A Comparison of Zendesk and OTRS: Why Less is More

This article is also available in German.

Any enterprise that receives more than the occasional request for support will at some point probably want to make use of a help desk to keep track of everything (and prevent chaos from entering the scene). But which strategy is the right strategy? Software solutions like Zendesk and OTRS have appeared on the scene to take over from the classic telephone-based support services; their offerings allow smaller companies to offer professional help desk support. The following article compares and contrasts these two trouble ticket systems and answers why we think less is more.

One obvious difference is already noticeable regarding the philosophy behind the two products: while Zendesk is a purely commercial product, the Open Ticket Request System (OTRS) is best understood as an open system with additional paid-for services. Also, OTRS runs completely within its own infrastructure, whereas Zendesk is operated externally as SaaS (software as a service).

Which brings us to two basic questions.

1. Open-source software or commercial software?

Great minds have long disagreed on the answer to this first question; they will likely continue to do so. For many companies, Open Source is an adjective that immediately leads to rejection: these companies fear security risks, the unclear future of such software projects, or a lack of support.

Proponents of free software, however, argue that more involvement leads to better security and the faster discovery of source code errors. Moreover, many open-source solutions have developed an enormous array of functions that (in larger projects) can be attributed to the contributions from so many developers with various backgrounds and expertise (OTRS is also quite a bit ahead of Zendesk in terms of the possibilities it offers. That said, that does not always end up being an advantage.).

In any event, the future looks bright for the further development of both OTRS and Zendesk. OTRS is being developed by a large community, while Zendesk was created by a company with more than 15,000 customers. There’s no lack of support options or training programs for either system (As an official Zendesk partner, //SEIBERT/MEDIA offers professional, German-language workshops and online training sessions for Zendesk agents and administrators.). Stability and security don’t lead to problems for either system – that is, unless a company decides not to go with SaaS. Which brings us to the next question.

2. To use an in-house solution or an SaaS tool?

This second question has to do with how the system is operated. With OTRS, a company can download the entire code, adapt it, and operate it within that company’s own infrastructure. There aren’t really any obvious limits to this.

Zendesk, on the other hand, has chosen the completely opposite path: the company sees itself as a service provider that implements and maintains its SaaS help desk using its own hardware; it then rents this service to customers. Customers are only required to choose their licensing category and number of agents, after which things can start to move quickly.

Although the “Cloud” is the IT flavor-of-the-month, many companies grow uncomfortable at the thought of externally operated tools, dependency on third parties, and a lack of influence on the operation. But the Zendesk method doesn’t just save companies time while setting up the help desk: companies can also get away with very little maintenance. Many enterprises see the value in the flexibility and freedom that come with such an arrangement, and even those responsible for OTRS have recognized this change: OTRS OnDemand is their answer to cloud-based SaaS solutions such as Zendesk.

What’s the takeaway? Recognizing that there’s no clear answer to polarizing questions like the ones above, and that even those who offer free software have recognized the utility that ready-to-go, low-maintenance systems can offer enterprises.

The basics: Tickets, views, triggers, automations, and everything else.

Regarding the basic functions, OTRS and Zendesk come out about even. Both systems offer a full array of features for the automation and manual management of tickets. The listing of only a portion of all available tickets based on diverse filtering criteria – Views in Zendesk – can be configured individually in both help desk systems.

Also similar is the automated messaging – for example, when new requests are received. In Zendesk, these are actions that are set in motion by events called Triggers – or Notifications in OTRS. Actions executed at programmed intervals are called Automations in Zendesk – in OTRS, these are usually handled through cronjobs.

Are these systems – aside from the differences in terminology – really so similar? To be blunt: No! Zendesk is in all its features sleeker, cleaner, and more internally coherent. Views, triggers, and automations can be created directly through the web interface using pre-programmed parameters, and sorting the results is practically self-explanatory.

This is not always the case with OTRS. Many of the functionalities have to be implemented at the command line level, and the web interface is basically a constantly growing collection of menus and submenus loaded with dozens of possible configuration parameters. This is the first big weakness of OTRS: poor usability.

An enterprise can achieve its goals with either system, but you won’t have to do a completely systematic analysis to recognize that the developers of Zendesk obviously value usability and have followed a clear concept to achieve this. OTRS, however, doesn’t seem to have ever had such a guiding concept. And in the end, poor usability has high costs in terms of productivity, efficiency, user motivation, and money.

The little things: Branding, widgets, reports, knowledge base, and everything else

When we move beyond the basic level of functions, bigger differences between OTRS and Zendesk begin to appear.

One good example is branding, or the visual adaptation of the system to an enterprise’s corporate design. In Zendesk, the logo, text, font, and color scheme can all be changed with just a few mouse clicks. (If you really want to get creative and feel like using some CSS hacks, the Global CSS widget will allow individually customized Cascading Style Sheets to be used on all pages.)

In OTRS, it used to take more effort to achieve this level of branding: If you wanted to adapt the entire preset theme, you had to work at the individual file level, copy the theme folder, and edit the files contained within (which is a lot of work). After this, the administrator could unlock and use the new theme within the SysConfig. With Version 3.0, however, dynamic technologies like AJAX, XHTML, and CSS have finally found their way into OTRS, which greatly simplifies such procedures.

Regarding widgets, Zendesk offers natively a whole series of very useful little helpers. From Highrise to JIRA to Twitter, many services can be integrated into Zendesk with just a few clicks.

Relatively few plugins come standard with OTRS; however, thanks to the openness of the system it’s possible to develop original plugins or to hope that someone else has already done so (and publicly posted the OPM file).

In regards to reports, these competitors are neck and neck. Both systems have access to advanced analysis functions and offer fully configured templates. If you want to refine the statistics at an individual level, OTRS supports users with an assistant that will take the user step-by-step through the requisite processes.

It’s also a positive that both systems allow the building of a knowledge base to improve communication that focuses on typical internal and external problems. While OTRS has set this up as an FAQ system, Zendesk allows users to expand the knowledge base into exhaustive forums with many logical possibilities for interaction.

Different goals: Where OTRS and Zendesk have chosen different paths

Even though the basic functions of both systems are fairly similar, clearly noticeable differences emerge among the finer points intended to make your day-to-day work more effective and efficient. While Zendesk wants more than anything else to be an easy-to-use tool with the least possible maintenance requirements, OTRS is more than happy to be seen as an open and extremely adaptable system.

Ask yourself the following question: What do you really need from a help desk?

Do you want a system that runs on your own hardware, a system whose databank and web server can be finely tuned by your own people, a system whose source code can be adapted at any time? If so, then the heavy-hitting OTRS should be a perfect fit for your enterprise.

Or would you prefer a system that can be easily connected with the popular B2B- or B2C services, will take up very little maintenance time, and offers first-class usability? Then the slimmer Zendesk might be the better choice for you.

Ask yourself this question, too: How do I communicate with my customers?

Naturally, both systems offer the possibility of integrating e-mail. It starts to get more interesting with multi-channel support – the possibility of introducing tickets into the system using different paths.

Both tools offer mobile apps for Apple products, but only Android and Blackberry support Zendesk with official apps. But there’s more: if you want, you can have a dropbox directly on your own blog or website. If a user clicks on the box, a window will appear. This window will usually offer two ways to send a request for support: using a form, into which the user’s e-mail address is input, or directly (using chat). In addition to this, Zendesk even offers Twitter-based support and therefore the technical basis for a help desk service that can allow customers to communicate using the communication modalities they actually prefer.

Whichever way the request comes – in the end, a ticket lands in Zendesk, which then logs the request; it will also store future communication within that same ticket. Very interesting here is the chance to use a variety of channels to receive requests, which are then automatically funneled to the same central location to be managed.

If the customer doesn’t have an account, then he’ll write back using e-mail, and Zendesk will direct the answer to the correct ticket. If the customer registers with Zendesk, then he can see his new (and older) tickets at any time. It’s hard to imagine support being any easier or more comfortable to use.


Only you can answer the question regarding which system you should choose: Both solutions – the free open-source solution of OTRS or the commercial product Zendesk – offer numerous functions with which you can automatize and take care of a wide variety of tasks.

In our opinion, however, the OTRS community has unfortunately – and noticeably – sacrificed usability (as well as some other important aspects) in favor of collecting as many functions as possible.

The Zendesk team has intentionally forgone some of the more exotic functions, preferring to limit itself to being a centralized, user-friendly help desk support system. They’ve nearly perfected this with their multi-channel support and excellent integration of third-party systems. And with this, we’ve answered ‘why less is more’.

Are you interested in a migration from OTRS to Zendesk? There is a new converter available and it’s free for Zendesk customers!

Do you have any experience with OTRS, Zendesk, or any other help desk tools? Do you prefer maximum functionality in the back pocket or a slimmer, more focused solution? We would love to hear your opinion and comments.

Further information

//SEIBERT/MEDIA is the certified Zendesk partner for German-language training and offers all necessary services for successful implementation. By the way, we offer new customers a 10% rebate in the form of services, assuming you license your Zendesk through //SEIBERT/MEDIA. Please contact us if you would like to use Zendesk in your enterprise or would like to learn how to use your existing Zendesk more effectively and efficiently.