Make Customers Smile in 7 Easy Steps with OTRS

Back in the old days, if a customer had a problem with a product or service, he'd pick up the phone and dial the service provider or vendor responsible. In most cases, he'd be attended to by a technical expert, who'd ask for details and then attempt to diagnose and resolve the problem. Complex problems that could not be immediately resolved might require the customer to make one or more follow-up calls, often needing to repeat the details of the problem each time. The more professional agencies might maintain a record of the call and its eventual resolution; the less professional ones wouldn't bother.

In today's fast-paced environment, this approach wouldn't work at all. Today's customers don't just use the phone to make complaints; they also send emails and faxes, visit support Web sites, send Facebook messages and write messages in forums. They're also an impatient lot who don't like repeating themselves, they expect service representative to have their entire complaint history at their fingertips, and they want problems to be resolved "yesterday".

Enter the trouble ticket system, a useful little invention that lets service and support staff efficiently record, track and resolve customer complaints, regardless of where they come from or how many of them there are. As the name suggests, this system works like an automated assistant, helping service center staff to log, centralize and correlate communications on particular issues, search and lookup similar issues for more efficient resolution and, ultimately, handle customer communication in a professional and efficient manner.

In this article, I'll introduce you to one such system: OTRS, or the Open Ticket Request System. OTRS is a popular, open-source ticket system that offers all of the features listed above (and a few more besides). Over the next few pages, I'll show you how to install and configure it, and then walk you through the process of adding, processing and resolving tickets for an example business scenario. So come on in, and let's get started!

Introducing OTRS

First up, a quick introduction to OTRS.

OTRS is an open-source, highly scalable trouble ticket system written in Perl. Built and maintained in Germany by the OTRS Group, OTRS is very popular with service providers of all sizes on account of its powerful tools for ticket management and problem resolution.

Here's a quick list of the key features:

  • Sophisticated ticket management: OTRS includes a powerful set of tools to filter, process and resolve customer tickets; escalate critical or complex tickets to senior management; assign priorities, responsibilities and watch rules; and manage users, groups and roles. A full-fledged reporting module helps to monitor staff performance and highlight critical tickets.
  • Email interface: OTRS offers a sophisticated email interface that can accept tickets over email, filter them into queues on the basis of subject or recipient, and automate certain actions based on custom header lines. The ticket system includes an auto-response system and an email templating interface that can be used to create response templates for common customer problems, and OTRS can be configured to also deliver email notifications of ticket changes using SMTP or Sendmail. The email interface also includes support for MIME, S/MIME and PGP.
  • Multi-language support: OTRS is fully multi-lingual with support for more than 20 different languages. This makes it suitable for use in non-English environments. Adding a new language is as simple as adding new translation files for that language. The OTRS user interface is also fully "skinnable", and users can create custom themes to alter its default appearance.
  • ITIL/ITSM compliance: One of OTRS' unique aspects is its support for best practices. ITIL offers a philosophy for IT service management (ITSM) and is today a de facto standard that all professional companies aspire to. OTRS fully implements ITIL/ITSM concepts through OTRS ITSM, a freely-available add-on that offers ITIL-compliant solutions for incident management, service level management and configuration management.

Sounds good? It gets better: OTRS is maintained and developed by the OTRS Group, a commercial company which provides support, ITIL/ITSM consulting and training. However, both OTRS and OTRS ITSM are released under the GNU AGPL license, which means that you can install and use them without paying any license fees! And that's exactly what we're going to do on the next page.

Step 1: Install and Configure OTRS

OTRS is currently available for a number of different platforms, including Linux, Solaris, AIX, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Mac OS 10.x and Windows. It is written entirely in Perl and requires a Web server and a database, typically Apache and MySQL. To install it, you have two options:

  • Install it using pre-built binary packages. This is the recommended method for Microsoft Windows, SUSE Linux, Ubuntu or other Debian-based distributions, as it will automatically download, install and configure all the required components. You'll find detailed instructions for each of the above platforms in the OTRS online manual.
  • Install it using the source code archive. This method requires you to have a correctly-configured installation of Perl, Apache and MySQL, together with all required Perl modules. Doing it this way is usually quite time-consuming, and this method is usually best left to expert users or those who require customized configurations. Should you fall into either of these categories, the OTRS online manual has detailed instructions to guide you through the process.

Regardless of which method you select, once you've got the various packages downloaded and installed, you'll typically have to pop open your Web browser and point it to the OTRS Web installer, which handles the final stage of configuration and typically lives at a URL like http://localhost/otrs/ Assuming all has gone well, Figure 1 illustrates what you should see:

Figure 1: The OTRS Web installer

Select Next and you'll be presented with the terms of the GNU AGPL (Figure 2).

Figure 2: OTRS license terms

Accept these terms, and you'll be prompted to enter access details for your database server (Figure 3). Remember to select UTF-8 as the default character set to ensure that data in different languages is correctly recognized and stored.

Figure 3: OTRS database initialization

The installer will now go to work creating and populating the necessary database tables. Once the process is complete, you'll be asked for some basic system settings, such as the primary domain URL, administrative email address, default language and log settings (Figure 4). Note that if you're using OTRS in a non-production environment, or for testing purposes, you should probably set the "CheckMXRecord" option to "No".

Figure 4: OTRS system configuration

Save your changes, and you'll be presented with a confirmation screen (Figure 5) that shows you the default administrator username and password.

Figure 5: OTRS installation summary

Assuming the process concludes with no errors, you should now be able to access OTRS. Pop open your Web browser and browse to the OTRS instance by entering the URL http://localhost/otrs/ You should see a login page like the one in Figure 6:

Figure 6: OTRS agent interface

You can log in with the default credentials of 'root@localhost' with password 'root'. If all goes well, you should end up with the main OTRS work area, aka the Dashboard, which looks like Figure 7:

Figure 7: OTRS agent dashboard

The Dashboard is where you'll be spending most of your time, as it allows you to control all aspects of OTRS, including users and roles, queues, tickets, priorities, messages and system configuration.

At this point, you have a working OTRS installation. You can now begin using it, by setting up queues, filtering customer tickets, and configuring agents to deal with them. I'll tell you more about that, in Part 2.

Copyright OTRS Group, 2010. All rights reserved.

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