface to perform these duties. The product is $500 per organization, with no per-user fee, so a certain amount of growth is built in. There's even an included reporting tool to allow tracking of performance and workload per customer or business unit, something that will put a smile on the face of anyone trying to get hard metrics from their support people!
Note: As a channel professional offering remote help-desk services, you should implement such a tool in your shop and your customer's shop. This way you're able to host for the client and have your own installation to track customer problems.
The biggest downside with PFHelpDesk is that it requires the use of Exchange and Outlook, which is not something everyone has running and isn't exactly a trivial investment. Another approach, which uses free, open-source technologies, is manifest in a product called SimpleTicket, a trouble-ticket system written using the Ruby on Rails programming framework. Many of the features in it are highly professional, such as TAPI integration for voice over IP (VoIP) and RSS feeds for both users and technicians. Aside from being open-source (GPL), its creators offer a number of support levels. For instance, they can stage a custom installation of the product for your organization for $15,000 or host an instance of SimpleTicket on their servers for the same amount yearly.
This last approach echoes offerings like Parature, which also offer custom hosting of their closed-source, help-desk tools that scale into the hundreds of thousands of users. Parature offers 30-day trials of their solutions as a way to tell if it's a good fit for your organization -- although whether or not that'll be enough time to determine if it's a good fit will depend mainly on your testing methodology. SimpleTicket has no such restrictions, being open-source, but it will require the presence of someone who understands how to set it up and use it to get the most out of it (unless you obtain a hosted instance of it).
About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter, which is devoted to hints, tips, tricks, news and goodies for Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP users and administrators.
This was first published in March 2007