For Part II of this article, click here

For any product or project life-cycle, issues from end-users and workers are inevitable. Any business processes that require the organization or team to track a high volume of issues or tickets, such as customer help-desk, sales leads or project activities, needs a defined and structured methodology of issues collection, assignment, deployment and resolution.  This is where an issue tracking system can prove indispensable and blessing to support staffs. An organization or team can benefit a lot if these issues are identified and recorded, in a way that allows qualitative analysis for improving the product or service, in the long run.

Using SharePoint for Issue Tracking – For organizations that already have invested in Microsoft SharePoint platforms for collaboration and sharing, support team can easily implement a simple issue tracking list and exploit the SharePoint inbuilt tracking and workflow capabilities to track issues and risks throughout the product life cycle. Such SharePoint based issue tracking list is good enough for teams that receive phone calls about product and service issues. A technician can simply log a new ticket within the SharePoint list, and key in the information as per the phone conversation. Using the SharePoint workflows, automated notification can also be sent out to the assigned technician.

Limitation of SharePoint based Issue Tracking – But for organizations that rely on emails partially or wholly, it is a lot of inconvenience and hard work. Because, there is no direct and easy way to source the ticket information from your emails, except to resort to copy-paste trick, which is time consuming and laborious, and not to mention, the precious human resources needed for data gathering. Moreover, the inbuilt issue tracking list template in SharePoint is only good for basic tracking requirement and lacks the automation and sophistication, to function as an effective help-desk system.

Besides, Microsoft Outlook integration of SharePoint is limited, and does not provide the capabilities to connect and export to a SharePoint list at the item level. One of the important goals for a help-desk is staying on top on the growing amount of support request emails from end-users. But without an organized and structured link between Outlook and SharePoint, caller and problem information from Outlook mails cannot be added or updated to SharePoint tickets in a timely manner. This can lead to delay in response time and even support requests falling through the crack. These limitations prevent many help-desk teams from implementing an effective SharePoint based issue tracking system.

Connecting Outlook to SharePoint based Issue Tracking – To exploit the sharing and collaboration features of SharePoint for Issue tracking purpose, we need an easy way to source the problem, callers metadata information and attachments from emails stored in client application such as Microsoft Outlook, and feed to the trouble tickets in the SharePoint list. Keeping this requirement in mind, I have invested considerable time to design a generic solution that can be used by every team and organizations. The outcome is an Outlook add-in that enables to create and maintain a link between Outlook and your Issue Tracking SharePoint lists, such that you and other technicians can easily raise trouble tickets from emails from within your Microsoft Outlook, in a single click, or even better, automatically (if you have set Issue Tracker to watch and process incoming emails, that is) ‘Issue Tracker for Outlook & SharePoint‘ runs within Outlook.exe process and extend the functionalities of Outlook, by allowing custom actions to be triggered and additional feature sets and capabilities to be implemented on top of the host application (Outlook).

So How Does It Work? – The team edition of ‘Issue Tracker for Outlook and SharePoint’ is designed as a groupware solution i.e., multiple technicians working on the same set of tickets in the administrator chosen SharePoint lists. So, we have an administrative installation and configuration, only needed to be performed by the help-desk manager. And a client installation, that is required to be installed by every technician on their system. Being a groupware, the help-desk settings and configurations data need to be stored on a central repository. Because your help-desk staffs can be scattered in different geographical locations, and might not have access to the company’s local network remotely, using a network database or shared folder won’t be feasible. Instead, in Issue Tracker system, the help-desk configuration and settings data are stored in a special SharePoint list (having the name ‘TeamIssueTrackerSettings’) which is accessible to all help-desk staffs, on the local network, VPN, HTTP, WAN.

From within Outlook, using the administrative add-in for Issue Tracker, help-desk manager can choose the destination SharePoint lists where trouble ticket raised by other technicians would be stored. The fields of the email and each of the chosen SharePoint list are then mapped, so that you have control over what and which data goes to the ticket.  These chosen SharePoint lists are the deployed to all the technicians in their Outlook.

To allow technicians to add extra meaningful information to trouble tickets, apart from the ones extracted from the email, help-desk manager can maintain and deploy a list of problem categories and types, statuses and any number of custom fields drop down values. These help-desk specific fields would be then available in the Outlook application of each technician.

Ticket input form in Outlook

Screenshot: Ticket input form in Outlook

To raise a trouble ticket, simply select one or more mail items, and Choose and click the particular SharePoint list under which the ticket item will be generated. When you do this, relevant metadata such as caller and problem details, attachments etc. will be extracted from the email to the ticket item. You can add further details to the ticket to be generated such as, the technician that will be responsible for solving the ticket, due date, by which the issue should be resolved, and problem category, type and status and any number of custom metadata.

Once a trouble ticket is generated successfully in the chosen SharePoint list, information regarding the ticket, such as the ticket ID, data/time and the URL to the SharePoint ticket are tagged and embedded into the email item in Outlook. This not only provides an easy way to go to the ticket item in the SharePoint site directly, but also prevents other technicians from generating a duplicate ticket, from the same email (a possible scenario on shared mailboxes and mail-enabled public folders).

In the subject of the email from which a ticket was raised, a tracking code containing the prefix code of the SharePoint list and the ticket ID is embedded.  For example, [CMA-4]. This is done so for tracking purpose on subsequent email conversations that might happen. As long as this phrase is intact when sending out response to caller, or when caller replies back to the help-desk, Issue Tracker System will automatically track and associate it with the correct SharePoint list and ticket item. This means, the ticket item and description field will be updated live automatically, as and when the email is sent out or received. This greatly enhances the productivity of the help-desk because, no technicians are required anymore to monitor the mailbox for new replies from caller, nor there is need to add and update the new information to the relevant ticket manually. Issue Tracker system does that for you automatically, to provide a commentary on exactly what happened and the series of actions taken to achieve resolution.

If you have a dedicated mailbox only used for support purposes, you can automate the whole process of ticketing experience from incoming emails. You can set Issue Tracker to monitor your mailbox and automatically raise trouble tickets from incoming emails, without requiring your intervention.


The general applicability of such application is immense and more so, it overcomes the limitation of email integration, or the lack of it, in SharePoint based issue tracking system, by linking Outlook to SharePoint. In being able to raise tickets from their emails in the comfort of Outlook, Issue Tracker system empowers help-desk staffs to focus their valuable time and efforts into resolving the issues rather than spending on the technical processes of gathering tickets and doing manual tasks.

Refer to videos below to demonstrate the capabilities and feature sets of Issue Tracker.

Part-I: Administrative Installation & Configuration

Part-II: Technician Installation & Raising tickets to SharePoint

Part II – Overcoming the limitation of SharePoint based Issue Tracking system

Product Summary:
Title: Issue Tracker for Outlook & SharePoint
Product page: https://www.assistmyteam.net/IssueTrackerSP/
Download page: https://www.assistmyteam.net/IssueTrackerSP/Download.asp
Video page: https://www.assistmyteam.net/IssueTrackerSP/TutorialClips.asp

 

One of the much anticipated feature which was frequently requested, is now  finally implemented in Team Helpdesk for Outlook. Helpdesk Service days and hours feature enables manager and administrator to specify the service days and hours optionally, their helpdesk operates. With this mechanism, any automatic assignment of due date to support cases, including those triggered by an enforced Service Level Agreement (SLA), would be dynamically adjusted to fall within the service days and hours (if specified). By default, service day start from Monday and ends at Saturday. You can choose the service starting and ending days as per your helpdesk requirement.

Service Days and Hours

Once a service days and hours are specified, due date assignment will take note of the helpdesk unavailability accordingly. When specifying a SLA to a support case, the response time would be added to the current date/time, plus any helpdesk off-hours such that, the due date is always set within the service hours band. So, no longer you or other technicians would be sent due date lapsed or SLA breach automated notifications and alerts in off hours of the helpdesk.

Another new addition to version 6.5 is the licensing mode for up to 5 technician seats. Often, I had been approached by many users looking out for a helpdesk solution based on Outlook, if there was any special version of Team Helpdesk, for fewer teams, such  3 or 5. The cost of the enterprise license for unlimited seats is beyond their reach. After looking out for such user base, I am happy to announce the availability of a limited license version for Team Helpdesk for Outlook. This license can used to deploy Team Helpdesk up to 5 technicians. The cost of this license is fixed at 750 USD, one time payment, life validity. This includes a year support and maintenance support subscription. As I write, this license is now available on our web store. Related to licensing is the bumping of 1 year Support and Maintenance contract for the Enterprise license to 3 years, without any increment to the cost. Of course, this offer is available for a limited time. For more on this limited license option and the 3 years Support Contract offer, refer to the purchase page at http://www.assistmyteam.net/TeamHelpdesk/Purchase.asp

 

The last blog I had written was on my issue tracking and ticketing system (i.e., Team Helpdesk for Outlook), based on Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server. When implemented on an enterprise network (as groupware), this add-in solution aids in providing timely response and resolution to end-users queries, something which is very critical to the success of the business, in long run.

My latest release is a variant of the issue tracking system (known as Team Helpdesk for Outlook & SharePoint), that is based and integrated on three commonly used environments in most IT workhouses – Microsoft Outlook, Exchange and SharePoint. Designed to be deployed on an enterprise level, this add-in can drastically reduce the workload of the typical help desk technicians or agents, through automation, accurate logging and tracking of tickets. In this help desk system, the support tickets are stored in both Exchange (either a public folder or a shared mailbox) and in SharePoint (in a list).  The idea is to provide technicians and support staffs access to their assigned tickets through the comfort of Microsoft Outlook or SharePoint site. The SharePoint integration is seamless to the users, as is in Microsoft Outlook, facilitating remote technicians and other stakeholders to view, track and work on support request in a web browser, thus realizing the benefits of the help desk company-wide.

As this is based on Exchange & SharePoint, it is highly scalable, and requires less or no special maintenance efforts. The advantages are high rate of user adoption, (because of their familiarity with Microsoft Outlook and SharePoint) and little or no special skill sets requirement.

The flowchart below, pretty much sums up the processes involved:

The Outlook connection:

And  the equivalent SharePoint case  item:

Product page – http://www.assistmyteam.net/TeamHelpdeskSP/

To get you a quick start and walk-through, I have also prepared 2 hours long video demonstrations, on how to get the most out of your help desk support team.
http://www.assistmyteam.net/TeamHelpdeskSP/TutorialClips.asp

 

You have a business that you aim one day to grow and be profitable. If you are one person support team and have fewer customers, sure, you can provide resolution to their grievances by writing or speaking to them, without logging the details of the customer and nor documenting the nature of the problem. However, what happens if you have a large customer base? Of course, there will be multiple support staffs attending to high number of support requests. How would each one of them remember who sent what and who needs what? How would John know that Monica has already resolved this particular customer’s issue? How would you prevent them from working on the same issue concurrently to avert duplicate effort? What if Monica solved an issue virtually identical to a separate issue John is currently working on? How would John know this issue has been already resolved, so he could use this information to reply to the customer’s issue ? For strategic decisions and intelligence, senior managers would certainly like to know how many times has this particular problem come up for this particular product? How long has this problem been an issue for them?

It is said that success of a business is measured against the level of customer satisfaction on sales and services. In fact, the higher the customer satisfaction is, the repeated business it creates. This is one of the key reason why successful enterprises have a dedicated help-desk team or call centers to caters to the queries and grievances of their customer base. But what makes a help-desk team productive and successful? Well for sure, choosing the right helpdesk system is the first step that can make all the difference.

But how do you arrive to the decision of choosing a particular helpdesk system? Do you need a helpdesk database system that works standalone within your local network? Or do you need a web based helpdesk to enable your scattered support personnel to work on troubled tickets? Or do you require a helpdesk that make uses of your existing email infrastructure such as Microsoft Outlook and Exchange?

Typically, an ideal helpdesk system should support the organizations’ internal logic and workflows, integrates easily and leverage existing infrastructures, caters to the support technicians on the move, enables automation and processing based on customizable rules and most importantly, should be easy to use with little or no training requirement. This is where a helpdesk system based on email client such as Microsoft Outlook scores over other type of support systems. This is because in most businesses, most support staffs use Outlook extensively – all day, every day for email communications, appointments, contacts, tasks etc. As they have relied that heavily on Outlook, it is only natural for them to turn Outlook to a sort of a ticketing system  to support requests and calls from customers. Moreover, as Outlook provides quick access to company’s contacts, address books, mailboxes and public folders stored on a central Exchange server, it makes it much easier for support personals to track, collaborate and log support requests in Outlook.

So Microsoft Outlook is a great productivity office application, something more of an indispensable companion for many businesses. However,  Outlook itself is highly optimized for personal email exchange often falling short when it comes to providing a complete history of an event over time. When an email has been forwarded on to another helpdesk team member, the original owner loses insight into the progress. This has a serious implication, that is, in its original state, Outlook simply lacks the automation, reporting, reminders, and workflow to manage a support ticket request, which is critical for growing helpdesks looking to optimize and uniformly improve support staff/customer interactions.

This is where ‘Team Helpdesk for Outlook’, a plug-in application that I developed two years back, completes the picture. Team Helpdesk overcomes the limitations mentioned above by extending your Outlook as an ideal platform to collect, track and resolve trouble tickets while sharing this information with your entire team. It does this by bringing help desk functionality and automation, and integrating seamlessly with the easy workflow of Outlook. This allows support team to work in the same way they do with emails, something which they are already familiar with. It also adds integration with fixed phones, Skype or SMS gateways to facilitate relaying helpdesk response over these phone or SMS.

Designed as a groupware, Team Helpdesk, when used with a public folder or shared mailbox (with Microsoft Exchange, that is), provides a way for multiple support team to work in collaboration on a number of issues. Monica resolves an issue, marks it closed, and John can search though all of the resolved issues to see if the problem he’s working on has already been resolved. John can also find out how the problem was fixed and use this solution to solve his issue.

By enabling assignment of a particular support agent to work on an issue, Team Helpdesk helps you to ensure your helpdesk staffs are not unnecessarily duplicating effort – John and Monica are not both separately working on Mr. Francas ‘s printing issue at the same time without knowing the other is working on it.


The Ongoing Cases subfolder in Team Helpdesk System in Outlook


The support case form used for logging new support request assistance from customer in Outlook

Another major obstacle many support staffs face is the lack of clarity and overall picture of the reported issue. Most support requests cannot be closed within a single e-mail and response. Feedback from the caller and suggestions from the respective support staffs often occur over multiple request-response emails. Moreover, different members from the support teams may provide resolutions during the course of the request. So, in practical scenario, a support case might have various e-mail versions of the resolution steps, making it cumbersome to get a complete picture of responses and resolution. With the conversation threading feature, Team Helpdesk captures the complete course of the conversation chronologically, from all email communications received or sent (including those automated notifications sent to caller and technicians in due course). The end result is a consolidated view where all the responses to a support request are collated together. Redundant and repeated conversations are filtered out to present only the relevant communications.


The Conversation Threading view of all email communications that had taken place on a particular case

This eases the task of the helpdesk and minimizes repeating what has already been done, while keeping support team members to stay on the track. Another advantage is it allows the technician to quickly glimpse through the thread and get a complete overview on the responses in chronological order and resolution applied to the particular support request, something which is hard to extract from viewing multiple email responses.

Another useful information that senior managements can tract and extract from Team Helpdesk is trend analysis. Let’s say you get a lot of support requests on how to rectify papers getting jammed inside printer. By running statistics or searching through the resolved cases, you can articulate how often this particular topic needs assistance. If you find support requests received on this particular issue rampant in the past, you may decide to create a knowledge base article on the problem and publish this KB on your support website. This would, in turn, serves as a first level support service to customers. Therefore, without a helpdesk system to track these types of questions, you would never be able to figure out which knowledge base articles or frequently asked questions need to be published.

Team Helpdesk works great when automated. You can put your customer service online 24/7, even after office hours or holidays. You can install the managerial tool of Team Helpdesk in your windows server (as it runs 24/7 non-stop) or you can simply designate a particular workstation that is pretty much 24/7. With this arrangement, Team Helpdesk can continue to monitor your support mailbox, without any human intervention and generate tickets out of incoming emails automatically, assign technicians and notify callers and technicians with ticket number allotment with emails or as a SMS message to their mobile devices.

Support request received via emails seldom contain basic details on the nature of the issue. And often, there is a back-and-forth communications that goes between the helpdesk and the customer, in just try get hold of these information, long before the technician can start resolving it.  With the Team Helpdesk Customer Web Service website, you can guide a customer in the way they report their problem to the helpdesk. By having required fields such as the model number of the printer, brand and driver version, etc. you not only cut down the communication loops, but also put in place a structured format of logging new support cases in the helpdesk system automatically.

As you can see, there is no excuse really not to have some kind of helpdesk functionality for any kind of business that involves an end-user. Even if you have a small business and are managing the support requests yourself, you will find some kind of helpdesk ticketing advantageous to use. For enterprise business, you will find helpdesk system an absolute necessity in order to save time, money, and effort tracking your support request issues, as well as to enable collaboration, eliminate duplication of effort and documenting problem resolutions for reuse.

The publication of this blog incidentally, falls in the same period as the release of version 6 of Team Helpdesk for Outlook. Version 6 added three main features which are described in this 6 minutes video tour

If you are interested in learning more, or even evaluating it for a free 60 days trial, you are welcome. Just visit the product home page at http://www.assistmyteam.net/TeamHelpdesk/

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