A Guide to Support Ticket Categorization

Categories are the basic building blocks used to organize your customer service software. Choosing the wrong categorization strategy will have repercussions throughout your customer service or help desk team, from inefficiencies in assigning requests to inability to accurately report on the types of requests you’re receiving. Let’s first take a look at some of the various ways you can categorize help tickets. From there, we’ll see how HelpSpot specifically manages categories and check out additional tools we can use to further refine our data collection.

By Issue Type

The most common and generally best way to organize your support tickets is by issue type. I say it’s best because, in most cases, organizing by issue type will map nicely to the people who work on issues of that type. Type also tends to be the primary, high-level metric that most interests management. Let’s look at a few examples of how you might set up your categories in different scenarios.

A Software Company

  • Bug
  • Feature Request
  • Sales Question
  • How To
  • Technical Issue
  • Cancellation

An Online Store

  • Pre-Sale Question
  • Order Question
  • Return
  • Shipping
  • Vendor
  • Affiliate
  • Product Availability

Corporate IT

  • Desktop Hardware
  • Desktop Software
  • Server
  • Networking
  • New Employee
  • Website
  • Change Request

By Department

In some organizations where issues are strictly handled by each department, categorizing by department can make sense.
  • Software Development
  • Sales
  • Information Technology
  • Human Resources
  • Mail Room
  • Operations
  • Shipping

By Product

When specific teams are matched up with specific product lines, it can sometimes make sense to categorize based on the product. Choosing this route typically requires additional fields to further classify the request by type. For instance: Product A - Sales Question. Rarely will knowledge of the product alone be useful. In the majority of cases, you’ll probably want to organize by type of issue as outlined earlier. You can then track the product as a custom field in HelpSpot.
  • Product A
  • Product B
  • Product C

By Customer

Categorizing by customer isn’t really scalable for most companies, although it can work for companies that focus on custom orders. We have seen a few cases where organizing requests by customer at the top level did make some sense. If you’re dealing with more than a few dozen customers, this isn’t for you! That’s not to say you can’t slice and dice (??) requests by customers; you can and should many times. But you probably don’t want the core organizing principle of your support requests to be the customer.
  • Sal’s Used Shoes
  • Heather’s Homemade Sword Hilts
  • Pizza by Pete

How many categories are too many?

Your support team will select a category on every single request that comes in. Selecting a category should be fast and obvious. It can only be fast and obvious if you limit the number of categories you have. It’s simply impossible to quickly choose the correct option from a list that contains hundreds of categories. In most cases, I recommend keeping the number under 20 if possible. In some cases it may not be, but there should never be hundreds. It’s better to use other data fields or perhaps sub-categories to further organize the selections.

Tracking additional data via custom fields

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 16.56.01 You’ll often have data you want to associate with your top level categorization. For example, you might categorize a request as a “how to,” but you’d also like to associate it with one of your specific products. In HelpSpot this is usually best done with a custom field (Admin - Organize - Custom Fields). The following example shows how using a custom field with a predefined list makes it easy to quickly select the proper product. HelpSpot’s custom fields can also be tailored to specific categories. This way you only need to show fields that are appropriate for each category. Limiting the number of fields the support staff needs to see at any given time works best to make categorization and data collection fast and simple.

How to handle automation related to categorization

HelpSpot gives you a few ways to automate categorization of requests. The simplest way is to set every mailbox to auto-assign a category to each incoming request. This is great for situations where you have a mailbox dedicated to one thing. If you have a hr@ email address, for example, you could tell the system to automatically categorize requests sent to that mailbox into the Human Resources category. Sometimes you need more flexibility than auto-assign can provide. In such cases you can use triggers. Triggers work across the board, regardless of how the request was created. Whether a request was created by the portal, an email or the API, a trigger can check the request to determine if it should be assigned to a category. Let’s say you want to watch for requests that contain a certain key phrase. You can set up a trigger to search for that phrase and assign each request containing the phrase to the appropriate category. If a request is auto-categorized into a category set up with auto-assignment, the request will automatically go to the correct category as well as the correct the correct person.

Understanding categories and assignment

HelpSpot has a unique model for categorization and assignment. The categorization drives the assignment. When you select a specific category, you’ll see drop-down list containing the names of people who can be assigned to requests in that specific category. When you create a category, you associate staff with that category. This makes it super easy for support staff to assign the correct person to a request. The support team doesn’t have to wade through a huge list of all staffers, just staffers who work on those specific types of requests. Drop-down lists will change to reflect possible assignees in each category. A staff member is also listed as the default, ensuring there’s always a clear go-to person for each type of request. Here’s another tip. If you select a category that has auto-assignment enabled and then assign the request to the inbox, the request will be magically assigned to a staffer for you!

How and why to add tags to categories

Each category can also have reporting tags associated with it. These are tags administrators can predefine. When you select a category, you’ll see the list of tags you can use within each category. Reporting tags are great for adding more meta data to a request. Let’s say you put a request into the Sales category. The request is already tracked by product via a custom field. But there are smaller bits of info that can also be useful to collect. Perhaps we want to tag the request as a question regarding pricing. We just click the pricing tag, and it’s done. This is also helpful for future use, as it lets us report on all the sales pricing questions we had. Tags can additionally be used for filtering, which can be very handy for creating queues for certain types of requests.

Reporting tags vs custom fields

There is some overlap in how reporting tags and custom fields can be used. For instance, you could use either a reporting tag or custom field to collect data on the operating system a customer is using. There are important differences, though. Reporting tags allow multiple selections, something custom fields don’t currently support. Reporting tags are pre-created by an administrator to track meta details on the request, whereas most custom fields allow entering unique data into each request. For example, a date custom field can hold a different dates for each request. A text number field can hold any bit of text that needs to be stored.

Evolving categories over time

One common misconception among organizations that are just getting started using help desk software is that they need to figure out every category up front, before they start using the software. Nothing could be further from the truth – especially with HelpSpot! We recommend starting with the bare minimum number of categories you think can do the job. You can always edit the categories to better define them or add new ones as the need arises. Keeping yourself focused on the quality and quantity of categories will make getting started easier for your staff as they get used to categorizing requests and organizing your support processes.

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About the author

Ian Landsman of

Ian is the founder of HelpSpot and also podcasts at Bootstrapped.fm.

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